To Know or Not to Know?

3 Sep

On January 21, 2005, my wife and I left St. Joseph’s hospital in St. Paul, MN with our newborn son, Isaac. The adventure was about to begin both literally and figuratively. Literally, we were venturing out into a Minnesota snowstorm, and figuratively, we were venturing into the world of parenting. We survived the literal journey home and the jury is still out on whether we will survive the figurative one. I remember thinking when we left the hospital, “So . . . they are just going to let us take him home, eh?”

That question was a sign of the insecurity that Libby and I had about the world of parenting.

However, when we made it to our house, I remember turning on the stereo and listening to Frank Sinatra sing the song from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. The title of the song is “Soliloquy,” and it is all about a new father and his optimism, excitement, and pride for the future of a newborn son. As I danced around the living room holding my son and singing as loudly as I could to the blaring music, I could summarize my feelings as, “This fatherhood thing is new, but I like it!” In the midst of the chaos, I found a new confidence in myself and a desire to do whatever possible to sacrifice for the good of Libby and Isaac. I had a level of self-knowledge that I never had previously. My lived experience was matching up to St. John Paul II’s fifth reason for the difference between natural family planning (“NFP”) and contraception. Let me explain.

John Paul’s first few arguments for maintaining the integrity of the unitive and procreative dimensions of the marital act certainly make sense on a natural level, but he also argues that NFP is confirmed through divine Revelation. What does that have to do with my newfound confidence and self-knowledge? Specifically, John Paul points to Genesis 4:1, which is the passage where Adam comes to know his wife, Eve, and they conceive and bear a son. John Paul points out that this “knowing” is not merely a euphemism for having intercourse, but rather involves a much deeper knowledge of self and one’s spouse. It is exactly the kind of knowledge I experienced after we brought Isaac home.

To put it simply, a whole new level of who I am came alive when I became a father.

It is like opening a door to a room that I didn’t know existed. I opened the door, and I began to explore the wonder of the room.

Isaac’s birth also opened the door to see a whole new side of Libby. I saw my love for her deepen in a way that I didn’t know was possible. To use the same analogy, Isaac was the key that opened the door to a new room in Libby’s heart. I discovered her tender and gentle motherly compassion that never had an outlet before Isaac came into our lives.

The gift of parenting also opens our eyes to the knowledge of how important we are in God’s plans. We discover the dignity of being called to cooperate in the creation of new human life. We realize that when God commands Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply,” it is not just to populate the earth. Rather, it is one of the ways that God reveals the depth of His love for us. He commands us to do what is good for us and what we will find truly rewarding and joyful. John Paul cites this biblical passage to illustrate the importance of connecting sex and babies. NFP gives hopeful couples the great knowledge of how to maximize their fertility and conceive a child “with the help of the Lord” as Adam and Eve did.

When we disconnect sex from babies, it is too easy to miss the beauty of God’s goodness in both the conjugal act and the gift of children. We can take for granted and miss the tremendous blessing of both. The Church does not want anyone to miss the goodness of God, and that is the motive for all her teachings. Love for her children is the interpretive lens through which we should view any difficult teaching of the Church. The motivation is never, “I want to ruin someone’s fun.”

For me, I know that I always want people, especially my children, to give Libby the benefit of the doubt in everything. My default position is, “if they only knew Libby like I know Libby,” they would understand why she is doing or saying that.” Our kids don’t always accept it initially, but after they have time for her discipline to sink in, they realize that their mom loves them very much and is acting in their best interest. My spousal knowledge inclines me to assume the best in her.

The same principle is true of Christ and His spousal relationship to the Church. God wants all of His children to love the Church like He does and trust that she always has our eternal happiness in mind.

As I have tried to explain over the past few weeks, the Church certainly has good reasons for her support of NFP and for insisting that contraception is not good for a relationship. First, NFP allows a couple to speak a language of truth to one another through the language of the body. Second, NFP respects the great dignity that couples have as humans made in the image and likeness of God. Third, NFP allows a couple to respect their fertility as an integral part of who they are. Fourth, NFP builds the character of the couple who use it. Lastly, NFP is consistent with biblical Revelation.

