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How Humanae Vitae shaped 30 years of marriage

The week of 19-25 July 2015 is designated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as National Natural Family Planning Awareness Week. In their statement, the Bishops encourage us to “celebrate and reverence God’s vision of human sexuality.” The week ends on the 47th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s prophetic encyclical Humane Vitae, which “articulates Catholic beliefs about human sexuality, conjugal love and responsible parenthood” (USCCB.org).

Although the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has not announced a similar recognition of Natural Family Planning or Humanae Vitae, for my husband and me, the week is special. On 20 July we celebrate our thirtieth wedding anniversary.

My husband and I were in our mid-20s when we got married, and although we were both starting out in our respective careers, we were very young. We knew nothing about life and even less about building a life together. We read Humanae Vitae before our wedding day and the encyclical’s teaching on the sacrament of holy matrimony filled us with hope and the ideals of a Catholic marriage.

It’s almost miraculous how two people with unique temperaments and faults can live together in marriage and grow in their love for each other. When the initial excitement of discovery faded in our first months together, we faced the challenge of adjusting to daily life and at times there were arguments and misunderstandings. Although we still have moments of  disagreement, they occur infrequently and are resolved quickly. By the grace of God that is the source of our fidelity to each other, as well as through prayer and acts of will, we have learned to not let pride destroy our commitment. The words “I’m sorry,” “please forgive me,” and “can we try again?” have become easier to say over our many years together.

This love is first of all fully human, that is to say, of the senses and of the spirit at the same time. It is not, then, a simple transport of instinct and sentiment, but also, and principally, an act of the free will, intended to endure and to grow by means of the joys and sorrows of daily life, in such a way that husband and wife become one only heart and one only soul, and together attain their human perfection. (Humanae Vitae, 9)

We have eight children and two more in heaven as a result of miscarriages. With each birth, we were blessed with more joy and love but each child also brought their own set of challenges which we continue to face together. We strive to lead our family by example and to be open and available to them.

Most of our children are now young adults; our youngest child is almost thirteen. During our childbearing years, we remained faithful to the Church’s teaching on responsible parenthood by using Natural Family Planning (NFP). There were times when observing periodic continence was difficult but we believed in the wisdom of Humanae Vitae and our marriage grew in fruitfulness. We learned to communicate better, show tenderness in other ways, exercise self-denial, and help each other observe periodic continence when necessary.

Conjugal love is a powerful gift and responsibility that is open to new life. It demands selfless love. In co-operating with God’s gift of conjugal love, we have grown to appreciate physical intimacy as something beyond two bodies meeting. We do not take the conjugal act for granted and we understand that it is a beautiful expression of marital love and fidelity. Through the conjugal act we have co-operated in God’s plan of creation.

That teaching, often set forth by the magisterium, is founded upon the inseparable connection, willed by God and unable to be broken by man on his own initiative, between the two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning. Indeed, by its intimate structure, the conjugal act, while most closely uniting husband and wife, capacitates them for the generation of new lives, according to laws inscribed in the very being of man and of woman. By safeguarding both these essential aspects, the unitive and the procreative, the conjugal act preserves in its fullness the sense of true mutual love and its ordination towards man’s most high calling to parenthood. We believe that the men of our day are particularly capable of seeing the deeply reasonable and human character of this fundamental principle. (HV, 12)

The marital virtue of continence acts in conformity with the virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and above all charity (cf. Pope St. John Paul II, General Audience, 24 October 1984). These virtues imparted by the Holy Spirit have strengthened our marriage.

The honest practice of regulation of birth demands first of all that husband and wife acquire and possess solid convictions concerning the true values of life and of the family, and that they tend towards securing perfect self-mastery. To dominate instinct by means of one’s reason and free will undoubtedly requires ascetical practices, so that the affective manifestations of conjugal life may observe the correct order, in particular with regard to the observance of periodic continence. Yet this discipline which is proper to the purity of married couples, far from harming conjugal love, rather confers on it a higher human value. It demands continual effort yet, thanks to its beneficent influence, husband and wife fully develop their personalities, being enriched with spiritual values. Such discipline bestows upon family life fruits of serenity and peace, and facilitates the solution of other problems; it favors attention for one’s partner, helps both parties to drive out selfishness, the enemy of true love; and deepens their sense of responsibility. By its means, parents acquire the capacity of having a deeper and more efficacious influence in the education of their offspring; little children and youths grow up with a just appraisal of human values, and in the serene and harmonious development of their spiritual and sensitive faculties. (HV, 21)

In sacramental marriage, spouses are called upon to help each other and their children attain holiness. It is in our vocation of holy matrimony that we live in Christ and share His love with others. For thirty years we have prayed together as a married couple and, more importantly, as a family. We have tried to put God first and each other second; and we have tried to impart the beautiful teachings of Holy Mother Church to our children. We have not always succeeded but with God’s grace and mercy, we are grateful for each new day and each new opportunity to strive for holiness.

For baptized persons, moreover, marriage invests the dignity of a sacramental sign of grace, inasmuch as it represents the union of Christ and of the Church. (HV, 8)

For the past few weeks I watched as a dear neighbour succombed to the ravages of cancer. She and her husband were married for forty years. As I saw her strength decline, I was reminded of how fleeting life is, how uncertain our days are, and how God’s plans are often not our plans.

As my husband and I look forward to the next thirty years together, if that is God’s will, our neighbour’s illness and death remind us that even the strong bonds of holy matrimony will one day end. That reality motivates us to further appreciate our time with each other. For the next thirty years or for how long God decides, we will remember to say “I love you” more often, embrace, touch and show tenderness more frequently, say “I’m sorry, please forgive me” more readily, encourage and support repeatedly, praise God unstoppingly.

Then, this love is total, that is to say, it is a very special form of personal friendship, in which husband and wife generously share everything, without undue reservations or selfish calculations. Whoever truly loves his marriage partner loves not only for what he receives, but for the partner’s self, rejoicing that he can enrich his partner with the gift of himself.

Again, this love is faithful and exclusive until death. Thus in fact do bride and groom conceive it to be on the day when they freely and in full awareness assume the duty of the marriage bond. A fidelity, this, which can sometimes be difficult, but is always possible, always noble and meritorious, as no one can deny. The example of so many married persons down through the centuries shows, not only that fidelity is according to the nature of marriage, but also that it is a source of profound and lasting happiness. (HV, 9)

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