Married at 20, separated at 25, Therese met another man and soon became pregnant. She writes, “When I found out I was pregnant, my first thought was, ‘I can’t have this baby.’” After the abortion, Therese experienced a continuing sense of emptiness. One night, she visited her local Catholic church. Upon entering, she couldn’t move past the last pew. Sitting down, she cried, “God help me! I’ve made a mess of my life!” Several days later, she called her parish priest and went to confession. Therese reveals, “It was as if the weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders. I started attending daily Mass. I was starving for God and could never maintain fullness.” Within a year, she ended the relationship with her boyfriend.
After returning to the practice of her faith, Therese met another man. They talked about her past from the beginning of their relationship. After they married, she soon became pregnant. The pregnancy resulted in a miscarriage of baby Timothy Steven. Losing that child sparked in Therese a need for deeper healing. She writes, “Grieving for him put me in touch with the realization that my aborted baby was important to me. For the first time, I began to grieve for the baby I had aborted because I knew I had permission to grieve.” Therese adds, “Not a day goes by that I don’t regret the abortion of whom I am convinced was my daughter Christine Elizabeth. I think about all the tears and laughter we’ve missed. I look forward to the day in heaven when I will meet and hug her.”
Now 23 years after her abortion, Therese recognizes that “there are wounds that will not be fully healed this side of eternity.” She feels comforted by her parish priest’s insight: “Therese, think about when Jesus came back from the dead. He appeared with the scars of his wounds. What he went through was part of his humanity forever, but his wounds were no longer painful and ugly. Rather, they were transformed into the marks of his glory.” Therese’s wounds have been transformed into signs of God’s love for her and all who seek God’s profound healing. (Excerpted with permission, “Healing after abortion, Therese’s Journey,” by Cami Beecroft, Faith magazine, January/February 2012, pp. 16-21).
For 15 years, St. Lazare Retreat House in Spring Lake, Michigan, had hosted biannual Project Rachel retreat weekends. The retreat team consisted of a priest and a half-dozen women, including a trained therapist. Usually the retreatants numbered half-a-dozen women and, occasionally, a man or two. From three years’ experience, I humbly submit some priest-to-priest advice for pastoral care regarding abortion.
Expect wherever you speak that some women present may have had abortions. This applies to Sunday Mass, daily Mass, and all other preaching, teaching and social situations. Abortion is pervasive in the USA. About one-third of women, ages 15-44, have had abortions, and one-third of that number self-identify as Catholic (www.johnstonsarchive.net/policy/abortion/uslifetimeab.html). Over half of the women who have abortions previously had given birth to a child.
The Father’s Attitude
The father’s attitude is the greatest influence on the mother’s keeping or aborting the baby. “One of the most important, most powerful factors in determining whether a woman has an abortion is the attitude of the baby’s father.” (Olivia Gans, director of American Victims of Abortion, in Thomas Strahan, J.D., “Male Role is Frequently Crucial in Abortion Decision,” (www.nrlc/archives/2002).) Over 80 percent of women would choose to deliver the baby “if there is sufficient practical-emotional support” (www.prolifedallas.org).
The whole family feels the absence of the aborted baby once the parents reveal their story. At family gatherings, family members will wonder unspoken “what if’s.” One grandfather who had lost a grandchild through abortion shared with me, “We had an abortion; we are all broken-hearted; we look forward to meeting this child in heaven.”
Many women are unaware of post-abortive healing programs. Pro-life organizations with limited funding can’t compete with well-funded pro-abortion forces in media, government and the abortion industry. These latter forces falsely portray abortion as a simple, safe medical procedure with little adverse consequence. The message claims, “Women choose abortion,” when they overwhelmingly prefer to keep the child. Because these women allegedly “chose” abortions, they do not feel entitled to grieve or seek healing.
Address the public dissonance. Many people feel conflicted between their beliefs and behaviors. On the one hand, the theme of “choice” seductively appeals to American individualism, and “women’s health” appeals to everyone born of a mother. On the other hand, families proudly and happily display ultrasound photos of their children and grandchildren in clear recognition of the baby’s physical reality and human dignity.
Challenge the false dichotomy employed by politicians who claim to be personally pro-life but politically pro-abortion. These political leaders’ intellectual contortions exacerbate an already complex issue. These same politicians would be hard-pressed to apply their approach “personally opposed but politically in favor” to any other significant issue. Politicians’ double-talk adds to the current confusion.
