This March, a great milestone will be celebrated by the Diocese of Phoenix as 2024 marks the 50th anniversary since Natural Family Planning methods began to be offered in parishes. A Mass of Thanksgiving will be held at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral in Phoenix on Sunday March 3rd at 11 a.m. celebrated by Bishop Emeritus Thomas J. Olmsted and a light reception all the parish hall will follow. All the faithful of the diocese are invited to come celebrate, especially those who have been instructors or helped the Natural Family Planning (NFP) initiative in any capacity.

“The reason for this Mass is thanksgiving,” said Armida Escarcega, the diocesan coordinator for the Office of Natural Family Planning, “to get together, as a diocesan community, to give thanks for a way of living the intimacy of marriage that usually passes unnoticed, that people might not know has been building better families and better marriages.”

Since its official establishment in 1974 at an office in St. Joseph’s Hospital, the ministry of NFP in the Diocese of Phoenix has grown from offering only one method to six scientifically supported modern methods. These modern methods, including Sympto-Thermal Method and Family of the Americas Ovulation Method, are all highly reliable (the lowest being 96-percent and the highest 99-percent). All are approved by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the World Health Organization.

“It has been a slow progression… Catholic instructors began to teach NFP at the prompting of pastors in the name of their parish. [The office at] Saint Joseph’s allowed more priests to know that this was available for them,” Escarcega explained.

From these humble beginnings the Office of NFP grew, and soon about 25 parishes decided to ask their couples in Marriage Preparation to take the full course.

“When Bishop Olmsted came in 2004, the Office of Marriage started working on the new [Covenant of Love] policy for marriage preparation and in 2009… the full course began to be required by all parishes as a pre-requisite for marriage preparation,” said Escarcega.

The full NFP course is necessary for couples to grasp its true meaning, to be able to discover that it is not a natural alternative to contraception, but a life- giving family planning method that fosters growth in relationships. An introduction to NFP gives couples a glimpse of the beauty of God’s gift of procreation as designed within the human body. Yet, when only an introductory, science-based course is taken, couples may miss the spiritual component so necessary for sustaining marriages: learning to communicate, through the practice of periodic abstinence, about the decision to make love and to bring forth an immortal soul.

“Men and women have different responses to intimacy and eros.  If a couple doesn’t speak about sexual intimacy, if no real communication occurs, then it’s only natural to start making assumptions about one another. Many live without knowing how to exteriorize their hurts and fears about this delicate subject. For example, a woman can sense that her husband might desire her more often (as God naturally designed him) than she does him. Because no real communication happens, she begins to feel used. Or, the husband gets frustrated when he realizes she is not as interested in being intimate with him as he is of her, and begins to feel neglected, to think, perhaps, ‘she doesn’t want me,’” said Escarcega.

During the NFP course, couples learn that their desires are different, that the women’s desire usually fluctuates based on the part of her cycle she is in. Both spouses learn to understand each other’s bodies and are empowered to make the full gift of themselves to one another, even if this gift, at times, includes sacrifice. The need for periodic abstinence is received as on opportunity to grow in other forms of intimacy such as spending quality time together. This mutual understanding quenches the flame of many a fight; it is no wonder that approximately 96 percent of couples who use NFP stay together.

“The part that we sometimes forget is that NFP is for truly planning your family: to space children, but also to conceive,” said Ana Luisa Martinez de Carrillo, Spanish program facilitator for the Office of Natural Family Planning.

“Thanks to NFP, women are able to identify their fertile window or if there is something [abnormal] going on. NFP is not contraception because whatever you decide today can’t be applied to yesterday or tomorrow. Every day you make that decision, every day you have an opportunity.”

“NFP has nothing to do with contraception because NFP is a way of living and contraception is not,” added Escarcega.

NFP allows a couple to plan their family responsibly, that is, in response to God’s will. Avoiding pregnancy just because ‘we don’t want a baby’ is at odds with the nature of NFP and the nature of human beings. Rather, NFP teaches couples that fertility is not a disease but a gift. The couple learns to find their fertile window and from there they can prayerfully decide what to do with that gift of fertility.

Hope for the Future:

“Since we will be getting together for the Mass of Thanksgiving, [we also hope to send out] a challenge,” said Escarcega.

“Has NFP helped you grow? [If so], have you considered lately what you can do for your Church?”

Escarcega hopes the anniversary and Mass of Thanksgiving will inspire more people to answer the call to become an instructor. Her desire and hope for the future is to have at least one instructor in every parish, as well as a parish representative. This way each pastor would have someone close to home that he knows and trusts to recommend couples struggling in their marriage to seek peer-counsel with.

“We want to spread NFP as much as we can and the pastoral center can’t do the whole job. It is great to have something centralized for organization and training… but the care of the souls-that’s what parishes are for and to have someone [always available] there-that is my vision.”