Pat and Jeanette Gierl, Medford, are pictured with their family: Michael, 34; Benjamin, 32, his wife and two daughters; Lauren, 20; Joseph, 18; Anna, 17; Charles, 14; and Kathryn, 11. The Gierls also hold in their hearts two miscarried babies – Jenna, their first pregnancy – and Bernadette. (Submitted photo)
Jenny Snarski Catholic Herald Staff
“God has given me so much by giving him a simple ‘yes.’ I’m overwhelmed,” Dcn. Pat Gierl said.
The deacon, who serves the parish of Sacred Heart in Stetsonville, and his wife, Jeanette, offered their story in light of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ annual Natural Family Planning Awareness Week, which took place July 25-31.
Dcn. Gierl, a self-proclaimed introvert, shared a reflection stemming from son Joe’s recent high school graduation and the chaotic excitement he observed watching Jeanette and their seven children looking through family photos. He was remembering the moments not caught on film.
“All of the struggles, the heartache, all of the worry and all of the mess … Then,” Pat continued, “I see all of my beautiful children and say, ‘This is you, God, not me.’”
The Gierls’ testimony underscores his wide-eyed amazement. Had life proceeded according to their plan, many of the photos, many of the memories and most of the children, in fact, would never have existed.
High school sweethearts, Pat and Jeanette, who were both cradle Catholics living in Coon Rapids, Minnesota, were the only ones among their peers not having sex.
“Unfortunately,” Jeanette reads from a testimony they share with engaged couples, “By the time of our wedding a year after graduation, we had done the consummating part. But we were engaged, and I loved him and he loved me.” She added, “So we were OK, right?” After a pause, Jeanette declared “Wrong!”
“That was the beginning of a lot of pain, because it was when we first began using contraception,” she said, explaining that they didn’t even really question if it was right or wrong at the time. It was accepted among their friends and encouraged by their families. Jeanette’s mother was the one who suggested she start birth control as “the responsible and right thing to do.”
She mentioned her godmother talking with her before the wedding about Natural Family Planning, but seeing her aunt’s “NFP results” – 10 children – she all but ignored the conversation.
That picture was definitely not one she could imagine for herself. She said, “We had our own plan – two kids and a dog, and out!”
During the exchange of their wedding vows, the priest asked the standard, “Will you accept children lovingly from God and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his church?” They answered, as expected, “We will,” but with rearview vision, Jeanette said their answer should have been, “Eventually, when we’re ready, and on our terms.”
Regardless of their safeguards and expectations, the newlyweds got pregnant within a few months.
“Despite the use of the pill, God had another plan for us,” Jeanette said. She shared how even though the pregnancy was unexpected, they still grieve the loss of their baby girl, Jenna, at four-and-a-half months.
The Gierls’ testimony to young couples is that the pill’s manufacturers should explain the science behind how it really prevents pregnancy, and its abortifacient aspect.
“Did we learn our lesson?” Jeanette asked. “No, but we were in control.”
They switched to another method of birth control, but got pregnant again – twice – during its use. Their sons, Michael and Benjamin, are now 34 and 32.
Jeanette described the incredible love and overwhelming joy she felt holding her firstborn, and reflected, “Why are we so willing to give up, or push away God’s gifts? Because it’s hard. It’s countercultural, and we want to have fun first. Our house isn’t big enough and we don’t have enough money, etc., etc., etc.”
Discouraged by the contraceptive failures, the young parents began discussing permanent solutions. Also, Jeanette’s Type 1 diabetes made her pregnancies “no picnic,” and required both of her larger babies to be delivered via caesarian section. Considering sterilization seemed logical, even responsible, and was supported by their parents. Any question of morality was absent from their conversations.
Pat continued narrating how Jeanette, lying on the operation table immediately after Benjamin’s birth, was asked by their doctor if she was sure she wanted to go through with it. The doctor wanted to confirm the 23-year-old understood her tubal ligation would permanently end their childbearing years.
“Of course we want to do this,” was Pat’s quick response to the doctor. He noticed his wife’s look of fear and uncertainty, but noted the reasons they thought it would be good for their family, good for her.
He admitted wanting “to be free of the whole game,” and confessed, ignoring her emotions and second-guessing, he was internally shouting, “Get this done!”
Jeanette loved being a mom. Everything she did was focused on her kids and giving them a good, happy life. This included sharing their Catholic faith, and the family consistently attended weekly Mass and was involved with their enormous parish family of Epiphany Church in Coon Rapids.
