While advocates tout abortion as a simple solution to the “problem” of an unplanned pregnancy, the reality is that it causes deep wounds that can take years — even decades — to heal.
What’s more, abortion impacts not only the mother of the child but the father, siblings, grandparents, extended families and friends. It causes a complex set of difficulties that are far-reaching and painful. Healing those wounds requires God’s love and mercy.
That’s what prompted Vicki Thorn to found Project Rachel, a post-abortion healing ministry of the Catholic Church. When she was in high school, a friend of hers had an abortion arranged by her mother. The girl’s brother was the child’s father. Thorn found out after the abortion had occurred. Furthermore, she discovered that the same girl had already had a child and placed it for adoption. Her friend’s grief went on for years, and every conversation ended with her acknowledging that she could live with the adoption but not with the abortion.
“That was my motivation in doing the ministry and what I thought the bishops were calling for,” Thorn said. “As a church, we had everything we needed. We simply had to build the network and prepare people to do the ministry.”
It took her seven years to gather the right people to get started, and in 1984 she began Project Rachel in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
Today, Project Rachel operates in more than 110 diocese in the United States and is composed of a network of specially trained clergy, spiritual directors and therapists who compassionately provide one-on-one, confidential care to those struggling with the aftermath of abortion. In spite of it being an outreach of the Catholic Church, Project Rachel is open to anyone seeking healing after abortion.
“The title of the ministry comes from Jeremiah Chapter 31, where Rachel is mourning for her children who were no more,” Thorn said. “God says ‘Cease your cries, there’s hope for your future.’ That’s the message of this ministry, that there’s hope for your future, which is the mercy of God made manifest.”
Thorn points out that it’s difficult to get post-abortion women to believe in God’s mercy because they are convinced that they have committed the unforgivable sin. It is not. In fact, Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis (see sidebar) have spoken about the mercy of God and the healing that’s possible for post-abortion women — and the men involved as well.
Still, it’s challenging to get them to accept God’s mercy; it’s even more challenging to get them to be merciful toward themselves.
While they can come to the point of believing that God forgives them, they seldom can come to the point of truly forgiving themselves.
Aaron Stratman is the director of clinical services for Catholic Social Services in the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska. His office takes calls for the Project Rachel hotline for the entire state of Nebraska.
“One of the biggest challenges is to help reframe their beliefs about mercy,” he said. “It’s an ocean of mercy, it’s not a little puddle of mercy that God has for you.
“We have to help them understand about receiving and accepting God’s forgiveness. It’s an irrational belief that they are unredeemable. Christ came for all. He bore the weight of all sins. And all he asks in return is repentance and reconciliation, which is a huge concept.”
Part of the unraveling of that concept, Stratman explained, is in helping post-abortion women understand how the effects of original sin draw us to the things we don’t want to do and away from the things that we should do, as St. Paul describes in his letters. All are affected by original sin, and all are in need of redemption.
And yet, we are all lovable. That’s the main point Father Joe Juknialis uses when he gives spiritual direction to post-abortion women. Father Juknialis is a retired priest in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and was actively involved with Project Rachel for many years. His experience is that post-abortion women need to be able to simply tell their story to someone who will understand. Most have never said a word to anyone for fear of shame or reprisal.
He helps them to alleviate their shame by patiently listening and then assuring them that even though they can’t turn back the clock and will have to live with the fact that they aborted their child, it doesn’t have to destroy them.
“Usually, I will try in one way or another to help them see that there’s still goodness in them and that there’s still holiness in their life,” he said. “The very fact that they came says that they want to be in a relationship with God — and the very fact that they want to says that they are. They can still grow in holiness.”
In conjunction with one-on-one counseling and other professional services, Project Rachel ministers to post-abortion women through private and confidential retreats. The retreats are structured to include time for sharing experiences as well as the Sacrament of Reconciliation, private prayer and spiritual direction. There is a twofold focus to each retreat: the ability to tell one’s story and meditating on Scripture.
“The women share with others; they give first-person witness, and it’s very powerful,” said Marianne Luthin, director of the Pro-Life Office and Project Rachel for the Archdiocese of Boston. “The Scriptures are just full of stories of the love and mercy of God. We encourage women to enter into those stories where Christ was the healer, the source of mercy. Most women are very, very open to that. That’s a real freeing moment and a beautiful part of our spiritual heritage as Church.”
Luthin is amazed at how the retreats always come together in spite of obstacles and the varying ages, experiences and backgrounds of the women.
“It requires great faith and trust in the love and mercy of God,” she said. “His mercy is boundless. And we’ve seen so many women encounter the love and mercy of God. So much so that a lot of them desire to grow in their faith as a result, and they wind up being great evangelizers of the Gospel.”
Returning to Christ
Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, became involved with Project Rachel as a priest in the Archdiocese of St. Louis in 1986 and subsequently became a priest trainer with the ministry. He strongly advocates speaking about life issues from the pulpit, particularly during this Year of Mercy.
“The message must be that the Lord has mercy for you,” he said. “The priest needs to express that again and again in his preaching. In any congregation, there’s most probably a significant number of people who have been touched by abortion. This Jubilee of Mercy is an opportunity for those working in post-abortion ministries to reach more people.”
Those who work with Project Rachel all have the same desire: to make the ministry better known and to bring post-abortion women and men back to Jesus Christ.
Jo Balsamo, Project Rachel program coordinator for the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, describes it this way.
“People recognize the truth when they see it,” she said. “They also recognize that the people who are working in the ministry are doing it out of love for other people, helping to bring them back to Jesus Christ, which is the goal, really — to bring people back. Healing is only found there. There’s no other place in the world healing can be found.”
Marge Fenelon writes from Wisconsin.