Mary McClusky, USCCB (Photo by Renata Grzan/RenataPhotography.com)
“I felt I had committed the unforgivable sin.” So many women with abortion in their past have repeated a similar phrase. They feel shame, regret, loss and despair. They cannot accept that God loves them. They stay away from the Church. They avoid the sacrament of reconciliation, which can provide the healing balm of which they are most in need. But there is a message that all those who have been involved in an abortion need to hear: that great joy can be found in Christ’s unfailing mercy and love. Pope Francis continues to spread the message of mercy every chance he gets. He recently announced a Jubilee Year of Mercy to begin later this year. In his words: “I am convinced that the whole Church will find in this jubilee the joy needed to rediscover and make fruitful the mercy of God, with which all of us are called to give consolation to every man and woman of our time.” This talk of mercy reminded me of a chance encounter on a muggy day in St. Louis fourteen years ago that taught me a valuable lesson about tenderness, love and mercy toward those involved in abortion. I was part of a pro-life prayer and witness walk across the country during summer college break. Out for dinner at a pub, I accidentally bumped into a woman. When I apologized, she asked me about our group. At my reply, her indignation was apparent: "What do a bunch of Catholic college kids know about abortion? Have you ever had one?" I admitted that I hadn't and that didn't know anyone who had. She said, "Well, it's easy to preach about something you don't know anything about. But until you've walked in a woman's shoes, you won't understand." "Haley" opened up to me and told me she'd had three abortions over the course of two long and difficult relationships. I'll never forget the despondency in her voice as she gripped her half-empty beer glass and asked, "Who's going to marry me now?" It broke my heart to hear her say that she felt unlovable and unworthy because of her past. Shame and guilt kept her from having any hope of finding love and getting married. Although we never spoke again, she opened my eyes to the wound that abortion inflicts on a woman's heart and soul. Many Suffer From Abortion. The numbers are staggering. Forty-two years after Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, it is estimated that over 56 million children in the United States alone have died from abortion. The number of women who have lost one or more children to abortion could be more than 35 million. Twenty-eight percent of women who have abortions identify themselves as Catholic. This means that perhaps 10 million Catholic women have had an abortion in the past 42 years. Fathers and grandparents of the deceased child or other family members are often involved in the decision to have an abortion. They, too, may continue to blame themselves for their real or imagined failings that contributed to the fateful decision. So many around us each day are deeply wounded from involvement with an abortion and often suffer in silence. The Church’s Response: Project Rachel. In 1975, the U.S. bishops expressed the need to help those suffering from abortion to experience Christ’s love and mercy. They committed “the pastoral resources of the Church” to “the specific needs of … those who have had or have taken part in an abortion” (Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities , no. 6). They emphasized that “it is important that we realize that God’s mercy is always available and without limit, that the Christian life can be restored and renewed through the sacraments” (no. 24). Project Rachel, the diocesan based post-abortion healing ministry of the Catholic Church in the United States, is available to help. The ministry is a network of specially trained priests, religious, counselors and laypersons who provide a team response of care for those suffering in the aftermath of abortion. The ministry provides an integrated network of services, including pastoral counseling, spiritual direction, confession, support groups, retreats and referrals to licensed mental health professionals. How Can I Help? Pope Francis’ focus on mercy challenges us all to be merciful. What can we do to answer his call and mercifully accompany so many like “Haley” who suffer from abortion? If someone you know suffers from involvement with an abortion, offer them your attentive listening and non-judgmental attitude. Encourage the person to contact their nearest Project Rachel Ministry. Locate it by clicking on the “Find Help” map on the Project Rachel websites www.hopeafterabortion.com and www.esperanzaposaborto.com. The U.S. bishops want every church-sponsored program and Catholic organization to know where to refer those in need of post-abortion healing. Each of us can help raise awareness about the painful aftermath of abortion and help others seek help and healing in Christ. We can speak to those who have experienced the pain of abortion lovingly and tenderly of God's mercy. We can offer them hope for relief of their suffering and provide information about help nearby. And, of course, we can remember their special needs in our prayers. Mary McClusky is assistant director for Project Rachel Ministry Development at the USCCB Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities. To learn more about the bishops’ pro-life activities, go to www.usccb.org/prolife.