MENASHA — As a student at St. Mary Catholic Schools, Phillip Griffith attended retreats and events put on by Spiritus teams. Little did he suspect that in 2018 he would be one of those missionaries.
Griffith is one of 15 missionaries serving parishes and schools in the Fox Valley during 2018-2019. The end of his first session will culminate in May at Spiritus’ 10th anniversary celebration at Waverly Beach. The festivities will reunite missionaries from the past 10 years on May 17-19, said Katherine Foord, Spiritus assistant director. Also invited will be the board of directors, Friends of Spiritus and past and present spiritual directors.
The idea for Spiritus was pitched to the Mount Tabor Center board of directors in 2008. Eden Foord, Spiritus executive director, said he didn’t know how it would go over, but felt strongly enough to try this new idea that would call forth young adult Catholics, train them to give youth retreats and form them to be leaders in the church. The board members took a leap of faith and supported it.
The first Spiritus-led retreat took place in the fall of 2009. To date, there have been 90 Spiritus missionaries and 1,500 retreats reaching more than 50,000 youth.
Sixteen of the missionaries have gone on to enter religious communities or the priesthood. Missionaries come from all over the country and afterwards return to places all over the country to share their ministry in parishes, schools, nonprofits and in other ways. The staff has grown from one full-time and two part-time members to 28 employees today.
Griffith, a Menasha native, tells how he came to become part of this program that offers outreach and faith formation to elementary and high school students in the Fox Valley.
He grew up in Menasha, then moved with his family to Upper Michigan, where he went to public high school. His family then moved back to Wisconsin and he began attending college in Waukesha. College really wasn’t working for him, he said, and his father asked him what he was passionate about. “I said, ‘My faith and sports.’ He said, ‘Pick one.’” Griffith chose faith and prayed about how he should go forward.
“I was in fifth grade when Spiritus started. I went to retreats here in grade school and made my confirmation retreat here,” he said. He looked at the program’s website and took weeks to complete the application, while praying over the move. He drove to Menasha for an interview and felt good about that meeting.
“I prayed some more and then I got a call from Eden and he offered me a position,” Griffith said. “The more I thought about it, the more I felt it is what I was called to do.”
Griffith lives at St. Bernadette Church rectory in Appleton with other male missionaries. The women live at the Mount Tabor Center, Menasha, which houses Spiritus. He and other team members put on retreats for confirmation, elementary and high school students. “It’s about being with the kids and helping them ignite their faith,” he said.
He said the missionaries meet daily for prayer and Mass at various parishes. They participate in daily holy hour adoration and weekly formation sessions. “The adoration has really helped me encounter the Lord,” he said. They also meet individually with a spiritual director. All of this “has helped me grow in my faith,” Griffith said.
This is mixed in with some fun.
They have a day a week off for themselves. While some may spend the time alone, others join together to visit attractions and events around northeastern Wisconsin. Griffith has taken some missionaries with him to visit his parents in Brookfield and to see Milwaukee. “There is a ton of laughter here,” he said. “These are the nicest, most joyful people I’ve ever met in my life.”
It has been a rewarding adventure and Griffith said he has applied to come back for a second year.
“I pray, ‘The Lord’s will be done.’ I’ll see what he has in store for me,” said Griffith. “These have been the greatest few months of my life. We are spreading the love of Christ with these kids. After next year, I don’t know yet what I will be doing.”
He was majoring in education in college and he can see himself involved in religious education or youth ministry in some fashion in the future.
“My dad has said (of the Spiritus program) this is the new evangelization of the church. This is what is going to keep the church going. This has changed my life in this short time. I’m happy to wake up every day; God has really blessed me.”
Right now, the Spiritus team believes 15 is the ideal number for each nine-month session. “We have found the team approach to be powerful,” Foord said.