How to help parishioners with the baby blues
Mother's day is hard. Baptisms are really hard. Christmas, with all its talk of the birth of baby Jesus, isn't exactly a happy occasion either. Church should be a source of consolation during trying times, but for couples suffering from infertility, it's often an alienating, difficult place. And, although one in six couples now has difficulty conceiving or has experienced miscarriage, few parishes offer any services or even acknowledge the pain of infertility.
"It was very hard to go to church because it was so family-oriented. I'd see the cute babies and start crying," says Mary Nelson (not her real name) of Denver. "And I definitely couldn't go to church on Mother's Day."
Between blessings for moms and dads, preschoolers toddling off to the children's Mass, and Baptisms regularly printed in the bulletin, reminders of infertile couples' inability to procreate seem to lurk everywhere at church. "Sometimes I feel like I don't fit in," says one woman, summing up the attitude of many.
On top of that, more and more Catholic couples are using fertility treatments the church does not condone, such as artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization-both considered immoral because they separate procreation from the sexual act, not to mention the potential for the destruction of embryos with in vitro.
That only adds to the isolation of being childless and unable to conceive. "I was afraid of being judged," says Nelson, explaining why she never approached her parish for help during her six-year infertility struggle.
And although their two cycles of in vitro never resulted in the destruction or freezing of embryos, she still felt guilty. "You feel like you're making decisions that God is supposed to make," she says. "That stuff did get kind of tricky."
Another Catholic woman says infertility was something "you just don't talk about" at a Catholic parish. Celibate priests may be unaware of the prevalence of such problems and uncomfortable trying to explain church teaching, while family life ministers or directors of religious education are too busy focusing on the parish's children to remember the childless.
And then there are unintentional stings, such as homilies that suggest that all women should become mothers or, in one case, a prolife bulletin series in which the prenatal development of a "spiritually adopted," nonexistent baby was printed each week. For the parishioner whose miscarried child had been the same age, the weekly reminder was excruciating.
Resolve, a national infertility support organization, offers couples a form letter to send to parishes or other religious communities, asking for sensitivity around the issue. "Clergy members are usually open and grateful to be reminded," says Dianne Clapp, Resolve's medical information director. "We need to do more of it."
Elizabeth Ministry, which provides Catholics with peer counseling around childbearing issues, has 600 chapters worldwide, though that still represents only a fraction of U.S. parishes. Founder Jeannie Hannemann believes parishes must step up to the task of providing support for these hurting families.
"All these aspects related to childbearing used to get taken care of in the extended family," she says, "but now parishes have to become the extended family."
First and foremost, parishes must offer opportunities for infertile couples to pray and for the faith community to pray for them. "Right now there just isn't an outlet for them to ask for prayers," she says.
Elizabeth Ministry offers a number of aids for parishes wanting to do more. The Rosebud Program is a more sensitive alternative to the popular practice of selling roses for mothers on Mother's Day. It comes with a basket of silk flowers, each a different color representing various pregnancy issues, such as waiting to conceive, infertility, adoption, miscarriage, or other early childhood loss. Parishioners can write their intention on a tag and place a rose in the vase.
Parishes can also ease the pain of difficult days, like Mother's and Father's Day, by acknowledging those who are seeking to conceive, perhaps in the petitions at Mass.
Other tips are available in a new pastoral guide for dealing with infertility, available from Elizabeth Ministries for $24.95. For more information, visit http://www.elizabethministry.org./.