From the Family Foundations archives. Today, Greg and Jennifer Willits continue their ministry in part with their podcast, Adventures In Imperfect Living.
Greg and Jennifer Willits, also known as “The Catholics Next Door,” have been married since 1995 and have five children — four boys and a girl — ranging from ages 4 to 15. Their evangelization ministry includes a popular podcast on faith and family life, two books and Rosary Army, a group that makes and distributes twine rosaries. Greg also directs the evangelization and family life ministries for the Archdiocese of Denver. The busy couple spoke with Family Foundations about parenting, prayer and, of course, NFP.
Your apostolate is huge and it grew while you were also building your family. How did you accomplish so much?
Greg: When Rosary Army started, it literally could be contained in a small wicker basket. As the apostolate grew, I was getting up early and answering emails before going to work in the IT industry and coming home and working late every night. In 2006 we decided we either had to stop the apostolate to focus on the family or figure out a way to make the apostolate the full-time work. I’ve been working in some sort of Catholic ministry ever since.
Jennifer: My husband did so much of the ministry work on his own while I was dealing with the kids. I would do what I could when I could. It was nothing we could have ever forced or planned; it was divinely guided.
The radio show was your family income for several years. When you made the decision for Jennifer to leave the show and stay home, you knew it might jeopardize your livelihood. What was that discernment process like?
Greg: When we first started the radio show in 2008, it was on while our kids were in school. Later the show switched times. Jennifer had to leave the show, go pick up the kids from school, bring them home, tell them to be quiet and come back to the radio show.
We felt we were giving up our commitment to having a stay-at-home mom for the sake of a ministry. It just didn’t sit right. Jennifer had to step down from the show to step up to being a stay-at-home mom. I hosted by myself for several months and finally we parted ways amicably. Ministry is important, but our family has to come first.
Give us your perspective on prayer as a couple.
Greg: I pray like Cookie Monster. My spontaneous prayer is “Please God help Greg. Help my family, please help our family do better.” God doesn’t need to hear me being creative. I tend to be more to the point when we pray out loud, and Jennifer is more descriptive.
Jennifer: The reality is, when we pray as a couple, we’re in bed, we’re all snuggled up, we’re close to sleep. There are times when Greg just doesn’t have it in him to speak at all. Other times I’m at a loss for words. The wonderful thing about marriage is that we are truly one. One of the spouses can literally carry the spiritual weight for the other.
But there’s something beautiful when a husband can lead a prayer in that intimate setting — it makes it clear that this is a marriage of three. When my husband leads in prayer, I’m more open to him. Prayer is a direct access point to unlocking me…it makes the bed more sacred and beautiful. In a sense, our marriage becomes more fertile to growing in holiness.
Greg: When I realized that, we were praying all the time then!
Speaking of fertile, let’s talk NFP. Jennifer, what did you think when your husband brought up the idea?
Jennifer: It was unexpected. I had a strong, selfish position of being done [and having one toddler at the time], so when he gently tried to bring up the idea of something that was linked to our Catholic faith, I was really afraid — and partially angry. I was trying to control my fertility my way and giving that up to God was frightening. It took a lot of prayer and fear and surrender. But I knew enough to know it was truth I was being faced with.
Greg: It was an epiphany: Do we want to trust God in our marriage or not? We got pregnant two weeks later, and there was a peace.
Jennifer: Don’t get me wrong, we weren’t suddenly enlightened with truth, making it impossible to turn back. There were moments when we flipped right back into the old mindset. It was a process. I didn’t know it was going to take as long as it did. But then it really gelled and the roots grew deep.
You devoted two chapters to NFP in your book The Catholics Next Door: Adventures In Imperfect Living. How has NFP changed your marriage?
Greg: Our marriage is infinitely stronger, better, more exciting and more enjoyable because we stopped contracepting. Our sex is better. Remember when you got married, when everyone went away and you and your spouse were able to unite for the first time? Remember how amazing that was? When we’re in a situation where we need to abstain, we tend to be more flirtatious. We get to experience that honeymoon feeling again.
Jennifer: I think it’s better than the honeymoon. The male version of the honeymoon experience is far better than the female’s version of it! (Laughs.)
But now the abstinence is absolutely something we have to really come to terms with. It was a journey. When abstinence was new, we were like, “This is frustrating! There’s no joy here!” You have to live through it and really come to grips with it and pray about it and then you have your eyes opened to a greater truth.
It comes down to loving the personhood of your spouse completely. The abstinence is an opportunity to love more deeply, non-sexually. Over the last several years we warmed up to the idea and we look forward to it now. We get to love each other in a way that’s more complete. You can’t even compare it to the honeymoon because we weren’t mature enough to enjoy it then.
Birth control is viewed as a women’s issue. Why is it a men’s issue too?
Greg: There’s a big problem when husbands either participate in birth control or simply agree with their wives when they choose to do so. If I were to knowingly participate in contraception with my wife, I would be telling her that I love everything about her except the part where her fertility resides. It’s like I’m telling her that I only love half of her. This stye of marital relationship can be a breeding ground for resentment between husband and wife.
When people see couples truly growing closer and having a really solid relationship because they use NFP, people are drawn to that joy. They want it in their own marriage. NFP is a new way of loving your spouse. It’s a growth of virtues. If you truly want a 100-percent relationship, then that means giving yourself even if it includes the difficulty of either abstaining or reconciling yourself to having more children. It means manning up and being willing to embrace those difficulties so that on the flip side you can experience the extreme joy.
Jennifer: Man up and love your wife!
Jennifer, has practicing NFP changed your appreciation of Greg as a man? Or in any other way?
Jennifer: NFP does more than teach a couple how to love each other inside of a cycle; that’s the superficial layer. You will discover other things about the other person. I’ve been blessed to have a husband who was patient and caring and willing to love me through some really hard things. I had some deep wounds that came to the surface that influenced our ability to love each other.
NFP taught us the right way to love more fully, both sexual and non-sexual love. It created a fertile ground for healing in other parts of my life — no pun intended! NFP did something far greater than I ever gave it credit for. Now I just pray, “Lord, help me to love my husband the way he needs to be loved.”
— Kathleen M. Basi and her husband, Christian, are CCL teachers in Columbia, Missouri where they are raising four kids. Read more of Kate’s reflections on faith and family at kathleenbasi.com.
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