Natural Family Planning at St. Thomas Aquinas at the University of Virginia
by Fr. Luke Clark OP, Pastor
Every July, the United States Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) celebrates Natural Family Planning (NFP) Awareness Week. This week is picked to coincide with the anniversary of the release of the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI. As the nation celebrates NFP Awareness Week, I would like to share the story of one of our Province’s NFP programs, centered at St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish in Charlottesville, VA.
At its beginnings in 1997, the NFP ministry at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish had very modest goals. Our one instructor and the parish staff hoped that this program would provide NFP classes for parishioners, as well as the greater Central Virginia area, and also provide introductory information for the large numbers of engaged couples whom the parish prepares for marriage.
Almost seventeen years later, the St. Thomas NFP Ministry has grown exponentially. All couples preparing for marriage through the parish (10% of the total for our diocese) receive a full course in NFP instruction. To meet this demand, the parish now has five active NFP instructors teaching three different methods. These include two different models of Sympto-Thermal as well as Creighton Model Fertility Care. In recent years, we have provided instruction to approximately 1% of the total number of persons taught NFP in the nation, as reported to the US Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB.) These are numbers from just one parish that rival or exceed total numbers from many dioceses! Over the years, ten instructors have received either their initial training or their preceptorship through the parish and moved on to teach in other locations, much like St. Dominic sending out his friars.
Each year St. Thomas Aquinas Parish’s NFP commitment continues to grow in new ways. Exciting for us here in Charlottesville has been the growth of the medical aspects of NFP to assist our parishioners in obtaining the best women’s health care that is also ethically sound. Two of our parishioners were trained in 2011-12 as Natural Procreative Technology (NaPro) Medical Consultants at the Pope Paul VI Institute in Omaha, NE. Their training was funded both by our parish and the Richmond Diocese. This six month certification process allows these physicians to work with the latest NFP research to assist couples with infertility and menstrual cycle abnormalities. They are supported by the services coordinated by yet another parishioner at a hospital in Richmond. There is a NaPro fellowship trained surgeon there who can do advanced surgeries to help women with reproductive system concerns.
One of our physicians keeps a photo board with baby photos of the children who have been successfully carried to term with the assistance of NaPro Technology. Some of these babies are from parish families—others are from throughout Virginia. All the families are grateful that these services are available locally. They used to have to drive to Pennsylvania or even fly to Omaha to have these evaluations and treatments done.
How does one parish develop a program like this with only volunteers? This question has been asked many times over the years and the answer is multifaceted. Karen Poehailos MD, CFCMC, parish NFP coordinator and NaPro Medical Consultant, attributes a large part of the success to the friars at the parish and their willingness to step forward as needed to offer both vision and practical assistance. Despite having busy schedules, they are always ready to provide help and support for varied tasks like assisting with the start up of a diocesan NFP program, creating slides for presentations on marital theology, funding instructor training materials, attending ice cream socials for NFP week, and providing the financial support for national conferences to keep the program on the cutting edge of advances.
It has also been evident that God clearly wants this. Many of our greatest successes came when we simply moved forward with trust in Divine Providence even though the job seemed overwhelming. For any task, the right volunteer always stepped forward—whether to be trained as an instructor or to help other parishes increase their outreach by serving on the Diocesan NFP Advisory Board. The door to a stronger medical model opened when a Fertility Care instructor, LaDean Barnes CFCP, moved into the parish a few years ago and started providing referrals and instruction to support Medical Consultants. LaDean was instrumental in recruiting the NaPro surgeon who lends so much to the medical services offered here.
As a part of its mission, our parish has taken a leadership role in sharing its resources with the Diocese of Richmond. The Diocesan NFP program had its start in St. Thomas’ library over a decade ago. In 2010, Dr. Poehailos was named by Bishop Francis DiLorenzo as the NFP Coordinator for the Catholic Diocese of Richmond. Our instructors teach women from Charlottesville, Richmond, and surrounding counties in the Diocese.
Dr. Poehailos commented, “The timing on all this has been amazing. Over the past several years, our pastor and parish staff have been working very hard to make the new St. Thomas Aquinas Priory a reality—and we celebrated its dedication this past March. The friars assigned here provide services not only to the parish, but also to the University of Virginia community, the local hospitals, and surrounding parishes, including our mission parish of St. George in Scottsville. I feel our NFP work has paralleled this increasing outreach and influence of the Order in Central Virginia. We’ve not only been able to have NFP work grow here, but have gone out to plant the seeds elsewhere in the Diocese. It’s Veritas at its finest. This teaching is the Truth, and God has positioned us well with the right persons and resources to preach the message.”NFP Awareness Week is celebrated from July 20-27, 2013. For more information on NFP services in your area, search www.usccb.org/nfp. For more information on the St. Thomas Aquinas NFP Ministry, www.stauva.org/nfp.