NFP in real life: Hard, but worth it

Therese Bussen

In honor of NFP Awareness Week, which begins July 23, let’s talk about sex.

Natural Family Planning (NFP) is offered as an option to help Catholic families either achieve or avoid pregnancy, including spacing children. Training in NFP is required for marriage preparation in the Archdiocese of Denver, but after that, it’s not much talked about outside of certain circles, either in everyday conversation or from the pulpit. It’s nearly foreign to mainstream healthcare, although more NFP-trained doctors are now available. But it’s a very important part of family life for many Catholics — and, like family, it is both beautiful as well as hard and messy.

And it is worth it.

Life after marriage prep

Jenny Uebbing, who writes at Mama Needs Coffee, a blog connected to Catholic News Agency, recently wrote, “What do you want/need from the Church in order to live NFP?” and the resulting comments from readers were eye-opening.

Many people are seriously struggling with living it out.

The difficulties are as varied as the people themselves: Crosses in all shapes and sizes, including infertility on one end of the spectrum and super-abundant fertility on the other, making it hard to space children apart. Long periods of abstinence, medical problems, feeling isolated from instructors, finding trained doctors or other like-minded people are just some of the other common hardships.

“People are so hungry for support from the Church, who they’re trying to be faithful to,” Uebbing said. “And a lot of people are feeling that the Church doesn’t see them in this particular struggle, or have anything to offer past marriage prep short of an emergency intervention when they’re on the brink of divorce. There’s no middle ground.”

But most NFP users are walking the “middle ground” of every day family life with very little help, and many find themselves disillusioned as they encounter these difficulties.

“One big [realization from the many comments and emails] is that so much of our expectations of what marriage should look like are very rooted in a Protestant understanding of love, which is white-knuckle chastity until marriage, and then once the rings are on, all bets are off,” Uebbing said. “There wasn’t really a category mentally for chastity within marriage. There’s this disconnect that there’s an ongoing training in chastity as a couple, that you don’t actually have complete 24-7 access to each other’s bodies, unless you want to end up with 25 kids.”

That expectation only works with the assumption of using contraception, which is true for most of the world. But for couples who practice NFP, marital intimacy doesn’t work that way, said Uebbing. Even so, in her experience, it’s still easy to fall into the trap of practicing with a contraceptive mentality.

“That’s always a temptation, slipping into playing God with it, that trying to avoid should be the default setting. I don’t think that’s normal or healthy but that is the normal in our culture,” Uebbing said. “That’s such a bummer to me that that’s always our default setting, even as practicing Catholics. That it’s remarkable when a baby is conceived.”

People are so hungry for support from the Church, who they’re trying to be faithful to. And a lot of people are feeling that the Church doesn’t see them in this particular struggle, or have anything to offer past marriage prep short of an emergency intervention when they’re on the brink of divorce. There’s no middle ground.”

But trying to avoid a pregnancy or space children for “just reasons” as the Cathechism of the Catholic Church (#2368) notes shouldn’t be looked down upon, either, and is, in fact, a responsibility of the parents that’s based on their discernment of God’s plan for their family.

“I’m so grateful the Church doesn’t have a list of [what just reasons are]. And she never will, because she is our wise mother who is raising adults, not a preschool teacher with a list of classroom rules,” Uebbing said. “So it is up to them, but also depends on each couple working continuously to form their own conscience and be submitting their will for the marriage over and over again to the Lord and asking, ‘What do you want?’”

Common, and uncommon struggles

The journey to holiness in marriage is not without suffering. But it’s always an opportunity to trust God more deeply and receive his gifts in ways we could never have imagined for ourselves. Some of those crosses come as people practice NFP.

“The biggest struggle I’ve seen with people is just that we live in a contraceptive culture. So no matter how you slice it, you’re going to get pushback,” Uebbing said. “It’s not normal to have children anymore. So just that positions you in a place of complete defiance of what the world says is normal and expected and typical.”

Medical issues are a common struggle. Uebbing knows couples who have to abstain for extensive periods of time due to serious underlying medical issues.

