By Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller - OSV Newsweekly, 1/15/2012
Out of 53 million legal abortions performed in the United States in the last 40 years, about 10 million of the women identified themselves as Catholics.
“The numbers are staggering,” Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo said at the November meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The Church’s response to them is one of compassion with an invitation to healing.
“Many in our culture wrongly claim that, just as the Church condemns the act of abortion, it also condemns individuals who have been involved in abortion,” he said. “Such mischaracterizations are not only false, they are dangerous, because they discourage women and men in need of forgiveness from seeking sacramental reconciliation and pastoral care.”
Cardinal DiNardo, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley and Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, speaking at the meeting’s Project Rachel Ministry presentation, encouraged bishops, priests, therapists and lay ministers to reach out to those seeking healing.
Every diocese in the United States and many overseas have their own or have access to a Project Rachel Ministry, which is now under the service mark of the USCCB Pro-Life Secretariat. The program is an official ministry of the Church and is a means to provide care for people looking for help after abortion. It’s named after Rachel, who mourns her children in the Book of Jeremiah.
“A woman really needs to tell her story and to walk toward forgiveness,” said Vicki Thorn, who founded Project Rachel in 1984 when she was the Respect Life director for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Wis. “She needs to grieve for her baby, to recognize the sex of the child and to name her child.”
In the first decade after Roe v. Wade, the women who sought healing were the ones who taught priests and counselors about the nature of post-abortion suffering, Cardinal O’Malley noted.
“They spoke of profound remorse, of depression and anxiety,” he said. “Even in the early days, it became clear that what these suffering women needed most was to know that God forgives them and that all is not lost. The relationships that had been broken by their abortion — with God, with their child, with family members and others who may have abandoned, coerced or condemned them — all could again be loving and fruitful through a heartfelt offering and receiving of forgiveness.”
Thorn understood that because she witnessed those needs in a high school friend who had an illegal abortion arranged by her mother.
“I listened to my friend for years and years talking about the pain of dealing with it,” she said. “It was a life-changing event.”
Thorn has a degree in psychology and a certificate in trauma counseling, is a spiritual director and facilitates prenatal loss and bereavement groups. She had no experience in post-abortion ministry and there was little available for guidance. But as soon as the news media learned that Project Rachel was being launched, the news went around the world.
“And then I was an expert in a field that didn’t exist two days before,” Thorn said. “And why was there such an interest? People had begun to see the fallout of abortion and there was this real awareness that somebody had to do something for these women and men. The bishops knew this was a problem, and the priests knew this was a problem because they were confessors and heard it in confessions.”
Help through sacraments
Project Rachel helps set a woman free through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It’s like the woman who gets close to Jesus and he says, “Somebody touched me” and he calls her “daughter,” she said. And it’s like the woman at the well, and Jesus tells her the truth of her life, but without condemnation.
“We help the woman make concrete who is lost,” Thorn said. “To know the sex of the baby, you simply ask her. She might say, ‘I always thought it was a boy.’ Or she might say that she has no idea, so they are encouraged to ask God. God unfolds that piece even when we humans don’t know.”
The woman names her child and is encouraged to have a Mass for that child to put closure on the experience.
So many women, she added, believe that abortion is unforgivable, and that’s not just Christians.
“Even agnostics or atheists who don’t have a sin language sense that they have offended something,” Thorn said. “The Church understands what an enormous wound this is for a woman or a man, and the Church is there to walk with them.”
Examples from the Bible
Project Rachel helped Yvonne Florczak-Seeman of Westmont, Ill., to heal after five abortions (see related story). She went on to found A Time To Heal, a ministry that works with crisis pregnancy centers, pro-life organizations and parishes.
The heart of the program is a 12-week Bible study that she developed using stories of women of the Old Testament. The course is not just for abortion healing, but touches women in many circumstances.
“Eve talks about validation, and if wives look to their husbands for validation, they may wait for the rest of their lives,” Florczak-Seeman said. “Hagar gave birth for Abraham and was cast aside into the wilderness. Leah was married to Jacob and her sister Rachel was the apple of his eye. I go through every one of these women and compare them to us. They were born at a different time but they were married to the same men and had the same fathers.”
She is developing a six-week program for men, A Time To Lead, that focuses on five men of the Bible.
“We are seeing men leading women to abortion clinics and not taking responsibility,” she said. “We need men to come forward, like Joseph who knew to get out of danger.”
Theresa Bonopartis collaborated with the Sisters of Life in New York City to develop Entering Canaan, a post-abortive ministry for women and men. Ten years ago, with a grant from the OSV Institute, she founded Lumina Hope and Healing After Abortion, a program of Good Counsel Homes that was started by Father Benedict Groeschel.
Fifteen years after healing from her own abortion, Bonapartis felt called to reach out to others.
“It’s not that you will ever forget an abortion, because you will never forget,” she said. “But there’s a difference between remembering something and remembering something in despair without hope. God is merficul and God is forgiving, and that’s the message we want to give.”
The groups work with the Franciscans of the Renewal to provide dioceses with programs for women, men and couples who aborted because of adverse diagnoses. There also are programs for siblings of aborted babies.
“They wonder, ‘Would I really be here if they didn’t have an abortion? Would my name be the same? Did they really want me?’” Bonopartis said. “They wonder, ‘Why is that baby dead and I am not?’ There’s a whole gamut of things that come with being a sibling.”
She has seen “countless miracles” of people who were broken being able to heal after abortion.
“You don’t have to live in isolation,” she said. “You don’t have to deny your feelings. If you’re suffering, there’s help.”
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.
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