Let the Little Children Come: The Power, Risk, and Joy of our God-Given Fertility
All are to be welcomed as Christ. -St. Benedict
These words, attributed to St. Benedict of Nursia, are engraved on a plaque above my front door. They serve as a reminder for me to make every person who enters my home feel welcome, safe, and loved. This quote makes me think about the first time that Christ was welcomed in person. When the angel Gabriel greets Mary with the amazing news that she will bear the Son of God, her fiat— “Let it be done to me according to your word”—in its humble obedience, is a deeply profound act of hospitality. In what most would consider to be less than ideal circumstances, the Blessed Virgin Mary gives herself as a home to Jesus in humanity’s most vulnerable form: an unborn child.
Mary’s act of hospitality toward the baby Jesus has impacted me deeply as I have journeyed as a mother, as has the radical hospitality that marks the entire life of our Lord. In his conception, he is welcomed by his mother. In his public ministry, he is an itinerant preacher who depends on the generosity and hospitality of his friends, family, and followers— “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). Even in his death, Jesus receives the hospitality of a borrowed tomb. And now, as we partake of the Most Holy Eucharist, he makes his home within us as we consume his flesh and blood. How deeply important is generous hospitality to the life of a Catholic!
This July we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the giving of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on the regulation of birth for married couples. In it, Catholics are reminded of the gravity of our gift of fertility as humans: “The transmission of human life is a most serious role in which married people collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator. It has always been a source of great joy to them, even though it sometimes entails many difficulties and hardships” (Humanae Vitae 1). In marriage, a husband and wife have the privilege of participating in a mutual gift of self, which can be thought of as an intimate act of hospitality—a giving of oneself freely, making a home of love and acceptance for the other.
“It is a love which is total—that very special form of personal friendship in which husband and wife generously share everything, allowing no unreasonable expectations and not thinking solely of their own convenience. Whoever really loves his partner loves not only for what he receives, but loves that partner for the partner’s own sake, content to be able to enrich the other with the gift of himself.” (Humanae Vitae 9)
This mutual gift of self involves both body and soul, and it goes farther than the husband and wife—God has given it so much power that from the love of a married couple springs new life! Here, Pope Paul VI quotes the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes when he writes, “Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute in the highest degree to their parents’ welfare” (Humanae Vitae 9). Our marriages are meant to be ordered around hospitality, welcoming each other and the precious children that result. But we live in a culture where our desire for control over our bodies trumps the gift of children in God’s timing. We disconnect the act of sex from the power of procreation, reducing it to a physical pleasure when it should encompass body and soul. We take hormonal contraceptives that suppress the proper functioning of our ovaries and that force our uterus to be a harsh and hostile place for any fertilized egg that gets through. This is not the generous hospitality to which we are called as Catholics.
The Risks of Hospitality
In Croatia, there is a tradition that during a wedding mass, the husband and wife say their vows while they hold a crucifix in their hands. It is such a beautiful sign of the sacrament of marriage, isn’t it? The joining of a man and a woman in marriage invites us to take up our cross and follow him to Calvary. This cross does not only consist of learning to love one another in the face of unspoken expectations, rough edges, and a failure of communication; it involves the uncertainty and the risk of fertility. Just as the Blessed Virgin Mary’s fiat was an act of faith and hospitality in the face of uncertainty, married love also comes with the risks that require faith from us.
For couples who have said yes to life in their marriage, sometimes their hospitality does not yield the fruit of children. For others, the joyous occasion of pregnancy ends in tragedy, through miscarriage or infant death. As Catholics, we have the blessed opportunity to join these sufferings to Christ’s during the sacrifice of the Mass.
Valerie and her husband Juan (names changed to protect their privacy) were thrilled to discover that they were expecting again—their 8th child! When Valerie decided to get an early DNA test to know the gender of their baby, the whole family was thrilled to learn that they would be welcoming a little girl. However, when she received the results of the test, the doctor pulled Valerie aside and explained that there was possibly something wrong with her baby.
Valerie went home and did some research after that conversation with the doctor. When she and Juan arrived at her 20-week ultrasound, they had prepared themselves for the news: their unborn daughter had Trisomy 18, a condition that affected her heart. Throughout the rest of the pregnancy, knowing this diagnosis, Valerie and Juan experienced the peace of Christ. They hoped and prayed for a miracle, and they were filled with hope and peace from God, believing that their daughter would survive until birth, where she would have the chance to be baptized.
When the time came for Valerie to give birth, she experienced great peace. Maryann was born very small and very frail, but she was able to breathe on her own. After Maryann was baptized at the hospital, the doctors discharged both mother and baby so the whole family could spend what little time they had with Maryann at home.
Once home, Valerie and Juan and their seven older children held Maryann, talked to her, delighted in her, and kissed her. After a sweet and peaceful 24 hours at home with her family, Maryann passed away in her mother’s arms.
Some would have encouraged Valerie and Juan to have an abortion once they learned of Maryann’s diagnosis. But, faithful to the teachings of the Catholic Church and embracing the cross of parenthood with its joy and pain, Valerie and Juan offered their daughter the generous hospitality of love and care that every person deserves, no matter how severe the diagnosis or how grim the prognosis.
When I spoke with Valerie, she shared the details of her experience with grace and peace. “Because she existed,” Valerie said of Maryann, “so many things have happened.” Her father, she told me, had been away from the Church for a long time. He accompanied her to the Shrine of Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where Valerie and Maryann received prayer for healing. It was the beginning of his return to the Church, and he started attending Mass again.
Welcomed By Christ
Near the end of his epistle to the Romans, St. Paul encourages us to “welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7). If you have resisted practicing generous hospitality within your marriage through contraceptives, or if you have participated in ending the life of a baby through abortion, please know that there is hope for you; Christ extends his welcome to you through his Church. Let the Holy Spirit lead you to examine your heart for ways you have compromised regarding the gift of fertility and the call to welcome children into marriage. Go to confession and be reconciled to the Church. Christ welcomes you to the Supper of the Lamb; he invites you to come receive him into your body and soul through the Most Holy Eucharist.
I have found it to be true in my own life that the more I say ‘yes’ to the Lord in the face of weakness, fear, and uncertainty, the more strength that I have to welcome others as Christ has welcomed me.
When it’s barely light outside, the first sounds that my husband and I hear in the morning are the patter of children’s feet headed toward our room. The floor of our old pier-and-beam house creaks under the weight of their small frames, and all too often our clock has not yet turned 6:00. But when I am tempted to roll over and sigh, mentally complaining about the long day of parenting ahead of me, I hear these words of Jesus echo in my heart:
“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
And so, when their faces peek in at the door, I take a deep breath and ask for the grace to welcome them as if they were the Christ child himself. As we journey through the joy, sickness, laughter, exhaustion, and risk of parenting numerous small children, my husband and I pray that as we live faithfully to the teachings of Scripture and the Catholic Church, our lives may be a witness of the Father’s abundant love.
May all of our lives resonate with the tender plea of our Lord in Matthew 19:14—Let the little children come to me. †