NFP in the Parish: Musings of a Generation-X Priest

John Cihak
NFP Forum
Reproduced with Permission

One of the most intense joys and greatest challenges in being a parish priest has been presenting the Church's teaching on conjugal love and Natural Family Planning (NFP). Ordained three years ago, I have spent the past two years in a parish situated in the beautiful Rogue Valley in southern Oregon. The town is medium sized (about 25,000) and essentially blue collar, although in recent years has attracted many living in retirement. I was bom in 1970. An expert in math is not required to figure out that the author was conceived under the culturally tall shadow of the Pill. Consequently my own existence has a stake in the Gospel teaching concerning artificial contraception. I have always been convinced of the intrinsic evil of artificial contraception, and see as an important part of my priesthood teaching the truth presented in Humanae Vitae and encouraging NFP. Perhaps the grown-ups of a previous generation could hedge on the morality of artificial contraception. But then again, they were already born. Those of us from more recent generations have a vested interest.

In this article I would like to focus on two areas where I have seen NFP have an impact on parochial life: preparing engaged couples for marriage, and influencing the thinking of high school youth. I would like to share with the reader some of the breakthroughs surrounding Humanae Vitae in my ministry. Other priests may be having different and perhaps more difficult experiences than mine, nevertheless, I hope my stories will be encouraging.

A Marriage Prep. Story

Josh and Stacey (names have been changed) were in their early twenties and came to begin their marriage preparation. Stacey was a fallen away Catholic and Josh was raised without any faith. I discovered in our initial meeting (without surprise) that they were cohabitating. Yet, I also discovered that they were not hostile to the Church. They said they were cohabitating simply because that's "what couples do" in twenty-first century America. I have found that the case of two practicing Catholics coming forward to be married in the Church is the exception rather than the norm. Even if they happen to be practicing Catholics, they likely cannot articulate Jesus' understanding of marriage and conjugal love as taught by the Church. They may have heard "the rules" of the Catholic Church, but have not yet heard the inner coherence of the teaching and how it flows directly from the nature of God. Josh and Stacey's catechetical state was such that they didn't even know "the rules." At first glance, this may strike one as discouraging. I see it as an inviting challenge.

When preparing a couple for marriage I always begin where they are and with who God is. The teachings of the Church are more readily heard and accepted if they are patiently, tirelessly and explicitly linked to the God of absolute love. This is especially critical with regard to our teachings about conjugal love. Only when God is known as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who from all etemity do not cling to their divine nature, but ceaselessly and totally pour themselves out into the other, does the Church's teaching about conjugal love begin to make sense. This is a "relational" reality which needs to be made "personal" and linked to the couple's love for each other.

Fortunately, for those who care to investigate, much statistical data is now available exposing the lie of artificial contraception (e.g., contraceptive use linked with rise in demand for abortion, health risks for women, rise in sexually transmitted diseases, etc.). In an information age, however, many couples have never heard of the dark side of contraception. Discussing this information can be helpful in moving couples to reconsider their often unexamined acceptance of artificial contraception. That said, my most fruitful discussions continue to be those based on faith. When couples reflect upon God as Blessed Trinity, man and woman as created in His image, and that they are called to live His life of total, self-giving love, they become open to the truth of the Church's teachings on conjugal love and responsible parenthood.

In that first session with Josh and Stacey, we delicately discussed their situation, what sin is, who God is and why it would be a very good idea for them to separate until their honeymoon. Throughout these kinds of discussions with couples, I make a constant effort never to fall into an adversarial position. I constantly reiterate that "I want what is best" for them. By their openness, and the obvious work of the Holy Spirit, Josh and Stacey reluctantly agreed to separate. I assured them that if they trusted the truth taught by the Church, they would not be disappointed. Since they lived in a different city, I could not continue their marriage preparation, and so entrusted it to a brother priest. He continued the preparation and found them cooperative, even when it came to NFP.

