In part one of this series, I described the experiences of Catholic couples struggling with infertility, including their feeling that many Catholics didn’t understand their struggles and often added burdens even when they were trying to help. In this second part, I propose some concrete ways to better minister to couples struggling with infertility. This can be done through proper instruction of clergy, visibility and opportunities in parish life, and better marriage preparation.
One of the most common frustrations couples felt was the lack of training that the clergy seem to have for addressing infertility. One woman commented, “There was very little properly guided support. Even at the Basilica [of the Sacred Heart] at Notre Dame, I had a priest tell me to go do IVF because it worked for his sister. I think when we found the clergy that had a heart for this cross, who tried to guide us and help us grow from it, not just fix it, that made all the difference.” If clergy are not prepared to handle such a conversation, couples will know it.
Another woman said, “My struggle with that [infertility] personally has come up in the confessional and I remember one priest in particular who was not well equipped to deal with it. He just really didn’t know what to say to me or how to help. ... I think he made some comment like ‘you have lots of nieces and nephews and you enjoy them so much, so just focus on them.’ I was like, that’s not the right answer.”
These suggestions are painful for a couple already struggling to cope with infertility. When they feel that leaders in the Church are unable to answer their questions, they may become frustrated with the Church itself.
Training clergy on ways to minister to couples struggling with infertility would make a huge difference. The clergy will also set an example for others on how to respond to these couples. This training should begin in the seminary. It should also stress the prevalence of infertility, which affects one in nine couples. Because infertility is such a private issue, it may seem to be less common in the parish than it actually is.
One woman I interviewed is involved in formation of the Holy Cross seminarians on topics related to fertility and infertility. Seminarians often tell her, “As celibate men, how can we possibly understand the suffering that infertility brings?” She tells them: “You know the cross. And you know the salvation history and you know the power of the resurrection and the power of redemptive suffering and it’s the same thing you just have to apply it to this group. You have to understand that you can’t fix it.”
Once priests are better trained for their ministry to infertile couples, they can implement some simple yet important changes in their parish. For example, including infertile couples in the prayers of the faithful every so often is an easy step that would have a profound effect.
The Need for Prayer
One woman noted, “I have never ever ever heard a prayer for infertile couples. I have heard prayers for pregnant women to have patience for the rest of their pregnancy: help them, help them. And I'm thinking nine months? Try fifty-four months. I recognize that they need patience, but I do too.”
Including those struggling with infertility in the petitions recognizes and validates their pain and suffering. Many couples said it helps them most to know that people are praying for them, and this prayer can sustain them during difficult times. On an individual level prayer means a great deal, but it would have an even greater effect if the entire parish were involved.
Praying for infertile couples publicly also raises the visibility of of infertility in the parish. This can be a conversation starter, a way to introduce infertility into the parish conversation more naturally. An important time to include infertile couples in the petitions would be on Mother’s Day, which would encourage other parishioners to be more sensitive to those around them. Including infertile couples in the intentions could also challenge some Catholics’ assumptions that childless couples must be using artificial contraception.
Discussing infertility during a homily is another way of ministering to infertile couples within the parish. One couple noted that “In our parish, [on] the feast of the Holy Family, we didn’t read the First Order readings, which was supposed to be about Sarah and Abraham and her infertility and Elizabeth and her infertility. Because we skipped over those readings, that’s a missed opportunity to talk about infertility. Not only does it leave the parish ill-equipped to talk about these issues, but it leaves infertile couples feeling unsupported.”
This was not the only parish that chose to skip those readings, as a few other couples told me. Readings like these provide a perfect opportunity to minister to infertile couples while teaching the parish about the realities of infertility. Deliberately skipping these readings sends the message to infertile couples that their struggles are not worth talking about.
Providing opportunities for infertile couples to gather together in parish or diocesan-level support groups and retreats would also be helpful. Couples often said it was most important to them to know they are not alone. A number of couples mentioned their membership in a Facebook group specifically designated for Catholics struggling with infertility, which has provided an outlet for them to voice their frustrations and share common experiences. The group was started by an infertile woman who saw a need for ministry and decided to do something about it.
Including discussion of infertility in marriage preparation classes would also prepare couples for the challenge of infertility. One couple suggested, “I think marriage prep is really important, to talk about what will the fruitfulness in our marriage be, regardless of whether or not we have children. I think it is a really important question to ask.”
Asking couples how their marriage will be fruitful—regardless of whether they are able to have biological children—encourages them to consider the possibility of infertility and the ways in which their marriage will contribute to the Church. During this time, instructors could mention resources for infertile couples so that the couples could return to them in the future as needed.
One such resource is the Creighton Model of Natural Family Planning and NaPro technology. Although this method of monitoring reproductive health is not a certain fix to infertility, it has been able to assist many couples struggling to conceive while respecting and honoring the dignity and sexuality of the married couple and empowering women to understand their bodies.
While one interviewee explained that many people hold negative or misinformed perceptions of Natural Family Planning, NaPro technology can help infertile couples address the underlying medical reasons for their infertility.
Through training our clergy, praying for infertile couples, and being more cognizant of the presence of infertile couples in our parishes, we can begin to help infertile couples to heal. Through stimulating more discussion on the topic of infertility, the Church will be able to better serve all Her members. Such discussions would lead to more fruitful action that would help not only infertile couples, but also the rest of the Church by teaching us how to better minister to our brothers and sisters in Christ.