Pope John Paul II spent much time in his early priesthood with young married couples. He was a keen observer of the many joyful marriages he witnessed. He once remarked that he “fell in love with human love.” Even though JPII was one of the most brilliant theologians and philosophers in the 2,000-year history of the Church, some of his greatest insights and contributions to the Church came from spending time falling in love with human love and witnessing firsthand the beautiful gift of married love lived well.

May we as the Church learn about authentic human love from JPII and not settle for a counterfeit version.

Guest columnist Brad DuPont is a consultant for the Office of Marriage and Family Life for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. He credits Dr. John Grabowski’s talk at the 2014 Theology of the Body Congress, “Something Old, Something New: Tradition and Development of Doctrine in the Theology of the Body’s Teaching on Marriage” for inspiring this series of articles.

Preaching on Pornography

28 Aug

The following guest post is by Deacon Mike Schreck from Church of the Nativity parish. This post originally appeared on the website of My House Initiative, a dynamic outreach of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

Earlier this year, after attending an information session on the dangers of Internet pornography, and especially the resources now available to those who struggle in this area, I felt the Holy Spirit tugging at my heart to preach on pornography. I am a husband and father of four, and also serve as a permanent deacon within the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. I usually preach a couple times a month, and in looking ahead at my preaching schedule, I noticed that I was scheduled to preach on the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time. In the Lectionary for that weekend, Matthew’s Gospel includes Jesus’ admonition that someone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matt. 5:17-37), as well as the prophet Sirach’s encouragement that we can keep the Commandments (Sir. 15:15-20). Although I was naturally hesitant to preach on such a sensitive topic in front of men, women and children of all ages at a weekend Mass, in my heart I knew that was exactly what the Holy Spirit was calling me to do.

I knew that I needed to warn our parish families about the dangers of Internet pornography, but also that the primary focus of my preaching would be sharing the Good News of hope that is available to those who struggle with pornography. As missionary disciples, we must never condemn the sinner, but we must not shy away from sharing words of hope and encouragement to those who struggle with sin in this or other areas. With so many people of all ages struggling with Internet pornography, and the devastating affects that I know it is having on parishioners’ lives and their marriages, I knew that God was calling me to share the Good News that there is hope and that there are new avenues of support and encouragement now available to those who struggle in this area. And yet, I wasn’t sure how to go about crafting my message of hope on such a sensitive topic.

As I wouldn’t be preaching for another two weeks, I prayed about it a lot! But I didn’t stop there. I also sought input from my brother deacons, from Sam Meier, who coordinates the Archdiocese’s My House Initiative, and from other friends and family members. I ran through a couple drafts of my homily with my unofficial team of trusted advisors, who for the most part encouraged me and gave me good feedback, including recommendations on points I might want to include in my homily. And then, one weeknight while praying in the Church after work, I ran into a friend, who has young children of his own. I approached him and explained my plan to preach on pornography. My friend expressed his admiration that I would tackle such a difficult subject and his belief that there is a need for such preaching, but he also expressed concerns regarding the sensitivity of preaching on such a sensitive topic in front of young children, and of course their parents.

After reading through a draft copy of my homily, he stated that he really appreciated the positive manner in which I was tackling the subject, and he shared with me that he is actually a Covenant Eyes Accountability Partner for one of his relatives and several of his friends, one of whom had actually lost his job as a result of viewing pornography at work. With that being said, he also recommended that I not use the word “pornography” so much, but after mentioning pornography at the beginning of the homily, use references such as “viewing explicit images” or “visiting inappropriate websites” throughout the rest of the homily.

Making this change probably made the homily easier for parents of young children to hear, but it definitely made the homily easier for me to preach as I practiced it with my wife and children, and when I then preached the homily at four of the Church of the Nativity’s five Masses that weekend. The congregation’s response to the homily was pretty amazing. I am used to parishioners sharing words of appreciation and encouragement as they depart, but more than any Mass before or since that weekend, I was struck by the depth of appreciation expressed by a large number of parishioners that waited to come over and shake my hand, express their appreciation, and request copies of my homily to share with friends and family members. Most of these parishioners were men, but I received positive feedback from a number of mothers and wives as well. One parishioner was almost in tears as she asked for a copy of my homily that she might take and share with her husband at home. For weeks afterward, I ran into parishioners in a variety of settings, who thanked me for my homily or asked that I e-mail them a copy that they could share with others.

