When I decided to attend the JPII Institute back in 2004, I had just that April entered the Catholic Church in large part due to the beautiful teachings of St. John Paul II, particularly his vision of the “Theology of the Body.” As I began my classes, I was deeply impressed with the challenging academic rigor of the Institute in its pursuit of the true, the good, and the beautiful (even as I was a bit overwhelmed!), but I was even more struck by the faith, integrity, and even child-like sense of wonder I discovered in the faculty who were our guides, mentors, and companions on this journey.
The friendships I made and formation I received at the Institute have profoundly shaped the course of my life. After attending the Institute, I decided to pursue a doctorate in Moral Theology/Ethics, largely so I could continue to delve more deeply into what I had already enjoyed studying so much. The professors at the Institute continued to mentor me and even sat on my dissertation committee as I completed my doctorate at Catholic University. During this time, I married my husband, Greg, who had graduated from the Institute two years before I did. We had married in our late 30’s, hoping to have a large family, only to find that month after month, year after year, we were unable to conceive. This was an incredible struggle that challenged our faith, our marriage, and our understanding of ourselves as called to motherhood and fatherhood.
Greg and I found fruitfulness in our marriage by leading a high school youth group and taking them on hikes, ski trips, and to the March for Life each year. We also started up a Newman Club at Kenyon College, teaching the students Called to Love, leading retreats for them, helping them put on a performance of The Jeweler’s Shop on campus, and hosting a regular Theology on Tap. Feeling the call to consider another path to parenthood, we began the journey to foster-to-adopt, and were blessed with a newborn foster son, Anthony, whom we were soon able to adopt. Soon after, we learned about our identical twin daughters, Zailie & Gabriella, (just five months younger than Anthony!) whom we were able to adopt through a private situation. And then came along our little caboose, John Paul, whom we fostered for two years before adopting.
Just before our adoption journey began, I providentially ran into some of my Institute friends at a conference. As I shared my experience with infertility, one of classmates, Ann Koshute, confided that she too was struggling with infertility. What began as a moment of recognition that we were not alone in our suffering became the catalyst for Ann and me to start an apostolate called Springs in the Desert, where women and couples come to be accompanied in their grief over their infertility so that they might know how deeply they are loved by God and discover the fruitfulness that God has planned for their marriage.
Ann and I agreed that although the Church had spoken about the problems of Artificial Reproductive Technologies, there remained a deep need for accompaniment for those struggling to make sense of their own pain in being unable to conceive or bring a child to term, particularly in the Church where there can be a temptation to measure holiness and fruitfulness by the number of children a couple has. Ann and I felt the necessity to create a community for women and couples who were just discovering fertility issues, for those who were in the throes of often-frantic attempts to “achieve” pregnancy, for those whom biological children were no longer a possibility, and for those long past childbearing years, but who still ached with grief. What began as a simple blog soon grew into a national (even international!) ministry that offers virtual and in-person retreats and small groups, diocesan mornings of prayer, reflection and community, posts from a growing number of contributors, a regular podcast, annual Lenten, Mother’s Day, and Advent retreats, offerings specifically for men, and more. We entered the 2021 OSV Catholic Innovation Challenge and were excited to be chosen as a top 12 finalist. We are now working directly with dioceses and archdioceses to offer our programs through their offices. When dioceses support those carrying the cross of infertility, it makes a powerful statement that the Church truly wants to walk with us in our suffering.
This year, my husband Greg and I felt called to create a sister ministry called Springs of Love to help Catholics discern and live out the call to foster and adopt. We believe that cultivating a culture of fostering and adoption in our parishes is an absolutely essential part of building a comprehensive culture of life, particularly as we develop new pro-life initiatives post-Roe. We just hosted a virtual Be Not Afraid Foster & Adoption Discernment Retreat that is available at springsoflove.org. One aspect of our ministry is to raise awareness of the more than 400,000 children in foster care, and the urgent need for Catholics to get involved with caring for these vulnerable children. Critical to the mission of Springs of Love is to create Care Communities within parishes around the country that will provide for the material needs of children in care, offer wrap-around support to foster families (including prayer, meals, childcare, rides, mentoring, etc.), host foster and adoption awareness events, and inspire more Catholics to consider fostering and adopting. Care Communities are vital to increasing the retention rate of foster families from 50% after one year to 90%. God is calling the Church to care for His vulnerable children, and all of us can do something to help this effort.
