World Day of Grandparents: Living to a Happy Old Age and the Fruits of NFP
‘Generously share everything,’ Paul VI reminded married couples in Humanae Vitae.
The summer light always came in the windows early when we stayed at Grandma and Grandpa’s house — the house my grandfather built and where their seven children grew up. I would roll over and go back to sleep, and by the time I went downstairs, they were coming back from daily Mass. Grandma would have grocery bags hanging from her arms, and Grandpa would be carrying the milk jugs. Even from a young age I admired their devotion to the Church. I did not realize until years later what they must have faced bearing and raising Catholic children in the 1950s-1980s, for there was a 20-year gap from their oldest to their youngest.
This week the Church marks the anniversary of the release of Humanae Vitae with National NFP Awareness Week and the new celebration of World Grandparents Day on the feast of Sts. Joachim and Anne. For me, these two events fit suitably together because in my grandparents’ marriage and that of my husband’s grandparents, I have seen the fruits of marriages that have matured to the true model of Christian marriage that respects the Church’s teaching on contraception.
When my husband and I were dating, we were both taken in by the relationships of both sets of our grandparents. In each of them we saw the love and devotion of a couple who had stayed faithful to the teaching of the Church for more than 50 years. We saw commitment and love that had deepened over the years of true sacrifice in a world that told them that this was not a sacrifice worth making. They have modeled for us that the use of periodic abstinence in conjunction with a method of natural family planning has the potential to help us overcome our fallen inclinations to objectify and use the other in marriage. When NFP is used well, we see our spouse as they truly are: a human person composed of both body and soul. We have seen this in the marriages of our grandparents and further in the marriages of the children whom they passed on these beautiful examples.
In Humanae Vitae, Section 9, Pope St. Paul VI highlighted several features of married love, all of which we have witnessed in the marriages of our grandparents. First, he said that married love was meant “above all” to be “fully human.” This is a love that encompasses both one’s body and soul. In faithfully following the teachings of the Church, the marriages of my grandparents and my husband’s grandparents grew to a more fully human level — where they cared for each other spiritually, intellectually, emotionally and physically. Their daily interactions reflect how they are “one heart and one soul.” It is more beautiful each time we see them, as they are all in their 90s and have been married for more than 65 years.
Paul VI wrote about a second feature of married love: It is meant to be total and a “very special form of personal friendship in which husband and wife generously share everything,” thinking of the other rather then themselves. He says beautifully, “Whoever really loves his partner loves not only for what he receives, but loves that partner for the partner’s own sake, content to be able to enrich the other with the gift of himself.”
The third aspect of married love highlighted by Paul VI is the exclusive fidelity to each other, which they promised to do freely with full awareness. This bears fruit in the happy companionship seen in many, faithful elderly couples who have weathered the hardships of raising a family and can look back on their lives with gratitude to each other and to God. I have witnessed the support my grandparents have given each other over the years in their worries over their children, my grandmother’s health battles, and in their sweet devotion to each other. I see it also in my husband’s grandparents, in their continual care for each other.
The final feature of married love is openness to being fruitful, focusing on the procreation and the raising of children. It is in openness and living out this call that couples in a marriage learn the complete gift of themselves. It is not for us to know the details of what goes into each couple’s discernment and their experiences of charting cycles and growing through periodic abstinence. But we know for couples striving to live the Church’s teaching on marital love that the struggle was there. In being open to life and in tracking a woman’s cycle, couples face many times of uncertainty, confusion in discernment, physical and mental-health struggles, and financial tight spots. And this “fecund” love is not limited to bringing new life into being; it is there forever. For even while marriage is “till death do us part,” the fact of being a mother or a father always remains.
My husband’s grandmother once told me how thankful she was that she used NFP rather than contraception — how it made her marriage better. She did not give me any details, but I can see the truth of it in the unity she and her husband have and in the children that they raised. For them and my own grandparents, my husband and I see the fruit in the marriages of their adult children, in our parents and aunts and uncles. The openness to life has continued into the next generation, as well. My husband’s grandparents can boast of nearly 40 great-grandchildren and growing, while my grandparents have 10 great-grandchildren and grandchildren still growing to adulthood.
Our grandparents could have given in to the changing times and chosen to limit their family sizes through artificial means. They could have allowed themselves to see their spouse as someone to use for pleasurable ends and to disregard the procreative ends of marriage. But, instead, they followed what we can know about the marital act from natural reason and the teachings of the Church. Further, they did this without the advantages of decades of scientific research married couples have available to them now. They chose to live their love for each other in a way that they gave themselves as true complete gifts to each other every single day. They passed this love on to their children, their grandchildren and their great-grandchildren.
Recently, we attended a wedding of some cousins. My husband’s grandparents sat in the third row holding hands as the priest prayed over their grandson and his new wife to live to happy old age together in faithfulness and fruitfulness. I know from their example that it is possible with sacramental grace, and I hope to be there someday myself.