“If they don’t want a baby, they’re looking at years of abstinence. And it’s heroic, and it’s something that God has called them to particularly in their marriage,” Uebbing said. “It’s not something that any of us would plan for in our marriage, just like we wouldn’t plan for a spouse to get cancer, or for a child to struggle with mental illness.”

Mental illness has been a struggle in Uebbing’s personal experience: After each birth, she suffers from severe post-partum depression, which is one of the reasons their family spaces their children, simply so her mind and body can heal after delivering.

“A super-abundance of fertility is it’s own kind of cross, and it’s easy to look at a family with six or seven kids and think, ‘Well, they must have been made to have a really big family,’” Uebbing said. “I do love my children, but there’s not great material support, or even psychological support for families who are in that situation.”

How the Church can help

Following conversations with readers after her NFP blog post, Uebbing spoke to friends who are priests about ways the Church can better support couples who practice NFP.

“One piece that was really clear was that we need better formation for our priests on a seminary level. I have some really interesting conversations with priest friends…who had no idea that there were different methods, that it wasn’t cut and dry and that not every couple used it the same way,” Uebbing said. “One said, ‘This would be helpful information to have in the confessional when I’m counseling people pastorally.’ If we’re asking our priests to accompany married couples, they need to know the nitty-gritty.”

“Few people take advantage of talking to their priest. There is no question that can’t be asked,” said Father Timothy Hjelstrom, pastor of St. Louis Parish in Louisville, Colo.

The biggest struggle I’ve seen with people is just that we live in a contraceptive culture. So no matter how you slice it, you’re going to get pushback. It’s not normal to have children anymore.”

“Priests should become familiar with it beyond the technical aspect of it. And couples should be willing to talk to their priest if they have questions or struggles. We’re not here to be condemning,” he added.

Uebbing said that there should be “real material support” for people who practice NFP, and one way to help could be creating a slush-fund for people who can’t afford to pay for meetings with instructors or classes and are desperately needing help.

“This is an aspect of women’s healthcare that’s a really critical piece of knowledge [for women’s overall health], and it shouldn’t be this weird add-on that you learned about during your marriage prep, but that it’s an ongoing, essential part of what it means to be human and what it means to be living out a married vocation,” Uebbing added.

Where to go for help

If you’re struggling in using NFP, first know that you’re not alone. Second, reach out.

One great help to those seeking support in NFP is other married couples, said Uebbing.

“I think every couple [should find] one other married couple, even if it’s not locally, and really come into an honest exchange [with them]. Find at least one other person or couple to talk frankly with,” Uebbing said. “I think people are afraid to be too real, but it doesn’t do anybody any favors to pretend that it’s super easy and super beautiful. They need to know people struggle with this and make huge sacrifices for it, and it’s worth it.”

If you’re struggling with the ins and outs of your fertility, Uebbing said make the investment and get an instructor or doctor you can work with regularly.

“I think because the internet exists, there’s no reason you can’t find an instructor. You don’t need someone to sit down with you in person, you can do everything over Skype or over the phone,” Uebbing said. “There are increasingly more NFP-trained physicians, so for people with harder cases, I just can’t underestimate finding a doctor who can do those blood draws. Even if it’s long distance and you go to the lab and they’re analyzing your stuff once a year — what’s more important than your health and the health of your marriage?”

For more resources on what the Church teaches about NFP, visit Jenny’s blog at catholicnewsagency.com/mamaneedscoffee. For resources on NFP in the Archdiocese of Denver, visit archden.org/eflm/nfp.

The office of Evangelization and Family Ministries is also hosting an event for NFP families on Saturday, August 5 with a vigil Mass at 4 p.m., followed by a picnic and lawn games at the John Paul II Center. Call 303-715-3252 to RSVP.

COMING UP: New Lourdes church ‘in harmony with the beauty of the Liturgy’

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

New Lourdes church ‘in harmony with the beauty of the Liturgy’

Our Lady of Lourdes in Denver completes renovation of continually growing church

Avatar

When the first parishioners of Our Lady of Lourdes began their community in 1947, they never imagined the growth that the parish was going to have decades later.

Today, more than 70 years later, the parish, which began as folding chairs and the hardwood floors of the first Masses celebrated in the gymnasium of a children’s shelter, has become not only one of the fastest growing parishes in Denver, but also one of the most recognized Catholic schools nationwide.

