It was 5:12am, the first morning of vacation, and I thought I was about to spend a peaceful morning praying, reading, and watching the sun rise. As I exited my bedroom, I came across the son of my friend in the living room crying and whimpering for his “momma.” There goes the nice morning to myself! A few moments later, four more children under the age of ten were in the living-room/kitchen area, and I was the only adult awake, as the parents of these wonderful children had fully embraced the benefit of having four other adults on the trip. I thought to myself: is this really a vacation?
My guy friends and I planned this trip last summer after the four of us hiked up a fourteen-thousand-foot mountain near Buena Vista, Colorado. We thought it would be fun to have their families come up to the mountains and experience a little respite from the brutal Texas summer heat. A huge bonus, beyond these families being awesome, was that these friends love my mom and dad and had asked me to invite them as an extra set of hands with the kids. So here we were, two priests, two grandparents, and two families with four kids each, entering into the madness of our Colorado “vacation” week.
Now I know many of you may be thinking: what does this have to do with natural family planning (NFP)? Everything! These friends are college roommates, I am godfather to the eldest of the kids, and I married one of the couples and baptized two of their four children (while the other priest baptized the others). These friends are godparents to each other’s children, and my mom and dad have been surrogate parents for them, as well as for countless others of my friends. We share the Catholic faith, a love for the outdoors, and a friendship that has spanned three decades. We also manage to maintain this bond despite the fact that we live in five different cities and, as things go, the four of us guys are all pretty different.
The two wives/moms couldn’t be much more different either: one is a bubbly extrovert who is basically always up for anything; the other is a laid back introvert, who likes to plan but can also go with the flow. I am even willing to share that she was probably my last crush before entering seminary!
So what about NFP? Well, this is an article about a priest’s perspective on NFP and how it has been part of my priesthood. I am not sure if vacation with eight kids aged ten and under is enough street credit for the reader but I am also uncle to six nephews and three nieces, have prepared and married well over one hundred couples. My ministry has also led me to teach NFP courses and counsel countless couples struggling with both the practice of NFP and the challenges of infertility.
Back to my vacation: almost immediately after those wonderful children interrupted my nice morning to myself, it was obvious that the adult in the room (me) needed to provide two things: food and entertainment. I quickly put together five different bowls of cereal (very conscious of milk preferences of course!) and figured out how to turn on some children’s programming at a volume level that was mindful of the seven other slumbering adults. For the next hour and a half, as I hung out with these great kids, laughing at the show, making sure they finished their first breakfast, and breaking up little skirmishes, I kept reflecting on the radical commitment to life their parents made.
These sets of parents are both 35 years old: one couple has been married eleven and a half years, and the other couple just celebrated their ninth anniversary; they have eight children whose ages range from ten and a half down to eighteen months. While a priest, I have had numerous opportunities to be a part of many great families who have been faithful to the Church’s teaching regarding openness to life. However, because of our long history, these friends have been among the best couples for me to talk to about the challenges of NFP. Surprisingly, it is the husbands who frequently are willing to open up, thoughI have also had good conversations with their wives.
When my friends told me that they have had people, seeing their children, rudely ask, “Are you done?” I am reminded of the perfect response offered by my sister (a mother of six beautiful children) to this same question: “is that any of your business?” Women who have more than two children in our modern culture are often maligned with glances and questions that seem to indicate that they don’t know how to control themselves or their husbands; yet at the same time, if a family doesn’t have children or maybe one child, they are asked often if they are trying for more. These kinds of questions ought to stop!
An honest response is the best response, and my honest response to why I still believe passionately in NFP is simple: it is the closest thing I can see to an act of true faith in God for a couple, and it is what the Church offers to a world hurt by so many lies about women’s health and lies about what marriage should be like. Our culture tells couples that marriage is really about just feeling good, having the most likes on your social media posts, and really never doing anything that requires hard work or sacrifice.
NFP is different; it is not a magic pill, it is not always easy, and it requires a husband and wife to actually practice chastity. The irony is that our culture offers a magic pill that requires very little effort to obtain and requires no chastity from the married couple. What is worse is that artificial contraception introduces the idea that God is not part of your marriage, as it closes the sexual act off to the possibility of life and reduces the sexual encounter to a mere act of pleasure.
On the other hand, what NFP offers a man and a woman is a crash course in selflessness, humility, and trust in God. Whether you are able to welcome numerous children into your family, or due to circumstances that are licit and with consultation from a priest, you have to limit the number of children in your family, natural family planning is something that everyone who is married should know more about.
Back to breakfast with my five little buddies: we played a few games, eventually their parents woke up, we had a second breakfast, and then we all set out on a nice Father’s Day hike. The following days we spent hiking, laughing, eating lots of food, praying, and I had the joy of hiking another fourteen-thousand-foot mountain, this time with my buddies and my godson.
The whole time together I was immersed in the details and chaos of managing family life and staying open to the possibility that next time we do this kind of vacation, there could be nine or ten kids. I couldn’t be happier. Seeing my friends live out their lives with heroic and sacrificial love for one another and their children reminded me of my own childhood, and what great examples I had in my parents, even though they did not have the advantage of all the scientific knowledge that we have today concerning natural family planning.
While NFP is not a boogeyman to be feared, it is not something every priest is comfortable talking about, and frankly, not something many young people want to talk about. My advice is this: open your eyes, see the beauty of family life, and remember that ultimately, family is what this is all about.
Cover Image: Fr. Justin Braun on his Colorado vacation with the children mentioned in this article.