Suffer in Secret
Focus on pastoral responses to post-abortive women. These women oftentimes suffer in secret. They experience grief, guilt and anger for which they have little or no outlet. They await priests’ public and private words for healing. Imagine the penitent woman who bares her soul by confessing abortion, and the priest makes no comment about this profound event! Priests’ silence on this sensitive topic leaves women’s emotional and moral hurt unhealed. How might we priests follow Pope Francis’ exhortation to witness to Jesus’ compassion in this situation?
Retreat models such as Rachel’s Vineyard provide an effective avenue for post-abortive women to experience The Four Steps to Healing: Reconnecting With Your Child, Yourself, With Others and With God In Post-Abortive Recovery (Martha Shuping, M.D. and Debbie Woodhams, M.A., L.P.C.; 2004). The general format of a Project Rachel weekend begins with retreatants’ arrival on Friday evening. Each retreatant receives a three-pound rock representing the burden which she has been carrying. After the women exchange comfortable conversation and introduce themselves, the woman retreat leader reviews the purpose of the weekend. Retreat team members begin sharing their stories of past abortions and/or miscarriages. Sharing by team members evokes sharing by retreatants. Tears flow. This pastoral ministry focuses on four themes.
• Grief. The women feel the absence of their child; they long to hold and talk with the absent child. In Project Rachel’s ritual grieving, the community gathers for prayer and mutual support. Symbols become like sacramentals: a candle represents the initial stage of the child’s life, the hand-size cloth doll represents the baby growing in the womb, written letters express the desired communication between mother and child, and shroud-like linens covering the women signify their resurrection to new life when lifted. Symbols communicate what words cannot.
• Guilt. Excessive guilt and insufficient guilt are vices. A moderate holy guilt has led the women to this place. They cannot pretend to have no guilt which would deny the reality of their past. They delight in hearing the Gospel stories of the Prodigal Son, the woman caught in adultery, the good thief at Jesus’ crucifixion, and Jesus’ dining with public sinners. Jesus’ words encourage them: “You were lost and have been found; you had died and have come back to life, (Lk 15:23); “Go and sin no more,” (Jn 8:11); “This day you will be with me in Paradise,” (Lk 23:43); and “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). Healthful guilt acknowledges one’s sin and accepts Jesus’ mercy.
• Forgiving Oneself. The hackneyed adage “forgive and forget” is more easily said than done. The Lord’s Prayer provides insight into the process: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” By forgiving others, we learn the steps and develop the skills to forgive ourselves: affirm the offender’s invitation to meet, listen humbly, accept the apology, work through the emotions, and embrace. By forgiving others, we transform the ideal into the real; we embody the concept into our behavior. The virtue grows by practice. Forgiving others is one step in the process of forgiving oneself.
• Healing. Each retreatant gradually experiences freedom from the burden of her abortion(s). Symbolizing liberation, each retreatant leaves her rock somewhere on the retreat property: around the main altar, or near a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. By departure time on Sunday afternoon, retreatants exchange hugs and kisses near the front door. Promises are made to “keep in touch,” and retreatants express their desires to assist other post-abortive women.
Being together, talking with and listening to each other leads to reconciliation with God, the Church/churches, and the deepest parts of one’s life. Like the blind men whom Jesus healed (Mt 9:27-31), the women of Project Rachel return home rejoicing in having received Jesus’ healing mercy.
Preventative medicine is the best medicine. Preventative steps to abortion can provide intellectual, emotional, and spiritual means to reduce the current pervasiveness of abortions. We priests are charged with teaching Jesus as he is revealed in the Scripture, Tradition, and the magisterium. In teaching, clarity is charity. Simultaneously, it matters not just what we say, but also how we say it. We wish to follow St. Paul’s exhortation to “speak the truth with love” (Eph 4:15).
Preventative steps may include developing a vibrant Respect Life committee wherever we minister, including this topic in homilies and Prayers of the Faithful, supporting a local pregnancy resource center, communicating a strong pro-life message to youth groups and participating in Respect Life rallies and dinners. One woman offers encouraging words to other post-abortive women: “The result of my struggle has been a renewed spirit. I find comfort in the knowledge that my daughter, Gracie, is living a wonderful life with our Father in Heaven. And that we will be together one day. Until then I share my story of hope and renewed faith with those who read this. Trust that the Lord will forgive and strengthen you. Trust that there are people who care about you and understand your feelings. Trust that there are beautiful days ahead” (www.noparth.org/testimonyr.LMC).
FATHER O’MALLEY, ordained in 1973 for the Congregation of the Mission, has spent nearly half of his priesthood in teaching and administration at Niagara University. He is currently the University’s chaplain. He has ministered in two parishes — St. John the Baptist at Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and St. Joseph Church, Emmitsburg, Maryland. He has published five books on the lives of the saints.