In hindsight, Pat confessed the internal struggle he experienced, somewhere deep down knowing their choice for sterilization affected more than his wife’s fertility, but that it was almost silenced under years worth of justification and distortions of love for selfish convenience.
Through acquired knowledge from study of church teaching and assessment of history after the controversial document “Humanae Vitae,” Pat now calls its author, Pope Paul VI, “a prophet,” and said, “The church teaches what she teaches because it’s good for us.”
Those realizations were still far off, but with humility, the Gierls spoke of the turning point that set in motion a series of ‘yeses’ that would change everything.
When their pastor, Fr. Bernard Reiser, challenged his congregation to help start a youth group, the Gierls volunteered. Even though their boys weren’t old enough at the time, soon enough they’d enjoy participating.
The first event Pat and Jeannette chaperoned was a student trip to a NET Ministries presentation with Radix and Doug Barry’s dramatic performance of the Passion.
Jeanette recalled the powerful exchange of Barry’s narration interwoven with live whip cracks. Acting as Roman soldier, in a sinister voice he said, “You think I’m the bad guy, but it’s all of our sins.”
“It’s our lying,” the voice of the soldier said. Crack! “It’s our cheating,” he said. Crack! “It’s our contraceptive use,” he added. Crack! “It’s our sterilization.” Crack!
“Honest to God, I don’t remember another word from that entire presentation,” Jeanette said, and she fell to her knees and sobbed. It was the first time she knew what they had done was “really wrong.”
In that moment, she had a clear internal sense that she wasn’t whole.
“I wasn’t who God created me to be, and I had to change that,” she said.
Jeanette has no judgment for any other woman in her shoes. She believes most priests would have confirmed that – given her circumstances – it was a personal moral choice, but she had her own personal moral conviction, and to her it was very clear: “I needed to be whole.”
She felt moved to take her experience and sorrow to confession – a sacrament she received at most once a year.
“I dumped it all out,” Jeanette said. When the Fr. Reiser spoke the words of absolution, he told her she was forgiven and didn’t need to do another thing about it.
When her response was that she felt she needed to do something more, the priest invited her to call him for some resources and contacts to reach out to have the sterilization reversed.
She had no idea that was even possible, but it opened a floodgate of relief and hope, at least for Jeannette.
Pat was not so receptive. “Don’t screw with my life – we’re okay with our two kids and a dog,” he thought, wanting his wife to accept the forgiveness and move on.
Realizing the tension it was creating, Jeanette reached out to her godmother – the one with the 10 children – and asked for advice. Pray for him, her aunt suggested, and that’s what she did for almost a year.
Those prayers were answered when Pat experienced his own “Holy Spirit moment” of conviction, at a St. Joseph’s Covenant Keeper conference. The speaker, a priest, told his story of how his mother’s doctor suggested she have hysterectomy because another pregnancy might be more than her body could handle.
The woman said no, and “lo and behold,” the priest was her ninth child, the result of her openness to God’s plan over hers or what was medically advised.
Pat returned home late that night completely convinced a reversal of the tubal ligation was the route they were called to pursue. Jeanette smiled, remembering how she danced on the bed with excitement at the answer to her prayers.
“The floodgates just opened,” Jeanette said making a whooshing sound and motioning with her hands.
“We said ‘yes,’ and he moved the mountain,” Pat said.
Both shared how their experiences and newfound direction brought about growth in their faith and a hunger for more spiritually, which they fed alongside taking the steps towards reversing Jeanette’s tubal ligation.
Learning the procedure’s cost, the Gierls, living paycheck to paycheck, felt it might be out of reach. However disappointed, Jeanette’s desire “to be whole” remained strong, and she prayed God would help them find a way.
Her prayers were again answered through a series of events – randomly encountering a speaker at their parish who shared her own reversal story, smelling roses after being prayed over and the experiencing continuing during her first time in Eucharistic adoration immediately following. In the chapel, she then happened to see a pamphlet about “One More Soul,” a ministry through which the reversal could be done at a much lower cost.
They had a pathway forward, and while, as Pat said, “We were growing in leaps and bounds in our faith; I needed to learn the trust thing.”
Friends helped with a garage sale to jumpstart saving for the reversal procedure that a doctor could perform in Texas. As they continued to scrape and save, Jeanette’s godmother stayed in touch and encouraged them to take the leap and schedule the procedure. “Trust in the Lord, he will provide,” the aunt endorsed, even though the amount the Gierls were short was a hefty $1,468 and some change.
