Last year, when Pope Francis announced that priests would receive the power to absolve the sin of abortion during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, the phones began to ring at Project Rachel offices across the United States.
Some women called because they were finally ready to confess the sin that had haunted them for years. Others picked up the phone because they feared their previous confessions had not been valid. And there were those, women and men, parents and physicians, who called because the headlines prompted an examination of conscience that forced them to confront their own responsibility for the death of an unborn child, years or even decades earlier.
Indeed, given the initial reaction to the Pope’s message of forgiveness, Project Rachel staff were not surprised by a fresh surge of calls at the end of the Year of Mercy in November, after Francis confirmed that priests would continue to possess the authority to absolve the sin of abortion, previously only given to the local bishop or the Vatican, or those priests to whom the bishops had given permission (as is generally the case in the United States but not around the world).
“As the Year of Mercy was tapering off, I was getting calls from women saying they had to go to confession before the door was closed. There was a perception that they couldn’t go afterward, though Pope Francis has said the ‘Door of Mercy’ remains open,” Marianne Luthin, the director of the pro-life office and Project Rachel for the Archdiocese of Boston, told the Register.
The discernable impact of the Pope’s invitation to reconciliation in the Lord reminds us that there is always more we can do to reach out to those on the margins. Further, the sturdy, concrete image of the open Doors of Mercy remains a fitting way to present this initiative to women who have suffered alone, as well as to those who may have pressured a daughter, girlfriend or patient to make that fateful decision.
“How difficult it was for them to walk up to that door, with so many obstacles in the way: grief, guilt and spiritual turbulence,” Luthin said. “It requires an amazing encounter with grace to do it, and the Church, as a whole, helped enormously, by being supportive and caring — and offering mercy.
“As I reflect on the year of retreats and events, more and more, I have come to the understanding that the journey of healing and mercy has to emphasize a personal encounter with God that forever changes someone’s life.”
What is equally instructive is that, throughout the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis never downplayed the fact that abortion is a “grave sin,” even as he spoke compassionately about the circumstances that could mitigate a woman’s moral responsibility for ending the life of her unborn child.
“Abortion is a serious sin, and I’ve learned that people who have had abortions know this. And so to deny the gravity would be to deny the reality of their unborn child and the connection that was lost,” explained Mary McClusky, the assistant director for Project Rachel ministry development at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (HopeAfterAbortion.org and EsperanzaPosAborto.org).
For McClusky, “The lesson learned from the past year is that the message of mercy is not something new in the Church, but it is something renewed and brought to a heightened awareness.”
Pope Francis’ insistence that priests should continue to have the power to absolve the sin of abortion, said McClusky, underscores the need for the entire Church to embrace the mercy of the Father ever more deeply and look for opportunities to help others to be reconciled with the Lord.
This impulse does not arise from a desire to condemn, but to heal the deep wounds inflicted by sin and find joy in a life close to the Lord.
During the jubilee year, McClusky has pondered Jesus’ words to the woman caught in adultery. While the Scribes and Pharisees seek to test him by pointing out that Moses’ Law would have her stoned, Jesus responds that only those without sin should throw the first stone.
“Then he says to the woman, who stands before him, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on, do not sin again’” (John 8:1-11).
As we prepare for the coming of the Christ Child, the stories of women and men who approach the confessional after years of spiritual struggle and paralysis inject a sense of urgency into our own examinations of conscience and outreach to those in need.
In Romans 13, St. Paul’s words remind us that Advent is not a time for complacency: “Wake from sleep, for salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. … [T]he night is far gone; the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
Likewise, this special moment — the close of the Year of Mercy and the onset of the liturgical season of Advent — should inspire local parishes to learn more from the experience of pro-life outreach groups and look for new opportunities to address the obstacles that prevent others from returning to the sacraments.
We do this with a measure of urgency, infused by deep joy, for Advent celebrates the ultimate purpose of God’s love and mercy. The Father sent his Son into the world so that the Lamb would lead the children of God to their heavenly home. And so we thank God for the graces that have made it possible for women once crushed by guilt and shame to return to the Church and await the coming of the Prince of Peace.
During this time of penitence and expectant joy, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI asks us to learn from the example of St. Joseph and the Virgin Mary, who share our preparations for the Christ Child.
St. Joseph “looks with trust and courage to the future. He does not follow his own plans, but entrusts himself without reserve to the infinite mercy of the One who will fulfill the prophecies and open the time of salvation,” explained Benedict in a 2010 homily during Advent.
“Let us invoke with trust the Virgin Mary, full of grace, ‘adorned by God,’” he said, “so that, at Christmas, which is now at hand, our eyes may be opened, and see Jesus, and our hearts rejoice in this wonderful encounter of love.”