Fr. Philip Bloom's medical missionary work aims for more than just healthy bodies. He's helping Peruvians cultivate a healthy respect for marriage, fertility, and new life, through natural family planning.
The Mary Bloom Center, in the highlands city of Puno, near Peru's Lake Titicaca, is named after Fr. Bloom's mother. He began the center's work during his years as a Maryknoll priest associate in Peru, in conjunction with the Canadian lay missionaries Denis and Liane Bruneau.
They wanted their work to pass on what Mary Bloom taught her son about valuing “marriage, family, children, and faith in God.” The center began in 1994, while Mrs. Bloom was still alive.
She died in 2000, but her legacy continues to inspire her son's efforts to promote authentic women's health care. Although he is now a parish priest in the state of Washington, he remains president of the center, and leads a group from the Archdiocese of Seattle to volunteer every year.
WOOMB international, which teaches the Billings Ovulation Method of fertility awareness and natural family planning, has partnered with the center to educate married couples, as well as medical workers and young adults.
Fr. Bloom explained to CNA that the center's work began when Denis and Liane Bruneau introduced a local obstetrician and midwife, Luz Marrón, to the Billings Method of natural family planning.
Marrón had been trained to “help” women through conventional means of birth control, which pose serious health risks and can cause septic abortions. But she soon wholeheartedly embraced the natural methods that the Bruneaus showed her, and now serves as the Bloom Center's director.
Fr. Bloom teamed up with the Bruneaus, to give spiritual and moral grounding to their practical instruction. According to Fr. Bloom, many residents of Puno's rural villages understood the logic of natural family planning better than more educated and cosmopolitan Catholics elsewhere.
“The people that we taught largely were farmers and country people, so the method made a lot more sense to them just intuitively. They're used to planting seeds, and know that the rains have to come first, that the earth had to be moist in order for a seed to grow.”
For the farming families of Puno, that understanding of cycles and fertility throughout nature “led into the basics of the Billings method and how to use self-observation” to observe fertility within marriage.
While proponents of artificial contraception praise its apparent convenience, advocates of natural family planning point to the increased communication their method promotes between men and women. Circumstances in Puno allowed Fr. Bloom to observe this phenomenon in a remarkable way.
“A lot of times, the women in the countryside would have very limited literacy skills. The men, generally, would be more able to read and write. So the men would be the ones who would keep the journal. We encourage that, too, even if both knew how to read and write.”
This family planning and women's health clinic is a far cry from other Peruvian organizations that might describe themselves in the same terms.
Fr. Bloom mentioned that other forms of artificial and dangerous “family planning” have received significant U.S. government funding, under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Those methods, he said, are based on a mechanistic concept of the body, that strips sexuality of its meaning.
“In an urban environment, we can be more alienated from our bodies, and treat our bodies as a kind of machine – and not really see the integration of body and spirit that the (NFP) method is based on.”
Fr. Bloom noted that no population could possibly stand to benefit from policies that treat fertility as a disease, and new life as an inconvenient byproduct. He explained that natural family planning, besides being practical, also expresses a larger “philosophy of life” that affirms women as they were created.
Although the Mary Bloom Center's primary purpose is to strengthen families by helping them appreciate and manage fertility, its donors and volunteers partner to meet a number of other needs among the population of Puno – including medicine, food, clothes, scholarships, and school supplies.
Just as their concern for children goes far beyond safe birth, their work in women's health encompasses the broadest range of needs. The center has provided hundreds of screenings for female cancers, as well as local treatment and help with referrals to those who are diagnosed.
According to Fr. Bloom, the Mary Bloom Center has also helped women value themselves in a more authentic way – one that bypasses Western feminism's obsession with power and independence, in favor of helping communities value women for their unique roles and capacities.
“We have women seeing their own dignity, and the whole beauty of their creation. I always tell them, it's not an accident that woman was the very last thing that God created. Because she's the most beautiful, and the most complex thing in God's creation.”
Fr. Bloom asked one man, at the end of the five-week Billings method course, what the main point was that he would take away from it. He told Fr. Bloom: “The main thing I learned was respect for women.”
More information on the Mary Bloom Center is available at http://stmaryvalleybloom.org/marybloom.html.