Kathleen Miller hears lots of heart-rending — and heartwarming — stories.
Recently a woman who had just quit her job told Miller she was about to bolt the state, her children in tow but husband in the rear-view mirror, in search of a “fresh start.”
Like many post-abortive women, this wife and mother came to Miller full of self-loathing. Unable to forgive herself for her role in the loss of her baby's life, she had been causing terrible turmoil in her own household.
This time, one conversation was all it took.
“She reconciled with her husband,” says Miller. “They continue to get counseling with a priest, but this was a major change in direction.”
Miller isn't just anyone with the healing touch of a wise and caring counselor. She's a diocesan director of Project Rachel, the Catholic post-abortion outreach ministry that operates in 150 U.S. dioceses. (Miller's diocese is Las Vegas.)
Before making their first call to the organization, many post-abortive women believe they have committed the unforgivable sin and automatically excommunicated themselves from the Church. They suffer from depression, anger, self-imposed isolation, alcohol and drug abuse, and suicidal tendencies.
“The poignancy of their need to be healed” never fails to touch Victoria Thorn. “This is the compassionate face of the Church that goes hand in hand with a strong teaching on abortion,” she says.
Thorn founded Project Rachel, whose name comes from Jeremiah 31:15-16, in 1984 in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Today she heads the National Office of Post Abortion Reconciliation and Healing, the Project Rachel oversight office.
“Project Rachel came about because I had a friend who had an abortion in high school and who struggled with it 13 or 14 years,” says Thorn, who has a degree in psychology. “For me that was a life-changing event. I never knew what to say to her or do about her pain.”
As Respect Life director, she was struck by the U.S. Bishops’ 1975 “Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activity,” which called for a post-abortion ministry. Thorn recognized that abortion caused a spiritual wound as well as a psychological one. “For most women, it's incredibly shameful,” she says. “It goes to the depth of who she is.”
Thorn says she realized that “the whole sacrament of reconciliation was the key to this,” as well as the follow-up psychological help.” As [part of the] Church, we were in an ideal position,” she adds. “We had priests and we had therapists in Catholic Charities.”
As director of Project Rachel in the Diocese of Arlington, Va., Gerri Laird stresses the sacrament of reconciliation as “the crucial part of the healing” process. “Making things right with God is the part that helps the most.”
“God definitely wants those alienated from him through abortion to come home,” says Greg Schleppenbach, state director of pro-life activities for the Nebraska Catholic Conference. As he sees it, Project Rachel “really embodies what we as a pro-life movement should be about: the salvation of souls.”
At Project Rachel, women find compassionate priest-counselors like Father Bill Carmody, pastor of Holy Family Catholic Church in Colorado Springs. He's been active with Project Rachel for seven years. “My role is to be truly the instrument of God's healing and forgiveness through the sacrament of confession,” he says. “My most profound feeling of being a priest, of being an instrument of God's healing, is through Project Rachel.”
After confession, post-abortive women are forgiven — but not healed totally, he explains. That's where Project Rachel comes in, counseling the women in confidentiality. Father Carmody compares the process to a stop on the Underground Railroad: Women are given a moral boost that helps them move from slavery to freedom.
“In order to heal from abortion, you have to recognize the humanity of your child, you have to reconnect,” says Father Carmody. “Part of the coping strategy is denial. In Project Rachel, through God's grace, the denial is broken.”
The goal isn't for the mother to get over her child's death but to heal from the guilt and shame of how the baby died. Project Rachel helps a woman accept she's the mother of a dead child. “Once she names the child,” says Laird, “she's the mother of a dead baby and the grieving process can begin.”
Laird recalls many touching moments. “One had aborted on the feast day of a saint,” she recalls. “She named the child after that saint. It was very moving to see that she could do that.”
Project Rachel then has the mother write a letter to the child and encourages her to memorialize the child in some way. Some dioceses have private ceremonies before the Blessed Sacrament. Father Carmody explains that all this is a way to humanize the child — to reconnect, in effect, with a lost family member.
Women learn the need to forgive themselves and others involved. “Their abortion was a grievous sin against God and humanity,” says Miller, “but we have a loving, forgiving God, and if he forgives us, we're required to forgive ourselves.”
One fact that surprises many: Thorn gets calls from elderly women every time EWTN mentions Project Rachel. “Our priests make house calls for them,” she says. “For them, it's a salvation question.” One such caller was 94 years young.
At any age, Miller adds, women who respond to Project Rachel witness the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing healing to hurting women.
Thorn explains that, because women carry the cells of the child they conceive for the rest of their lives, “a mother never forgets. This baby changed your life and those cells remain with you.”
There's a strong need to recognize the others involved, too. The fathers hurt as much as the women, Thorn says, especially the men opposed to the abortion, yet “nobody gives them permission to grieve.”
So Project Rachel can help men — and grandmothers, surviving siblings and even friends. Thorn has dealt with Protestants, Jews, agnostics and even abortion providers.
“If we don't heal people, the culture of death sinks its roots even deeper,” she says. “But when someone goes through the healing process, they become the greatest foundations for the culture of life.”
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.
Editor's note: Do you know a prolife ministry that's effective in protecting life in all stages of its development? Nominate it to be a Register Prolife Profile at: email@example.com.