Ministry marks decade of healing - Catholic Courier

Ministry marks decade of healing

Elizabeth — not her real name — was a “good girl” in high school. That’s why she never told her parents that she got pregnant at 16. And when she decided three months into her pregnancy that she would get an abortion, she and her then-boyfriend never discussed the ramifications of the decision she was making, Elizabeth recalled.

“We just assumed this is what we were going to do,” she said. “I just never seemed to have another option. … From the time I walked out of the (abortion) facility, it was something I never talked about again.”

Although she went on to get married and have children, the abortion haunted her. When she had two miscarriages, she told herself : “This is my payback. God is making you pay for your sins,” she said.

Decades later, however, Elizabeth learned about Project Rachel, a ministry of the Diocese of Rochester that helps women and men come to grips with abortions in which they have been involved. Five years after learning about Project Rachel, she contacted a priest associated with the ministry, and eventually attended a series of one-on-one counseling sessions that helped her confront her abortion. Among the exercises she undertook as part of her sessions were naming her aborted child and writing a letter to the baby.

She said she now believes her child is in heaven and that the child has forgiven her, as has God.

“Instead of seeing my child being tossed away into the garbage, I could envision my child being handed over to God,” she said. She added that she no longer believes her miscarriages were a punishment for sin, and said that she wishes other women and men who have been involved in abortions would avail themselves of God’s grace through Project Rachel.

“I wasted 20 years of understanding what my true faith was all about,” she said. “I could have had that daily reassurance of a loving God for 20 years, instead of the daily torture of ‘I’m not good enough. I’m not good enough.'”

Celebrating healing

Project Rachel operates a network of counselors and priests trained to provide one-on-one spiritual and psychological care for those who are suffering because of an abortion. The ministry also provides support groups and retreats, such as the Rachel’s Vineyard retreat offered in the Rochester Diocese for men and women who’ve been involved in abortions. Project Rachel programs can be found in 140 Catholic dioceses in the United States, as well as in dioceses in other countries.

On Sept. 18, Bishop Matthew H. Clark presided at a Mass at Rochester’s St. Anne Church to mark the 10th anniversary of Project Rachel in the Rochester Diocese. St. Anne was chosen for the event because the parish has wholeheartedly supported Project Rachel, program leaders said. In addition, its Knights of Columbus council has raised money for the program, according to Don Palace, a Knight.

Several other diocesan parishes and priests also have supported the program financially, and Project Rachel receives funding from the diocese’s annual ministries appeal, according to its coordinator, Father James Hewes, pastor of St. John the Evangelist, Clyde, and St. Patrick, Savannah. In an interview, he noted that few, if any, other aspects of his ministry have moved him as deeply as has his work with Project Rachel.

“We challenge ourselves to recognize that there are always at least two victims of every abortion: the baby and the mother,” Father Hewes said. “Project Rachel is a ministry to those who are hurting, but also seeking the freedom of God’s boundless love and mercy.”

Jann Armantrout, diocesan life-issues coordinator, serves as the diocese’s liaison to Project Rachel. She said Project Rachel “brings the attention of the violence of abortion to the community in a non-threatening way because everyone can understand the grief of a mother or father who has lost a child to abortion.”

The national ministry was founded in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Wis., by Vicki Thorn in 1984. Thorn, who was present for the Rochester Diocese’s celebration last month, said Project Rachel moves the abortion debate away from the confrontational atmosphere of the political battlefield and into the nonjudgmental realm of love and compassion.

“This is God’s answer to how he’s building the culture of life — one heart at a time,” she said.

Father’s hope

Jim — not his real name — was involved in two abortions. In the first case, as a young man, he felt he was on the outside looking in at his girlfriend’s pregnancy. At that time, he believed that the decision to have an abortion was solely a woman’s choice, he recalled.

“It didn’t occur to me at the time that I had a right to tell her what to do or to tell her not to have an abortion,” he said.

In the second case, he pleaded with his then-fiance to not have an abortion, but was unsuccessful, he said.

“I was willing to do whatever it took to keep the child,” he added.

Decades later, after reading a news article about Rachel’s Vineyard, Jim decided to attend a weekend retreat. As the only male participant in the retreat, he was a little nervous. Yet during the course of the retreat, he found the female participants appreciated learning about a man’s feelings about abortion, he said. Although society doesn’t focus on abortion as a men’s issue, Jim noted he believes abortion hurts men deeply.

“I would suggest that it hits home as much for men as it does for women,” he said.

The Rachel’s Vineyard retreat also gave him a chance to escape the social pressure to accept legalized abortion, he said, acknowledging that he had, indeed, lost two children. Betsy MacKinnon, who coordinates the Rachel’s Vineyard retreat in the diocese, said a mother involved in abortion may have felt what Jim has felt.

“In her heart of hearts, she knows that she has chosen to end the life of her child,” MacKinnon said. “Project Rachel as well as Rachel’s Vineyard allows her to say it.”

On that note, Thorn pointed out that — contrary to the statements of some pro-choice advocates — guilt arising from an abortion is not attributable to Catholic or Christian teachings that abortion is a sin; people of other faiths often feel emotional pain about abortions as well. Japanese Buddhists have a ritual for mourning aborted children, she noted, adding that abortion reverses a normal natural process, and its ill effects on the mind and soul can’t simply be dismissed as the products of pro-life propaganda.

“(A mother who aborts) has a spiritual need to make sense of this, and the human need to grieve,” she said.

And helping them to begin the process of healing are the phone counselors provided by Project Rachel, observed Suzanne Schnittman, the program’s phone-counselor coordinator.

“Project Rachel allows somebody to be a minister of healing in a very concrete and specific way,” she said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: For information on Project Rachel, visit or call 888/972 2435.

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