Having always been reserved about their finances, they asked for prayers from close friends but never divulged how much they still had to come up with for the reversal procedure. They didn’t even share much with their families, neither of which was excited about their pursuit.
So when Jeanette answered the door on a Friday night, puzzled by who was knocking so late, she just said “thank you” when the woman handed her a white envelope. She said, “God wanted me to give this to you,” then quickly turned and walked away.
Confused, Jeanette opened the envelope and discovered cash inside. Counting and recounting out of disbelief, “their angel” had delivered the exact amount of $1,468 they needed.
They admit it “sounds hokey” and were still taken aback until their group of Catholic prayer-warrior friends responded unfazed, confident it was God’s confirmation they were on the right path.
Flying from Minneapolis to the clinic in New Bruenfels, Texas, they continued praying. With Jeanette’s diabetes a concern for the impending outpatient care, return tickets for three days later and $10 in his wallet, Pat was more than on the edge of his seat. “Those days were the first days of the rest of my life,” Pat declared. “We had abandoned everything, and we had trusted totally.” From the moment they walked into the office and the doctor took both their hands, praying for God to consecrate his hands for the procedure, the Gierls felt overwhelming peace and joy.
“I was learning to love my wife and trust in God,” Pat said, sharing how perfectly the surgery went. Recovering for a few days in their hotel room, Jeannette had zero complications.
Even so, the doctor informed them that one of her fallopian tubes had been destroyed during the ligation, and he wanted them to know that, while having more children hadn’t been their primary motive for the reversal, there was less than a 5-percent chance Jeanette would even get pregnant.
Initially just grateful for her desired “wholeness,” Jeanette said that as time went on, she realized she was hoping for one more baby.
Once again, God had a different plan. Six months later, Jeanette was surprised but excited to find herself pregnant. Pat dubbed it a “perfect pregnancy,” something of a miracle in itself after their earlier miscarriage and the difficult pregnancies with both their boys complicated by her diabetes.
The Gierls welcomed daughter Lauren in 2000, and Joseph followed in 2002.
At that point, with four kids divided by an 11-year age gap, Jeanette decided whatever form of family planning her godmother had used was not for them.
It was Jeanette’s turn to take a leap of faith. Pat’s dream of owning a hardware business materialized, but it would require a move to Medford. One month before the family was to move, Jeanette struggled to embrace moving away from their family, friends and thriving parish.
Surrendered, she had experienced enough not be too surprised to find that God had a “beautiful group of women” waiting. It was these friends that introduced the couple to the Creighton model of natural family planning.
Taking the classes, they effectively learned how to naturally manage their fertility and discovered much more.
“Wow,” was Pat’s response to the science, psychology and spirituality behind the method and its complimentary theology of the body.
“Our intimacy skyrocketed,” he said. “This stuff really works. This is good for me as a man; this is good for our marriage.”
With this newfound love and respect, Pat said, 15 years into their marriage, “We were just starting to experience deeper reality of our marital relationship.”
His only question was, “Why didn’t someone tell us this earlier?”
“Loving each other and living our vows,” they successfully spaced subsequent pregnancies.
Anna was born in 2004, followed by Charles in 2007. There was one more miscarriage, Bernadette, before their youngest, Kate, was born in 2010, when Jeanette was 44.
She still loved being a mom more than anything, but Jeanette admits she was tired. Given the multiple pregnancies and her diabetes, her doctor advised the couple to seriously consider not having any more children. Continuing with the Creighton method, the Gierls stayed that course until menopause.
However, that wasn’t the end of their story. Pat responded to a call he had experienced and discerned for years and was ordained a permanent deacon in 2020. He amicably separated from his business partner and now works for Lincoln County.
Jeanette’s diabetes became increasingly difficult to manage. She learned about pancreatic transplants and is still amazed by its success.
Throughout it all, not only were Pat’s and Jeanette’s hearts converted, but they saw the intense love their boys felt toward their much younger siblings and their witness to the gift of life and family. The younger kids are aware of their own purpose and the effectiveness of their parents’ generous “yes” to God.
“We’re living the story of our ‘yes,’ and God’s blessing that,” Pat concluded. “It starts with one ‘yes,’” he said and added that it continues with trust and more assent.
He said that no matter what happens, “God’s got this … It’s not a naïve sense of security that everything’s gonna be okay, but that, no matter what happens, we will be okay.
“That’s the beauty of living the Catholic life,” Pat continued. He affirmed that the life of grace, sacraments and prayer “isn’t about a rule or checkbox but a life worth living because Christ is at the center, and we are in his sights. That’s the key to peace and joy, no matter what comes.”
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