I was hesitant to take on such a delicate topic, but with the support and encouragement of others, I followed the promptings of the Holy Spirit to share the Good News of hope to those who struggle with pornography. With so many men, women and children struggling with Internet pornography and pornographic novels, there is a need for more clergy to share the Good News of hope to those who are struggling. In the words of the prophet Sirach, “You can keep the Commandments.” With God, all things are possible.

Here is the text of Deacon Schreck’s inspiring homily.

Virtuous Sex

21 Aug

One of the common objections we hear to using Natural Family Planning (“NFP”) is, “I want to be able to have sex whenever I want to, and the birth control pill allows me to do that.”

The desire to be “one-flesh” with one’s spouse is understandable and even noble. In fact, God has attached the greatest of pleasure to sexual union because He wants married couples to engage in this most intimate of conversations. It may sound scandalous, but God truly desires that husbands and wives make love, and it brings Him great joy when they do so, provided their coming together is serving to bring them closer together and not driving them apart.

Given a choice, my four-year old daughter Maggie would have ice cream for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Most reasonable parents would never in a million years let their children have ice cream as their main food source. While Libby and I are not perfect parents by any stretch of the imagination, we are “reasonable parents” in this area. Maggie eats foods other than ice cream much to her disappointment. I hope she will thank us later. Everyone agrees that eating whatever you want and whenever you want will not make you happy in the long run.  Ice cream can be a most enjoyable dessert on the appropriate occasion. It takes discipline to discover the right time and place to enjoy this delicious treat.

Just as ice cream should be enjoyed at the right times and for its intended purpose, so should the sexual union of husband and wife. Sexual union is not intended to be an “on demand” feature of the married relationship. Unfortunately, our culture has developed an “on demand” mentality for all sorts of things: music on Spotify, movies on Netflix, television shows on the DVR, and Google with information.  The pervasive “on demand” thread of the culture can penetrate the fabric of the married relationship. Contraception fosters the “on demand” mindset because its underlying assumption is that “sex is just another activity that my wife and I do, and therefore, we should be able to do it whenever we want.”

Much like my daughter, Maggie, is being shortsighted when she wants ice cream at every meal, “on demand” sex is not good for the health of a marriage. The truth is that sex is not just another activity, but it is the most intimate of conversations that involves the entirety of the spouses; it is a total gift of self. An “on demand” attitude reduces the meaning of sex to self-gratification.

NFP fosters the necessary virtues that help couples realize the true gift of the marital embrace. The fostering of virtue is the fourth reason why St. John Paul II believed that NFP is different from contraception.  With NFP, the couple has the opportunity each month through conversation with God and each other to ask the question, “Is this the right time to come together?” NFP allows the couple to know the woman’s fertility, and therefore, if the couple has discerned that it is not the right time to have a child, then they abstain from the sexual union during the fertile time. If they have discerned that it may be the right time to bring a child into the world, then they come together during the fertile time.

NFP maintains the proper respect for the dignity of the spouse because it allows the couple to maintain the discipline of coming together when the couple has mutually agreed  to do so. In other words, sometimes the couple has to say “no.” Contrary to pop culture’s belief, saying “no” is possible, and even good under some circumstances, as it communicates to the spouse, “You are worth waiting for!”

I’m certainly not saying that couples should limit their sexual union unnecessarily, but NFP does open the couple to the possibility of saying “no” for the good of the other.  JPII was convinced that NFP helps build the character of the couple and in particular helps spouses grow in self-mastery.  Why was self-mastery so important to him?

Because self-mastery leads to greater freedom! In the eyes of the world, freedom is doing whatever you want whenever you want, but true freedom lies in the ability to do what is good. When a husband learns to temper his desires for sexual union because his wife is unable to come together, JPII would say he grows in possession of himself. Only when one possesses himself can he make a true gift of himself out of love.

Think about it in these terms: I can only give something I possess; I can’t give what I don’t have. NFP teaches me as a husband to always think and do what is best for my wife. It makes me a better man. If I am unable to say no to a sexual urge, then am I truly a free man? Only slaves and addicts are unable to say no.

And if I am unable to say no, what does my “yes” really mean?