Our time studying at the Institute has provided us with the framework that guides all our work at Springs in the Desert and Springs of Love. The best endorsement of this comes from Bishop Kevin Rhoades from the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, who states, “This beautiful apostolate is firmly rooted in the anthropology, ethics and spirituality of the Catholic Church and reflects a rich understanding of the vocation and sacrament of marriage.” As we continue to ponder the ways in which God calls every marriage to fruitfulness, we are blessed to collaborate with so many of our friends from the Institute whose continued meditation on all that we learned there provides continued fruit to our ministry.
Being is gift. This simple phrase echoed in every lecture, assignment, and nearly every conversation with my classmates during my two years (2003-2005) at the Institute. Each time I heard the words, they penetrated my mind and heart a little more deeply. But if I’m honest, I didn’t truly understand their meaning until some six years following graduation.
Upon graduating in 2005 I began working as Assistant Director of Family Life for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, a position I held for seven years. I put my Institute formation to good use immediately in my responsibility for marriage preparation. The transition from the spiritual and intellectual safety and security of the Institute to working for the Church (and its inherent bureaucracy) was made easy by working under the direction of fellow Institute graduate Dominic Lombardi. Together we thought through new ways of constructing marriage formation, infused with the worldview and principles we received at the JP II. It was exciting and satisfying to give others what we’d been so blessed to receive.
Four years into my career in family life, I met my own true love, Keith, and suddenly all that I’d received and what I was teaching became real in my personal experience. In 2011 my brother, Fr. Frank, crowned Keith and me in marriage, with many of my classmates celebrating with us. That moment felt like the culmination of my formation, when my vocation was made real; when Keith and I together would begin our sequela Christi. We entered marriage with much hope, and little thought about what trials may invade our happiness. In short order we’d experience my layoff from the Archdiocese, more job changes, and the illness and death of my mother. The cloud that lay heavy over it all was the unexpected experience of infertility. Although we were each in our early forties when we wed, Keith and I (perhaps naively) believed that a family was simply a given. The shape of the cross we bear in our marriage is childlessness, and its pain is indescribable, and like nothing I’d felt before. With infertility comes sadness, but also isolation, shame, and a test of our faith in God. It is a pain I shared with my immediate family and just a few close friends, none of whom knew this experience firsthand.
A few years into this struggle I met fellow Institute graduate Kimberly Henkel at a conference at the University of Notre Dame. We hadn’t seen each other in a long time, but as we caught up on life since graduating, we each shared our struggle to have a family. This was a revelation to me, because I’d never spoken openly about my infertility, the emotional and physical toll of tests and treatment, and those moments of doubt when my infertility did not correspond with the beauty I received in my Institute formation. To hear someone else express the same emotions and doubts assured me that I was not alone. Kimberly felt the isolation too, especially in the lack of adequate pastoral care and accompaniment from priests and fellow parishioners. Together, we felt seen and understood for the first time.
In 2018 Kimberly was invited to write about infertility for Humanum, and she asked me to co-author the piece. It was in the time we spent thinking through our experience and writing about it that we felt the call of the Holy Spirit to found Springs in the Desert. We were unlikely (and somewhat unwitting) founders of a ministry, but as we shared our stories on our first rudimentary website, women began responding. They wrote to us saying that we were expressing what they were feeling; that they felt affirmed in their experience of feeling radically “other” among rows of large families in the pews on Sunday; that they were not simply jealous, “bad Catholics.” Soon, women asked to contribute to our blog, and a team was formed. Now, almost four years since we began writing an academic article, Kimberly and I oversee a full-fledged, non-profit ministry that accompanies those who carry the heavy burden of infertility, walking with them toward the fruitfulness and healing to which God is calling them. Springs in the Desert has become our mandate from the Lord, a source of our personal healing, and very much the fruit of our formation at the Institute. (You can read more about our work in the November 2022 issue of Linacre Quarterly.)
Being is gift. Only now, eleven years along my path of marriage and infertility, do I understand the meaning and weight of these words. Being a daughter of God is the heart of my identity, not my physical fecundity. Being a wife, even without children, is a worthy vocation. Being available to help others carry their crosses on this path of infertility has become the most unexpected, but abundantly fruitful, gift of all.