Josh and Stacey's wedding took place in my parish. On the evening of the rehearsal, they spoke with me to thank me for that first session -- as difficult as it was. They indeed stayed separated during their preparation and soon found that they had to face issues in their relationship, issues that were being ignored during their cohabitation. The emotional and physical distance allowed them to see their relationship more clearly. Because they trusted in this case, they were willing to trust the Church on NFP. I have heard that they now regularly attend Mass at their parish and even participate in the parish's Eucharistic Adoration.

Reaching the Next Generation

For many of my generation and younger, the message of the Gospel sounds incredibly new. Many of them have never really heard it. And our teachings on conjugal love and responsible parenthood are rarely understood. Many of my generation come from very small families (1-2 children) often broken by divorce. One young woman said to me, "Father, I don't know much about marriage, but I do know that I never want to get divorced." "I grew up in a divorced home," she continued, "and I hated it." "Even as a seven-year-old I knew that this shouldn't be happening." We need to help our youth.

I have been amazed at the interest I have found among teenagers in the Church's teaching on love, marriage and sex. Recently, I offered a short course for our parish Confirmation program. The course, "God, Sex and Marriage," was conceived as a type of "pre-pre-marriage" instruction. Because of my work with engaged couples, I saw a need to help shape people's thinking well before they present themselves for marriage instruction. Education in chastity while an adolescent provides the necessary foundation for practicing NFP in marriage in the future. Fifteen high school students attended the four, one-hour sessions. It consisted of an abbreviated version of Christopher West's audio tapes on John Paul II's Theology of the Body (Naked Without Shame). The truths presented seemed to resonate with the students. I had suspected that some in the class were probably trying to come to terms with choices they had already made. Many of them were aware of the "selfishness" that they breathe in the cultural air or even have seen in their parents' behavior. The Theology of the Body, however, provided them with a mental road map out of that type of negative behavior.

One pastoral principle I have adopted is not to underestimate what youth can grasp, nor to underestimate their openness to the truth. During the discussion, many of them agreed that people know the "how" of human sexuality, but very few understand what it means. I used with them the simple analogy of a chain saw. One can be given a chain saw, and shown how to use it. One can examine the saw inside and out, understand the intricacies of how it is powered, understand how the chain turning on the blade makes it an effective instrument for cutting. "But," I then asked, "what if I then take the chain saw and try to cut a power line?" Disaster will ensue. Why? Because I have not understood the purpose of the saw (its telos), that it is used to cut only wood. I misused the gift, and by misusing the gift, I have ended up injured. Similarly, understanding how human sexuality works is not sufficient. One must know its meaning, that it is a gift to be put in the service of love. In order for sexuality to serve love it must always aim for two ends which can neverbe separated: unionof the spouses and openness to the procreation of children. Again, this teaching only begins to make sense when one begins with the nature of God as a communion of persons.

The youth in my class recognized the inner coherence of the Church's teaching about sexuality. What was pleasantly surprising is that after the sessions I announced that they had fulfilled the requirements for the Confirmation course and could go. I cautioned them, however, that only now were we ready to delve into Humanae Vitae. I said I would be happy to meet next week for the purpose of going through the encyclical paragraph by paragraph. The following Wednesday, ten showed up! Although, at this level, we never went through the details of NFP, the necessary foundation of thinking was established.

Fissures in the lie of artificial contraception as necessary and good are showing, even among the unchurched. The most rewarding encounters in teaching the truth of conjugal love have been through a kind of via negative: The sexual disaster in America since the late 1960s has actually opened up a willingness to hear and embrace the Church's timeless teaching. More people are willing to listen to some fresh thinking. I hope this encourages other priests to have the patience and creativity to present this essential message of the Gospel. We can trust that the truth contains within itself the power to convince the listener. What may surprise older Catholics is that the Church's teaching on conjugal love and contraception strike young people as radical and new, a message that is believable. I hope to spend the rest of my life as a priest lovingly and relentlessly teaching the Church's beautiful message on conjugal love. After all, I have a vested interest.