Contraception leads a couple down the road of slavery and addiction where they are not free to focus on what is good for the other. Instead, it builds a culture of instant gratification within the relationship.

Our culture rightly puts a high premium on freedom, but we must be careful as to how we define this important word. Fortunately, we do not have to settle for a counterfeit version of freedom. JPII invites married couples to embrace the fullness of genuine freedom offered by NFP—a freedom expressed in mutual, sacrificial love that seeks the true good of our spouse.

Guest columnist Brad DuPont is a consultant for the Office of Marriage and Family Life for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. He credits Dr. John Grabowski’s talk at the 2014 Theology of the Body Congress, “Something Old, Something New: Tradition and Development of Doctrine in the Theology of the Body’s Teaching on Marriage” for inspiring this series of articles.

You Too Go into the Vineyard

20 Aug

vineyardIn today’s Gospel we hear the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Mt. 20:1-16). We can approach this rich teaching of Jesus from various perspectives. St. John Paul II reflected on this passage at length in his apostolic exhortation on the apostolate of lay people (Christifideles Laici). He encouraged all men and women to hear and take to heart Our Lord’s words, “You too go into my vineyard” (Mt. 20:4).

Whenever I’ve heard this parable, I’ve placed myself in the role of one of the potential workers. I need to do my part in the Lord’s vineyard. Further, I shouldn’t be envious of those who come into the vineyard later in the day, who nonetheless are equal recipients of the eternal blessings the Lord has in store for those who turn to Him.

Today, however, I was struck by the words of some of the potential laborers when asked why they were just standing there idly. They said, “Because no one has hired us” (Mt. 20:7). In other words, no one has invited them into the vineyard. And whose fault is that?

Through our Baptism, we are called not only to live the faith ourselves but also to call upon others–in endearing, encouraging ways–to join us in the work of helping others to grow in faith and holiness of life. Our Holy Father Pope Francis has emphasized that the Church has to be looking outward. There is a lot to be done in this vineyard.

As one of the men from our Archdiocese who is in formation for the diaconate, I can see that one aspect of being a faithful deacon is simply rounding up workers for our divine Landowner. May we all join together in this great task, which is rightly called the “new evangelization.”

This post originally appeared in August 2013.

Multiplying Mercy

14 Aug

Sermon on the MountThis summer I’ve pounded my head on the table more than once as I’ve tried to help my antsy, highly distractible fourth-grade son learn his times tables. He especially struggles with the 7s. And despite his athletic prowess, the fact that all he has to do is count touchdowns (7-14-21-28-etc.) doesn’t seem to help much.

Just my luck, in today’s Gospel Our Lord turns mercy into a math problem. How often are we to forgive our neighbor? Seven times? Try seventy-seven times (that would be 7 X 11). In other versions of this text, presumably for more advanced math students, Jesus tells us to forgive 7 X 70 times (that would be 490 times).

Is Our Lord really trying to quantify our forgiveness, such that at some point we can comfortably say in good conscience that we’re off the hook, that we don’t have to forgive anymore? Absolutely not. He wants us to understand that we should expect mercy in the measure that we’re willing to give it. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Just as we’re in constant need of mercy, it stands to reason that we’re in constant need of extending mercy.

I expect mercy every time I go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation to confess pretty much the same sins that I already told Our Lord through the priest that I was “firmly resolved” to not commit anymore. How can I then turn around and be miserly to others, and not cut them a similar break? That’s the question posed to each of us in today’s Gospel.

It’s not about math, and it’s not about being a doormat or naive. We don’t have to let others take unjust advantage of us. But we can and must forgive even if we think our spouse, child, friend, classmate, or colleague is not sufficiently “sorry” or committed to change his or her behavior. It’s on them to take our mercy and run with it.

Simply put, our job is to reflect God’s boundless mercy to all whom we meet.

R-e-s-p-e-c-t

13 Aug

My wife Libby and I were married in the summer of 2003. The following spring we settled into a new job, and we moved from our little one bedroom apartment and into our first house. We decided the time was right to attempt the parenting thing.

