As I read the text of the Holy Father’s interview I took a deep breath in.
The mother was pregnant with her eighth child after seven caesareans sections. She could be me.
Then, the heartbreaking realisation that Pope Francis would also reproach us for being irresponsible parents. I felt chastised and discouraged.
It is true that in order to be good Catholics we do not have to bring children into the world one after the other, without thought or consideration for our life circumstances.
It is also true that God has given us the gift of being able to read our fertility through the various methods of Natural Family Planning. But Natural Family Planning is not contraception. It is to be used only for grave reasons while still remaining open to the possibility of new life.
Is it not also true that faithfulness and trust in God are essential elements in the Christian life?
My thoughts turned to this courageous mother and her situation. As more deeper details are not given of her life I wondered first if maybe her doctor had okayed a further pregnancy at the birth of her last child. But given the strong words Pope Francis used, I suspect that most likely was not the case.
Did she have all of her children in quick succession as I have? Had she made the decision with her husband that their situation was grave enough to warrant the use of Natural Family Planning, but found that God continued to bless them with children over and over?
I wonder if this mother has had to repeatedly speak up in defense of her faith after being reprimanded by medical professionals on multiple occasions for being “irresponsible” for refusing to be sterilised. Maybe, like me, she had been yelled at for this decision. Maybe, her heart had sunk in disbelief when the doctor told her a dispensation for her sterilisation could be obtained from the local bishop, and that this was commonplace.
Has she had to defend her husband’s integrity as it was brought into question because instead of attending medical appointments he stayed home with the other children?
Maybe like me, she fought illness during her pregnancies… gestational diabetes, obstetric cholestasis, or other conditions, which cause suffering not only for her but for her loved ones.
Or maybe she was told her life, and that of her unborn child, hung in the balance this time. A serious complication may have developed such as placenta previa, or accreta, or percreta. Maybe the doctors were concerned that she would have a catastrophic hemorrhage either before birth or at the time of delivery.
If so, I know her pain. I know how much she suffers. I also know that she does not want to leave her children without a mother; her husband without a wife.
How do I know? These have been my experiences while trying to faithfully live out my vocation as a wife and mother. There is nothing else one can do in this situation but trust in God.
I know of a mother who died a week after the birth of her fourth child. The baby had been born by caesarean section and the mother had contracted septic peritonitis. Earlier in the pregnancy, at just two months, the same mother had been diagnosed with a fibroid on her womb which needed to be removed for the sake of her life and that of her unborn child. The doctors gave her three options: an abortion, hysterectomy or removal of the fibroid. Her choice was removal of the fibroid, insisting that everything be done to ensure the life of her unborn child be preserved.
She is quoted as saying
Love and sacrifice are closely linked, like the sun and the light. We cannot love without suffering and we cannot suffer without love.
In all she did, this mother trusted in God – in His providence. I am sure she did not want to leave her children – her joy – without a mother. But she also knew that her children’s life must come before hers. She also knew that what ever it took, she would remain faithful to the will of God.
That mother has been canonised by the Church. She is St Gianna Beretta Molla.
In my greatest hour of need, as I almost died at the delivery of my seventh child, St Gianna interceded on my behalf before the throne of God.
Let every mother look to St Gianna for inspiration, for encouragement, for how to truly love.
There are so many faithful Catholic families in this world, trying to remain faithful to God and to their marriage vows. I know of many heroic families who inspire and encourage as they lead by courageous example. Christ has asked us to take up our cross and follow him daily. These families know sacrifice – whether there are many children, no children or some children. They understand that the fruit of sacrifice and true trust in God is great joy and peace.
They also understand these words that St John Paul II spoke to the youth of New Zealand in 1986:
Since the Cross of Christ is the sign of love and salvation, we should not be surprised that all true love requires sacrifice. Do not be afraid, then, when love makes demands. Do not be afraid when love requires sacrifice. Do not be afraid of the Cross of Christ. The Cross is the Tree of Life. It is the source of all joy and peace. It was the only way for Jesus to reach resurrection and triumph. It is the only way for us to share in His life, now and for ever.
I think this is what is missing from Pope Francis’ comments about responsible parenthood: sacrifice.
Sacrifice and openness to life lead us to a greater trust in God. It teaches our children what real love looks like. It shows the world that human life, made in the image and likeness of God, has inherent dignity and as such should be cared for, protected and loved from the very first moment of its existence. It says that parenthood is selfless.
Was the mother who Pope Francis referred to irresponsible? Only she and God can answer that, for only they know the circumstances of her life.
Were my husband and I irresponsible for having seven children by caesarean section? For putting our children in a situation where they may have had no mother?
Many will say yes.
I believe that each of them were known and loved by God, willed by Him into existence with a task that only they can do. My mother often says when we are challenged “Well, which ones should never have been born?”
We have opened ourselves up in love to receive whatever gifts God had for us. We trusted that He knows best. Maybe our sacrifices and willingness to be open to life will count for something when we stand before Him on Judgement Day.