family lessons from “call the midwife”

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In my latest Prairie Messenger column I explore the many family lessons one can learn from watching “Call the Midwife”. The series follows the work of midwives in the East end of London in the late 1950’s and the families that they serve. Based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, the stories are heart-warming and often uncomfortably realistic. This is, after all, what real family life is like. It can raise you to moments of great joy, or mire you in its messiness and challenges. Children are welcomed as a much desired gift, or as an unwanted addition to an already over-burdened family.

Bishops from around the world are preparing for the upcoming Synod on the Family in October. Questionnaires were distributed (though not with equal success) in order to measure the pulse of family experiences and church teachings. One of the big questions, of course, revolves around the issue of birth control.

“Call the Midwife” takes place in the years before the dawn of the birth control pill. Humanae Vitae and it’s prohibition against any unnatural forms of family planning caused guilt-ridden grief to many women and men of my parent’s generation. Here was an answer to all their worries about unwanted pregnancies, only to be followed by threats of eternal damnation if couples chose to regulate births by artificial means. Today, even while most Catholics ignore the teachings of Humane Vitae, some bishops continue to make headlines fighting against easy or free access to birth control.

This week, the Supreme Court in the Philippines approved a controversial birth control law which will give women free access to birth control. The law faced fierce opposition from the Catholic bishops in a country where 80% of the population is Catholic. In the USA, Catholic bishops denounced Obama’s healthcare plan because of its access to birth control. Do bishops really understand the reality of family life? Do they really understand the deep fear of an unwanted pregnancy? Are they truly being pro-life if they expect women to have baby after baby with no regard for the health or welfare of the mother or family?

(A wee bit of trivia…I was birthed by a mid-wife in England during the same era as “Call the Midwife”!)

what do celibate males know about families?

What do a bunch of celibate males know about family life? Not surprisingly, the question gets thrown around during discussions on the upcoming Synod of Bishops on Family. It reflects our anger and frustration with the clericalism that builds a wall of protective exclusivity and privilege around ordination. Many of us know priests and bishops who carefully choose the company they keep. The company is usually composed of other clerics, or a few well-heeled lay folks who can keep them watered and dined in the manner to which they have grown accustomed. These men of God prefer to hang with the heavily cologned, not the smelly sheep.

Sure, some celibate males probably have no clue about the reality of family life. But, there are also many lay men and women who share in this cluelessness. They, too, get wrapped up in the trappings of their profession and a sense of self-importance that leaves no time for the messiness of family life. Extended family ties are ignored, their children are neglected and their elderly parents are abandoned.

Celibacy does not preclude experiencing family life, just as being a parent does not assume expertise. My family has been blessed to call many priests and religious sisters and brothers our friends. These women and men fearlessly visited us while we were raising five children. They cuddled the babies and chatted with the toddlers. They sprawled on the floor to build Lego structures with the older children. We celebrated mass with our priest friends; a coffee table for an altar and eager kiddies as servers and readers.

These friends also acknowledged the challenges and stresses of family life; which meant a lot to us. A dear Benedictine Sister thanked us constantly for affirming her celibacy! We must have made monastic and rectory life look easy in comparison to our domestic chaos. It was an unintended ministry but, in return, we received their love and prayerful support.

The professed religious and priests that we hang with, all have a great love for their own families. They maintain close relationships with siblings, nieces and nephews. They care for sick and elderly parents, and mourn deeply when death comes. Familial love extends to children in their care and the sisters and brothers in their religious communities.

Pope Francis’s devotion to families is apparent. One of his first post-election phone calls was to his sister, Maria Elena Bergoglio. He is constantly photographed with a beaming smile while embracing children. He preaches often of the need to not only care for our elders, but to be lovingly present to them. A new biography describes him as a hands-on Uncle. His nephew and god-son, Jorge, recalled, “My parents told me that when I cried he dipped my dummy in wine or whisky to calm me.”

With the upcoming Synod of the Family, we need to hear from all those who truly understand the reality of families in our modern world; whether they are single, married, vowed religious or ordained. They understand because they have immersed themselves in that reality, and know both the joys and the struggles.