Because we had been practicing NFP, we knew how to maximize our opportunity for conceiving a child. It was scary and exhilarating at the same time. We didn’t know if we would be good parents or if we would even be able to conceive a child. Yet when we came together as husband and wife with the specific intention of conceiving a child, our marriage was deepened. The experience raised to a whole new level our respect for each other and our sense of awe at the greatness of God for His plan of sexual love. We discovered that our potential fertility was not merely an accidental part of the human experience, but rather expressed something amazing about us as persons made in the image and likeness of God.

“Wow, we are attempting to cooperate with the Creator of the universe in the creation of new life that will exist forever! Who are we that we should be able to do this?”!

For St. John Paul II, fertility is not accidental, but existential. It is an expression of the human person. To withhold or reject fertility is to withhold or reject the whole person. While fertility can be studied through biology, it is not simply biological. Rather, sex and fertility are at the core of our entire being.

For anyone who has suffered the cross of infertility or knows someone who suffers with this cross, John Paul’s perspective makes all the sense in the world. Very close friends of ours have carried the cross of infertility for a number of years. It is precisely because fertility is at their core that their suffering is so great. If fertility were merely accidental, it would not be so difficult. They long deeply to bring another child into this world as a reflection and permanent reminder of their married love. Their prayer is that they would have fertility to give to one another. They cannot imagine keeping it from the other.

As a parent, I feel a deep sadness when my son shares with me something that he does not like about himself. My daughter is only 4, and my prayer is that she always knows the truth of her beauty and goodness, especially when she reaches the teen years and is tempted to find flaws is the way she looks. To boil it down, contraception says, “I don’t like my fertility, and I don’t want to share it with you.” Our heavenly Father sees fertility as a beautiful part of who He created us to be. It saddens the Heart of God when we don’t appreciate how wonderfully made we are.

For John Paul, the difference between NFP and contraception involves two opposed concepts of the human person. Contraception views fertility as a disease, and therefore, must be suppressed. NFP views fertility as an integral part of the human person (see Familiaris Consortio, no. 32). Fertility is not something to be ashamed of or rejected, but joyfully embraced as a gift from God. NFP allows a couple to responsibly cooperate with the Creator in bringing forth new life. What an incredible dignity God bestows on us creatures in allowing us to participate in the creation of a person who will exist forever! NFP cultivates a respect for this human dignity not only toward our spouse, but also our children. The respect does not stop there, though. NFP cultivates a greater respect and appreciation for every human person, because it fosters the realization that every person is made in the image of God.

As we watch the evening news and see war in the Holy Land, conflict between Russia and the Ukraine, and poverty on the rise here in the homeland, we are challenged to have a greater appreciation for human dignity. We may not be able to do extraordinary things to change the course of history on a large scale, but we can allow our own minds and hearts to be changed and softened toward our fellow humans. NFP is a path to foster mutual respect and soften us to see every person as our brother and sister.

Granted, it is a small step, but doesn’t the journey of a thousand miles begin with the first small step? It seems too simple and not drastic enough, but if we are not willing to change as Christians, how can we expect non-Christians to have a greater respect for their fellow humans? To this point, St. Ignatius of Loyola said, “He who goes about to reform the world must begin with himself.” Let’s increase the level of respect in our own families and neighborhoods and do our part to build a culture worthy of our great dignity.

Guest columnist Brad DuPont is a consultant for the Office of Marriage and Family Life for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. He credits Dr. John Grabowski’s talk at the 2014 Theology of the Body Congress, “Something Old, Something New: Tradition and Development of Doctrine in the Theology of the Body’s Teaching on Marriage” for inspiring this series of articles.

The Lost Life

8 Aug

Today’s Gospel has, in my estimation, one of the most profound sayings of Jesus: “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). We also find these words in John 12, where Jesus adds that unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if the seed dies, it will go on to bear much fruit.

This is one of those verses we can meditate upon over and over again and still not mine all its riches and beauty.

We can reflect on the “saved life” that ultimately is lost. If we’re all about ourselves and our temporal needs and pleasures, we might seem to be preserving our own lives.  However, in reality we could be “losing” eternal life for lesser, passing goods.

We can also reflect on the “lost life,” which in our world seems like such a waste, yet when it is done for Jesus’ sake–such as by uniting our own sufferings and crosses with His–we find the path to the fullness of life. What a paradox, by daring to give ourselves away in love for God and neighbor, we actually find meaning, purpose, and fulfillment.

What an awesome God we have!

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