Education and evangelization: It all starts with the family

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The Arndt family celebrates daughter Haley’s graduation from UW-Stevens Point in May. From left to right, Kaitlyn Arndt, Wendy Arndt, Haley Arndt, Dcn. Jim Arndt and Aaron Arndt. (Submitted photo)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff
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When Fr. Chris Kemp, pastor St. Francis Xavier in Merrill and St. John the Baptist in Bloomville, tasked Dcn. Jim Arndt with the mission of how to engage people more in the life of the parish, an often-asked question surfaced in the deacon’s mind.

It was the concern of numerous parents and older adults about why their children have fallen away from the practice of, and belief in, their Catholic faith.

It led to the deacon’s reflecting on how faith is lived out in a family. He felt that many asking these questions themselves had a hard time answering what it meant to be Catholic outside of going to church on Sunday and nominally receiving the sacraments.

“We have been sacramentalized, but not evangelized,” Dcn. Jim said, repeating a phrase quoted more and more in catechetical circles.

“The goal of a lot of religious education programs has been to get the kids to the sacraments, but after confirmation, not much is done except reminding of the Mass obligation and inviting to volunteer. We don’t really teach them how to live out a relationship with Jesus,” he concluded.

“The focus has been more on what the rules are … It can’t be about the rules; it has to be relational,” the deacon said. He affirmed faith formation has been making this shift on many levels.

It all starts in the family

Dcn. Jim and his wife, Wendy, have three children. Their youngest, Aaron, is a junior at Merrill High School; daughter Kaitlyn is a freshman at UW-La Crosse; and their oldest, Hailey, graduated in May from UW-Stevens Point, where she majored in psychology with a human services emphasis.

Looking back at how her parents lived out their role as educators at home, Hailey remembered, “They were always very intentional about making sure we went to Mass every Sunday… keeping Christ at the center of our life and reminding us that the sacraments are the important thing.”

She said no matter where the family was on the weekend, they always found a nearby Catholic church and went to Mass, even if whomever they were visiting or traveling with did not attend.

Her parents stressed the importance of “receiving Jesus in the Eucharist, because he is the source and summit of life here,” she said, adding that most people just don’t realize the importance of Mass, “that we need it, that it is what sustains us.”

Hailey admitted in her younger years, “It was more of an obligation. (I went to Mass) because I had to go.”

But she is grateful that her parents insisted, because it didn’t click until college. It was during her sophomore year that “everything started making sense, and I really connected the dots.”

As a high school student, Hailey knew the faith was important, and knew she needed the sacraments, although she admits it wasn’t until that second year of college, after attending a retreat, “it clicked that we were made for relationship.

“The whole reason we have a faith is because we have this relationship with God … our whole goal in life is to foster this relationship and be in union with him in heaven eventually,” Hailey summarized in words to similar to her dad’s.

That is not a coincidence.

Once she started understanding the relational aspect of the faith, “things started falling into place.” She started asking questions, lots of questions, and she had “the amazing resource of my dad to go to with these questions.

“I remember having these real, deep, authentic conversations (with my dad) in college. It was a beautiful gift to be able to share with him,” she said.

FOCUS missionary

Hailey has decided to follow the call to full-time ministry and will work with university students at Wayne State College in Wayne, Nebraska, with FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students.
Founded by Curtis Martin in 1998, starting with only two missionaries at Benedictine College in Kansas, the organization now has hundreds of missionaries at colleges and universities in almost every state in the country, as well as in Austria, England and Ireland.

Dcn. Jim said he and his wife are both “very proud of her. She has a tremendous love for the Lord and a deep desire to communicate that to others … So being a FOCUS missionary seems to fit her perfectly.”

Hailey “gets” that her choice to work with FOCUS is “countercultural, but here I am.” She was introduced to the organization at a FOCUS-sponsored conference she attended with a college friend just to hear Fr. Mike Schmitz speak.

She credits her experience as a Totus Tuus teacher during the summers of 2017 and 2018 as pivotal.

“Being with kids and being able to help them walk towards Christ, I realized my love of ministry and how I really believe God shaped my heart (for this),” she said.

Seminarian Dan Tracy, also a Totus Tuus team alumni, had also served with FOCUS and was able to answer Arndt’s questions and encourage her.

As a FOCUS missionary, she will strive for three goals in her ministry: Fostering divine intimacy, authentic friendship and spiritual multiplication. This is carried out through weekly Bible studies, one-on-one mentoring, campus life initiatives and promoted FOCUS conferences and mission trips.

FOCUS missionaries are self-supported. Arndt and her parents are grateful for the financial and spiritual support her home parish has offered. Anyone wishing to contribute towards sustaining her ministry can visit https://www.focus.org/missionaries/haley-arndt.

She is “very convicted by the vision of FOCUS,” but admitted, unless she feels call to work a bit longer with FOCUS, she “would love to come back to the diocese and work in ministry … any way that I can walk with people with help them realize the importance of a relationship with God and what that looks like.”

She said, “I always knew that I liked our diocese … A huge piece of my heart is in our diocese. There’s a realness to it that really draws you back,” and iterated she would “love, love, love to return and settle down” here.

Giving tribute to her parents and their teaching role in her life, Hailey said, “We’re not meant to do life alone. We’re meant to live with others.

“God gives us the gift of relationship in order to walk towards him with other people.

“The foundation of everything comes down to the family … If faith is not fostered in the family, it just makes it so much more difficult to remain faithful, to remain active in your relationship with God in the future – it all starts with the family.”

The crossroads of education and evangelization

Pope St. John Paul II gave parent’s role in education this context in Familiaris Consortio, number 36:

“The task of giving education is rooted in the primary vocation of married couples to participate in God’s creative activity: by begetting in love and for love a new person who has within himself or herself the vocation to growth and development, parents by that very fact take on the task of helping that person effectively to live a fully human life.”

He then quotes Pope Paul VI from the Second Vatican Council’s document on Christian Education, Gravissimum Educationis, number 3:

“Since parents have given children their life, they are bound by the most serious obligation to educate their offspring and therefore must be recognized as the primary and principal educators.”

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