Dr. Kathie Amidei speaks at a Family Focus training session at the Mary Mother of the Church Pastoral Center. (Photos by Larry Hanson)

Dr. Kathie Amidei believes that the biggest transition in life might just be the one that occurs after the birth of a family’s first child.

If it’s true that in marriage two become one, it’s usually also true that one becomes three (or more). And those days of early parenthood — lengthened by sleeplessness and cluttered with many cares — are something of a mission field for the Church, fertile ground for ministry and evangelization which could bear fruit down through multiple generations.

“The research is endless, and it’s very consistent and it’s very current, that the family is the driving force (for) whether the faith continues on,” said Dr. Amidei at a Family Focus training session at the Mary Mother of the Church Pastoral Center in May. “We can support that, we can supplement that, we can augment that, we can enrich it, we can enhance it, but we can’t do what families do. That’s where people live.”

The Family Focus training session was one of several that have been hosted by the Office for Evangelization and Catechesis as part of its ongoing Family Perspectives initiative, which seeks to equip staff members, DREs, catechists and volunteers throughout the Archdiocese of Milwaukee with tools to more effectively minister to young families.

“There is a potential openness to spiritual support as parents are passing on the faith,” said Dr. Amidei, who presented the session alongside Ann Grunwaldt. “I wish I had a dollar for every time I hear a parent say, ‘I’d like to pass on the faith, but I don’t really know it.’”

Dr. Amidei is the pastoral associate at St. Anthony on the Lake Parish in Pewaukee, in addition to being an author, speaker and catechetical consultant. Grunwaldt is the faith formation director of Early Child and Family Ministry at St. Anthony on the Lake.

“We don’t have all the answers, but we’re going to share some of the things we’ve been trying,” said Dr. Amidei.

The period between baptism preparation and the beginning of kindergarten often represents a gap in services during a time when young moms and dads are most in need of accompaniment, catechesis and community, said Dr. Amidei.

“This is a critical time when people make a lot of decisions that they will carry on for years and years … and they’re making a lot of decisions they may not have thought about beforehand and they may not be able to reverse afterward,” she said.

For the Church to be part of this conversation, she said, it must focus on cultivating a space where young parents feel seen and welcomed.

That’s where “creating climate” comes into play, said Dr. Amidei and Grunwaldt. Climate concerns the issues of emotional ease in an environment — how a person feels physically and emotionally when they walk into a situation.

Grunwaldt offered examples of practices they utilize at St. Anthony on the Lake to create a climate that they hope makes young families feel a sense of “radical hospitality.”

“Radical, meaning: go overboard, do everything you can to make them feel comfortable,” she said.

“You might think, I am welcoming and accepting, but it’s something to keep thinking about — if I walked in here and didn’t know anyone, what would make me feel comfortable?” said Dr. Amidei.

In ministry to young families — particularly during baptism preparation — Grundwaldt said that it is crucial to acknowledge this moment of profound transition and to create a space where families going through that transition can connect with one another. St. Anthony on the Lake baptism preparation classes always include fellowship and refreshments where families are given questions to discuss and the opportunity to write a letter to their child, to be given to them at a future moment of the parent’s choosing.

“We try to do every little thing we can to make them comfortable and encourage them to chat with one another,” said Grunwaldt. “Some of the commonalities that have come out within these little groups are fun to see.”

While baptism preparation can often serve as the beginning of a church’s relationship with a young family, ministers need to ensure that the relationship continues. At St. Anthony on the Lake, staff works to keep in touch with families after the sacrament, often pairing them with a “mentor family” whose children are slightly older in age.

Ultimately, it is the mission of the Church, regarding young families, to assist parents in filling what Dr. Amidei calls “the spiritual backpack” of the child, acknowledging that “those who educate children also educate families.”

“We all have a backpack in our hearts. Parents more than anyone have an ability to fill that backpack up — with morals, values, virtues, etc. And at some point — maybe in late adolescence or a time of crisis in their lives — children are going to realize their backpack has a zipper, and they can open it up and take things out,” she said. “They can take things out and look at them and say, ‘My parents go to Mass. Am I going to go to Mass?’ ‘My parents pray for me. Am I going to pray?’ ‘My parents believe this. Do I believe it?’” This is how we build an adult faith.”