Permit me to begin by reading two letters. The first is addressed to the priest-director of our Archi-diocesan Project Rachel movement; the second is addressed to me.
"I've been wanting to write you since meeting with you last December. I have been referred to Project Rachel via a friend...who is very much involved in the anti-abortion movement and serves it so well.
The purpose of this note is to say "Thank you." I'm not sure why it has been so difficult to articulate the profound effect the meeting had on me. Words seem inadequate in this instance to express my gratitude. I have struggled greatly with the aftermath of my abortion. My previous attempts to reconcile were unsuccessful. What was different this time was the absolute and complete acknowledgment of the baby destroyed. It was no longer just a "little bit of tissue" or a "blood clot" that ceased to exist. So much of the pain I've felt through the years has been for that unborn, discarded, and denied human being.
So when you said, "You can name your baby," something shifted for me. I will never forget those words because he then became a baby, at last retrieved from the garbage pail into which he was so brutally tossed. Thank you for acknowledging him, for helping me recover him, for restoring the dignity I denied him. I can now be a little easier with myself knowing he's been taken care of-that he's been lifted from the depths and placed so lovingly in God's care. I've named him Matthew Joseph. I hope you'll say a prayer for him.
I have one more "thank you"-thanks for representing Jesus Christ so well with me".
And the second:
"I've just attended the healing service, "At Peace with the Unborn," held at (our) church. The feeling of peace in my heart right now is beyond belief. The grief and burden that has been with me for too many years is lifted. It was a totally beautiful and purposeful service!
I pray that this service reaches all women who share its need. Thank you for bringing this service to us.
Sincerely, A Catholic who has come home."
This will be a straightforward, undramatic account of an effort to respond to the multiple tragedies consequent to abortion. The horror of abortion itself provides more than enough "drama."
In the United States today, annually since the infamous Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling of 1973, approximately 1,500,000 unborn babies are destroyed. The estimate since 1973 is a total of 30,000,000 babies.
The overall destructiveness of the single action of abortion defies calculation, in terms of the lives of countless numbers of mothers, fathers, siblings, abortionists, and assistants. Only the baby dies. The mother and others often live or try to live with souls churning with guilt, minds in turmoil, normal patterns of behavior turned upside down. Some, believing themselves forever beyond redemption, yield to a vicious circle of promiscuity, pregnancy, abortion, time after time, or give up all faith; if Catholic, they avoid Mass attendance and the Sacraments, believing themselves unworthy of the forgiveness promised in the confessional.
Recognizing that many abortions are the result of fear, poverty, or inability to find help, on October 15, 1984, in the Archdiocese of New York, I announced that any woman of any race or religion from anywhere, pregnant and in need, could come to me: that we would ensure free medical care, hospitalization and legal assistance or counseling either to keep her baby or offer it for adoption. I have repeated that offer many times since. Thousands of women have responded; their babies have been saved, their own lives kept relatively intact.
But this effort to prevent abortions is obviously retroactive. For those who have already suffered abortion we offer Project Rachel, named after the scriptural "Rachel, weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for they are dead" (Mt 2:18). Their need for healing is profound.
Project Rachel is a healing ministry of the Archdiocesan Family Life/Respect Life Office. Trained priests, psychiatrists and psychologists provide individual, spiritual and psychological counseling as well as sacramental reconciliation for women (spouses and friends) who have suffered the trauma of an abortion.
Each case varies; sometimes the priest and the professional counselor work in tandem, sometimes independently.
Referrals are made by parish priests, youth ministers, high school principals and guidance counselors, campus ministers and word of mouth.
The Project Rachel office receives an average of 4-6 referrals a week (approximately 250 per year). In each case the woman is referred to a priest and/or professional counselor for individual care.
Since Project Rachel is at work in many dioceses throughout the United States, many, many thousands of women and often those responsible for their pregnancies and abortions have found peace-often the kind of spiritual peace they have never known before. Further, recidivism is almost certainly excluded for the future.