Father Brian Larkin, pastor of the parish for the last 5 years, has witnessed huge growth in the last few years.

“I believe Lourdes has flourished in so many ways simply because the glory of God’s redemption has been allowed its proper place,” Father Larkin told the Denver Catholic. “Once the love of Christ is given its primacy, allowed to radiate in all its splendor, then our faith moves from simply being an obligation and becomes what it really is: the good news of our redemption.”

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila dedicated the altar in the newly renovated Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver Sept. 10. (Photo by Brandon Young)

Lourdes is a very vibrant and young parish. They have large RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) and marriage preparation programs to support and teach parishioners the “why” of the Catholic Church and its faith.

“The Catholic intellectual tradition is greater than any that exists, but most people aren’t aware of it,” Father Larkin explained. “I teach our RCIA class every year and I invite anyone and everyone to come regardless of whether they are already Catholic or not even interested in becoming Catholic.  Our program had about eight people in it my first year, this year we’re averaging around 90 people each week.”

In 2016, Father Brian announced the beginning of the “Capital Campaign” which intended to repair, restore and embellish the church, as well as to add a narthex gathering space for the growing community. Although at times it seemed impossible, with the contributions of parishioners and the hard work of their general contractor, Fransen Pittman, the project was successfully completed this past summer.

The current church at Lourdes was built in 1966 and had remained unchanged since then. The renovation updated and fixed major issues with mechanical and electric systems, but the main objective of the project was to improve the aesthetics of the church.

For the last couple of years during construction, half of the school gym turned into the church, but in September, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila finally consecrated the altar and re-dedicated the church.

Lourdes pastor Father Brain Larkin said he hopes the parish can be a refuge from the world.. (Photo by Brandon Young)

“A friend of mine used to say that his church ‘lied to his congregation,’ meaning that churches are meant to teach us the faith by the way they are built, and that his didn’t measure up to that standard,” Father Larkin said. “Prior to the renovation, our church wasn’t one which lied, but it didn’t inspire a deeper faith. The new church, in my opinion, is in harmony with the beauty of the liturgy — the music and the gospel resonate with the beauty of the church itself.

“Our numbers have grown, but more importantly, people are drawn into prayer with the aesthetics of the church.”

With a new and renovated parish, Our Lady of Lourdes is now serving the growing community of the south side of Denver. The parish also has one of the most recognized Catholic schools for its unique classical model of education that has been expanding over the last couple of years. In addition to the classical method of education, the school is firmly Catholic, offering daily Mass and monthly confessions, and making devotion to the Blessed Mother one of its pillars.

“Our Catholic faith is the most important part of our mission here at Lourdes Classical and everything we do begins and ends in prayer. We participate in the sacraments frequently and help our students fall in love with Jesus in the Eucharist every day,” said school principal Rosemary Vander Weele.

Evangelization means that what is eternal enters into time, so the timelessness of God breaks into 2019 America. We try to embody that paradigm in our events, in our liturgy, in our community.”

Father Larkin said he is afraid of the future of our culture and the anti-Christian feeling that seems expand daily in our country and our society. Therefore, one of his main goals at Lourdes is to deepen the faith of his parishioners.

“Christians of the coming century in the United States need to know their faith and be on fire for it, or they will likely leave as the culture battles against the Church,” he said. “My hope for Lourdes is not that we do everything, but that we go deep, that people have strong relationships with God, with each other and that the parish can be a refuge from the world.”

Furthermore, one of the greatest challenges for the pastor is to reflect the incarnation of Jesus in our society and remind us that God sent his only begotten Son into the world to provide us salvation. At Lourdes, Father Larkin said this is at the core of the parish’s ministry.

“Christ is fully God and fully man, but it has always been easier to strip him of his divinity or of his humanity.  I see evangelization that way: it’s easier to either remove Jesus from humanity and make him someone wholly alien to the 21st century, or conversely to make him just another human who looks like us, but not like God,” Father Larkin said. “Evangelization means that what is eternal enters into time, so the timelessness of God breaks into 2019 America. We try to embody that paradigm in our events, in our liturgy, in our community.”