Families can come in all shapes and sizes.
When you are asked to picture a Catholic family, what comes to mind? For many people, this question conjures images of a couple with many children, but it is important to remember that there are as many ways to be a family as there are families. The Catechism calls us to holiness and provides guidelines for marriage (It should be full, total, faithful and fruitful), but at no point gives us a blueprint for what a family “should” look like. (Because there isn’t one.)
St. Elizabeth, whose feast we commemorate on Nov. 5, appears only in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel, where he writes of Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah: “Both were righteous in the eyes of God, observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly.
But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren and both were advanced in years.” (Luke 1:6-7)
Elizabeth and Zechariah were a family. They lived a holy and observant life, even before they were blessed with the joy of parenthood, and they would have been a family even if parenthood was not part of God’s plan for them.
All families are called to holiness
Married couples are called to a love that is lifegiving and reflects the Trinity. Emily Burds, marriage prep coordinator for the archdiocese, reminds us that this pertains to who we are as spouses, whether or not we have children. “It’s just as crucial to have a husband as it is to have a child. If we’re not ready to be self-sacrificial for our husbands, we’re not ready to have children. If I go into marriage thinking I’m not ready to have kids, well, I’m not ready to have a husband, because that is just as much of a sacrifice.”
That said, the openness to children couples pledge during their nuptials does not mean that they must be constantly ready to have a baby. Those who discern that this is not the time to grow their family can use the gift of Natural Family Planning to work within God’s plan for them to avoid pregnancy. This decision is highly personal and should not only be done prayerfully, but on a continual basis. Many proponents of NFP will tell you that part of its beauty is that it requires a constant re-commitment. Each cycle is another opportunity for discernment.
We are called to acknowledge the dignity of all families
We must welcome families of all shapes, sizes and makeups into the pews, and it is important to remember that biological children are not what make a couple into a family. Burds shared how at the beginning of her marriage, she “did often feel like we’re sitting at Mass and everyone’s judging us because we don’t have kids. That’s a really hard space to be in whether or not you’re extra struggling with infertility.”
Rachel Uchytil, the archdiocesan family life coordinator, was married in July. “We do not have any children yet. And what I’ve found to be the important part of marriage is that we’ve found how we can use our gifts in a complimentary way as a couple and still be generative. Procreative can mean a lot of different things, any way that you’re generating life, generating new life, whether it’s a baby, or if it’s just bringing a smile to someone’s face, that’s still a way that we’re using our gifts to share our love and to be an example of God’s love hopefully to others.”
There are many ways to be fruitful.
Maria Notch of Mount Moriah Ministries walks with couples who are experiencing the pain of infertility and/or the loss of a child. She encourages us to challenge the misconception that “if a marriage isn’t fruitful in creating children, it isn’t fruitful. That is not true. A ‘life-giving’ marriage can be life giving in many ways. (The couple) can be pouring into teens in their youth group. They can be pouring into their nieces and nephews. They can be pouring into their Godchildren. They can be pouring into their neighbor kids. They can be leading mission trips, serving at soup kitchens, working at homeless shelters, etc. There are many ways to be ‘fruitful’ and ‘lifegiving’ within a marriage family.”
We must walk with those experiencing infertility
These couples are carrying a cross and we are called to be mindful of the unique challenges they face while experiencing a God-given desire (to have children) but being unable to do so, not through any fault of their own, but because we live in broken bodies in a fallen world. Notch notes that this can unintentionally create feelings of jealousy, resentment, despair, doubts in faith and so much more. More than anything, these couples deserve to be seen — to be recognized — and to be cared for. This can be done by verbally acknowledging their suffering, limiting how much couples with children complain about their kids in front of them, and acknowledging their spiritual parenthood. Spiritual parenthood can start even before marriage, and can mean many things — it can mean being a sister, being a friend and being more of a mother figure.
Tell me about your family
Tori Franke, NFP coordinator for the archdiocese, points to the way we have small talk with one another as a potential pain point. An innocuous question for one person can be hurtful to another. She shares a recommendation she once received — when breaking the ice, ask someone, “Tell me about your family. No matter what context of life you’re in, everyone has someone that is family to them. Even if it’s not biological family.”
When getting to know one another, we want to keep the goal of building connections in mind. The best way to do this is to “let them share their heart and their life with you because that’s what you’re trying to get at.”