By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
LEAWOOD, Kan. — No woman ever forgets a pregnancy, and especially a pregnancy that ends in abortion.
That simple fact is at the heart of Project Rachel and at the heart of the message that the founder of the spiritual healing ministry brought to priests on both sides of the state line Jan. 26.
“The women I have helped over the years have said to me, ‘Please tell priests how important they are, that when I went to confess, I saw the face of Jesus and felt the love of Jesus,’” said Vicki Thorn, who began Project Rachel more than 30 years ago in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
Thorn designed the ministry without a blueprint when mental health professionals told her that women they were seeing were grieving from past abortions, and needed spiritual healing as well as mental health care.
The message was driven home by a friend who told Thorn that she had two crisis pregnancies. One ended in adoption, the other ended in abortion.
“I can live with the adoption,” the friend told Thorn. “I can’t live with the abortion.”
Soon the ministry was born that leads women to confront a secret they may have buried for years sometimes even from the people closest to them, and to know yet another simple, basic truth: There is no sin beyond the reach of a loving, merciful God.
Project Rachel quickly spread throughout the United States, and into Canada and Europe.
Still, Thorn knows there are millions of women still suffering, as well as men who have also lost a child to abortion.
“The numbers are profound,” she said, noting that there have been 50 million abortions since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decisions that wiped out laws against abortion.
“If we have 50 million women (who have had abortions), we have 50 million men. What about grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters?” she said.
Thorn said the round estimate of Catholic women who have had abortions is also staggering — some 10 million.
That means, she told the priests, that the odds are very high that there are women suffering from a past abortion in every parish in the United States.
“Talk about the walking wounded, they are sitting in your congregation. Your response to this? You listen to them. When you give them a chance to talk, there is room for God to move in,” Thorn said.
“When we invite people to share their stories, we destroy the stereotype that we are the enemy,” she said.
But how do you get women to open up about their darkest secret? By constantly stressing the loving mercy of God.
Thorn said that often when priests preach about abortion, that forgiveness component can prompt a post-abortive woman to seek out that priest. That is an important first step, Thorn said.
“When that happens, tell her that there isn’t anything God can’t forgive, not adultery, not abortion,” Thorn said. “Then watch her tear up.”
That invitation to God’s forgiveness should also be part of every parish ministry, she said.
“When you are doing marriage preparation, ask the couple if there are some things in their past that might interfere with their marriage, things like abuse, things like abortion,” Thorn said.
“Do that in all sacramental preparation, whether it’s Baptism, Confirmation, First Communion or First Reconciliation. Tell people you are available. We need you in those moments,” she told the priests.
Thorn also suggested holding a special Mass for families of all babies who died either in miscarriage, at birth, or by abortion.
“If it’s just about abortion, nobody will come. But when you make it about everything, you’ll have a full church,” she said. “It will give them that opportunity for closure.”
Thorn said that priests might invite post-abortive women to say this simple, powerful prayer: “God, I give you permission to heal me.”
Once that door is opened, then invite the women to Project Rachel, where they will find professional help for both mental and spiritual healing, which may still take time to accomplish.
The stakes are high, she said.
“Abortion is one of the biggest sins out there in terms of numbers, and it is the unhealed who promote abortion, because their own abortion has never been resolved,” Thorn said.
“If we could heal millions of people from abortion, then abortion would go away,” Thorn said.
In his remarks to priests, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann said that Pope Francis made a bold step in extending worldwide a practice that had been in place for decades in both the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph and the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas — that of giving parish priests the faculty to forgive the sin of abortion and lift the automatic excommunication that comes with it.
In many parts of the world, that authority was reserved for the bishop alone.
But even though it has been a long-standing practice, Archbishop Naumann said priests are reporting an increase in the number of women seeking forgiveness since Pope Francis put his spotlight on it and gave women hope.
“That gesture itself opened the possibility of healing from abortion,” Archbishop Naumann said.
He also encouraged priests on both sides of the state line to continue to preach about abortion, its impact, and “the need for people to be part of the pro-life movement.”
But he echoed Thorn on the need to remind people that God stands ready to heal and forgive.
“We need to help people experience God’s mercy and healing grace,” Archbishop Naumann said.
Compassion is essential, he said.
“You have a challenge to minister to parents who lost a child, and I don’t think there is any loss more profound,” Archbishop Naumann said.
“In the case of an abortion, a mother has the additional burden of ‘I chose the death of my child,’” he said.
“Often that comes years later, and that is why Project Rachel is so important. It is something we can be very proud of as a church,” he said.
Pat Klausner, director of Project Rachel in the Kansas City, Kan. Archdiocese, told the priests that women who have had abortions suffer from GASH — Guilt, Anger, Shame and Hopelessness.
“Those are the elements of grief,” she said. “You don’t have to heap more shame and guilt on them. They have enough already. We have to give them a safe place to grieve.”
Teresa Hoeppner, director of Project Rachel in the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese, underscored how important parish priests are.
“You have the opportunity to offer the first glimmer of hope,” she said.
“You offer the hope of Christ, and that is what everybody needs, no matter our sins,” Hoeppner said.
She recalled one of the locutions of St. Faustina: “The greater the sin, the greater the right to God’s mercy.”
Hoeppner said priests can help heal “by being who you are, the face of Christ.”
“We can end this. We can get the truth out,” she said.
“I don’t want to go before God and say, ‘I knew how bad this was, and I did nothing,’” Hoeppner said. “If we fail to get this right, what else matters?”