"Everyone does it, so what's the big deal?" Taking the pill, getting "fixed", getting a shot of Depo-Provera…there's a myriad of choices for contraception. The expectation in today's modern society is that everyone uses artificial birth control at some point in their lives, be they married or not. Right?
Many years ago, I would have agreed with all of the above. I was not a rebellious Catholic, just an ignorant one. But the guilt of my ignorance rests on more shoulders than just mine. I was surrounded by contraception Catholics who discussed their birth control as easily as they spoke of which brand of toothpaste they used. And then there was the Catholic clergy. There was nary a homily I heard that even hinted of the Catholic teaching on human sexuality. Understandably, it's not an ideal topic for an audience of all ages. And, truthfully, I did not always make it to Mass, so maybe I missed the "Talk" one Sunday. Had I kept up on Catholic teaching, I would have been aware of the "Theology of the Body". This was the first major teaching Pope John Paul II gave in 129 short talks between 1979 and 1984. This project was a Biblical reflection on the meaning of human embodiment, particularly as it concerns human sexuality.
I was not aware of the "Theology of the Body" because I was not a good Catholic back in the day. Nor did I pay much heed to Natural Family Planning in which couples regulate births without recourse to unnatural methods that interfere with the way God designed our fertility. But I expected a popular priest at my parish in Montana to be up on all things Catholic. Unfortunately, he was not. As both a priest and doctor, his parishioners and patients looked up to him. He let them down by stating, "It's not realistic to expect couples to follow the Pope's teachings on birth control."
The Error of our Ways
I believed my doctor/priest and followed society. Not until I began to embrace my Catholic faith and trust its teachings to guide me did I come to trust that God's plan is always the best. When Mark and I married in 1981, I was not even aware the Catholic Church taught that contraception was against God's plan. We were both Catholic and occasionally went to Mass. It seemed like a good thing to do, but other weekend plans easily took precedence over Mass. Our Catholic faith was mostly on the back burner.
After the births of our three boys, I decided to have surgery for a tubal ligation. I loved my children very much, but three seemed like plenty. Mark said the decision was up to me. During the pre-op exam, the doctor explained the failure rate was only 1 in 500. Those odds were unsettling. "Not bad odds for a million dollar lottery," I thought. A failure could result in a tubal pregnancy, which could result in death. That thought weighed heavily on my mind. I canceled.
The next line of attack was birth control pills prescribed by my Catholic doctor/priest. (He had become a priest first then received permission to go through medical school and become a doctor.) When my cycle started up again halfway through the package of pills, it was obvious they were not working. My doctor/priest had explained they contained a low dose of estrogen to avoid common side effects. Obviously, the dose was so low that they were not preventing ovulation as intended. I tossed them out.
The following month I became pregnant. When Mark heard the news, he announced: "I've been praying for this." It turned out the big sneak had literally been praying on the sly. He liked the idea of having another baby and decided to pray rather than argue about it. I was actually happy about the news. A diehard baby lover like myself could not help but rejoice at another little one. This may seem odd from a person taking precautions against having more children, but as you can see, none of this was very well thought out.
Jacob was born on May 13, the anniversary date of Our Lady of Fatima's first appearance in Fatima, Portugal. It was also Mark's birthday and Mother's Day. Mark too had been born on Mother's Day thirty-three years earlier. Happy Birthday Mark — from God.
During this time in our lives, we began reading about various Marian apparitions and were inspired for the first time to pray the rosary. We stopped missing Sunday Mass and began learning more about our faith. Still, we were not fully converted yet — particularly when it came to family planning. There's always a learning curve and we did not go from A to Z overnight. After four children, I insisted Mark have a vasectomy. He resisted at first but finally relented.
Initially, I was oblivious that we had done anything wrong. But gradually, as I grew to desire God's will in my life, started making visits to Jesus in the tabernacle and continued praying the rosary, a feeling grew in me. I realized that the Church, which Christ had founded to guide us until the end of time, had authority to teach on spiritual matters, including matters relating to sexuality. I had been given no such authority.
I shared my feelings of regret over Mark's sterilization with him. He was less than thrilled since he thought it was a bad idea to begin with. As a matter of fact, he accused me of being like Eve. "You are right," I agreed. "But remember, Adam was kicked out of the garden, too." We began praying that God's will would be done in our lives, including whether we would have more children. We determined that if it was God's will, Mark's vasectomy would fail.
But, one night, I had a dream in which I saw two babies — one blonde and one dark-haired. I felt an intense love for these babies as if they were my own. At the end of the dream, I was made to know that these were babies God had planned for us, but because we had not lived in union with His plan, they would never be born. I woke up feeling like a mother who just lost her babies. I knew the only way to get to them was to convince Mark to have a reversal of his vasectomy.
When Mark came home from work that day, I approached him with my idea for a reversal. He would have none of it. I barely got two sentences out of my mouth before he announced the subject was officially closed. Even if we could afford it, he was completely unwilling to subject himself to another surgery. Now, it was my turn to pray behind Mark's back. "Okay God," I prayed, "I want to do Your will but I am powerless to change Mark's mind. I'm putting everything in Your hands." Then, I just kept praying.
Of One Mind
Several months had passed when one morning after Sunday Mass, Mark casually wondered out loud how much a reversal operation would cost. "I know," I announced. Before Mark had shot my idea down, I had called the doctor's office to get all the information.
"I can't get off from work this month," Mark said, "but next month I could go in and get it done." I was both shocked and thrilled. We did not have the money to pay for it, but we determined we could probably make payments.
"What changed your mind?" I finally asked, wondering what had caused such a drastic change of heart. His answer took my breath away.
"I had a dream last night," Mark said. "I saw two babies that God had planned for us." I had never told a single soul about my dream.
Three months later, we were expecting a baby. I had a strong feeling that it would be our first girl and God wanted us to name her Mary after the Blessed Mother who had intervened for us. We had never considered the name with any previous pregnancy. I wrote on a slip of paper, "Yes, I think Mary would be a good name," and tucked it in my wallet. I figured that when God let Mark in on the plan, I would pull out the slip and show him.
Our blond-haired baby girl, Mary, was born on December 22, 1993. A few months before her birth, we inherited the exact amount of money we needed to pay Mark's reversal surgery in full. Dark-haired Teresa was born on my birthday, April 18, 1996. I thought we must be done now that we had the babies from our dream. Mark said he thought ten would be a good number of children. I did not actually take this seriously. I recalled that when St. Maximilian Kolbe was young, he had received a vision of Our Blessed Mother. She had shown him two wreaths of roses — one of red representing martyrdom, and one of white, representing purity. She asked him which he would like to choose. He chose both. I wondered if, like St. Maximilian, we should volunteer to take on more than God asked? We prayed for guidance.
John was born on August 31, 1999 and Isaac was born on his sister Mary's birthday, December 22, 2001. We are a family of twelve now, including two brothers who were AIDS orphans from Kenya. As of this writing, the ages range from 24 to 6. There could be no greater blessing on our family than our precious children. The kid's love for each other runs deep. I know that one of the biggest draws for my oldest sons to come home for visits is to spend time with their siblings.
The moral of this story is not that everyone must have a big family to do the will of God. No, my plan is not your plan. The moral of my story is that God has a plan for us all. To discern His plan and strive to live in union with it, we must learn and embrace the teachings He gives us through His Church. Nowadays, there is an abundance of authors, speakers and organizations that support and encourage couples in this way. I have no doubt that much of that information was available back when I first married, but I did not make it my business to learn about it. Make it your business to learn because, until your plan is God's plan, it's the wrong one.