Project Rachel is taken to another plane by way of a more recently developed and gratifying effective healing program called At Peace with the Unborn.
At Peace with the Unborn is a program designed by the Archdiocesan Family Life/Respect Life Office. It provides regional communal prayer and reconciliation services to those who have suffered the trauma of an abortion. The mothers are frequently accompanied by spouses, parents, and friends who feel they had a "part" in the abortion.
In the context of Scripture, prayer, personal testimony, and Sacramental confession, persons experience a psychological and spiritual healing with God, the Church and with themselves. This program has proved to be an effective witness to the healing power of Christ and serves also as a source of evangelization for those who have left the Church because of their abortion.
Ten regional programs are conducted each year. Approximately 500 women experience this program on a yearly basis. Since the program was initiated in 1989 (the attendance figures have remained consistent) we have reached approximately 3,500 women.
A special dimension of At Peace with the Unborn is that this spiritually-oriented program has attracted, as well, significant numbers of women who have not had abortions, but have experienced a natural miscarriage. Many of us are learning that a great number of women bear the spiritual and emotional scars of a miscarriage for many years. It is not uncommon for them to believe that a miscarriage is a punishment of God for a past sin. Their feeling of guilt is often unbearable, not only for the past sin or imagined sin, but because now they believe they are "responsible" for the death of a child, even though they desperately longed for the child to live and to be safely born.
I would be remiss if I concluded without reference to a newly-founded religious community of women, the Sisters of Life, as our latest instrumentality for helping women who have suffered abortion to pick up the pieces of their lives. Still in its infancy, the charism of this community is the sacredness of human life itself. They take the traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience plus a fourth vow of dedication to the preservation and enhancement of human life, particularly the lives of unborn babies and their mothers. They are contemplative-apostolic, spending half their lives in prayer, half in action as an extension of prayer.
The Sisters of Life are already caring in a small way for pregnant women, but our goal is to open a major retreat center for both the pregnant tempted to have abortion and women who have already suffered the tragedy of one or multiple abortions. Such women will be permitted to remain in the retreat center in an atmosphere of prayer and of love, until their babies are born, or, in the case of those who have suffered abortions, until their lives are restored sufficiently to face the world again.
The Sisters of Life consolidate both Project Rachel and At Peace with the Unborn, incorporating both into their own lives of prayer and of love.
I cannot emphasize too strongly that, helpful as medical, psychiatric, psychological, and therapeutic counseling and similar support efforts can be (and as one personally trained in Clinical Psychology I value such efforts), the spiritual wounds of abortion run deepest. Spelled out in a brief paper like this, abortion-prevention and post-abortion support programs sound almost mechanical-programmatic organized efforts at social reconstruction.
The trouble with every abortion is that is, profoundly and inescapably works havoc on an individual and unique person, who fits no mold, falls into no organized category. If she has ever had a scintilla of faith, of religious conviction, of moral education, she is crushed with guilt-a guilt that may be driven deep into the unconscious by whatever forces are at work-but which are then a cancer in the very soul.
The mother who has given her children up to death, for whatever motive or however confused and pressured, needs passionately to be convinced more than anything else in the world, that she is forgiven, not by a counselor, not only by herself, byt by God. These mothers must come to believe that God loves them, despite, or in a profoundly mysterious sense, even because of their weakness.
They have to see themselves standing with Mary at the foot of the Cross, uniting the crucifixion of their own child with the Child of Mary. They have to know that having shared in the crucifixion, they share His forgiveness, that it is about each of them that He is speaking when He cries out to His Father: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." They must know that it is to each of them that he promises from the Cross: "This day you will be with Me in Paradise."
This is the hope, the shining goal, the fervent prayer of Project Rachel.
Cardinal John J. O'Connor
Archbishop of New York
Member of the Pontifical Council
for Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers