Project Rachel: A Ministry of Mercy

Mary McClusky, USCCB

Mary McClusky, USCCB (Photo by Renata Grzan/RenataPhotography.com)

“I felt I had committed the unforgivable sin.”

So many women with abortion in their past have repeated a similar phrase. They feel shame, regret, loss and despair. They cannot accept that God loves them. They stay away from the Church. They avoid the sacrament of reconciliation, which can provide the healing balm of which they are most in need.

But there is a message that all those who have been involved in an abortion need to hear: that great joy can be found in Christ’s unfailing mercy and love.

Pope Francis continues to spread the message of mercy every chance he gets. He recently announced a Jubilee Year of Mercy to begin later this year. In his words:

“I am convinced that the whole Church will find in this jubilee the joy needed to rediscover and make fruitful the mercy of God, with which all of us are called to give consolation to every man and woman of our time.

This talk of mercy reminded me of a chance encounter on a muggy day in St. Louis fourteen years ago that taught me a valuable lesson about tenderness, love and mercy toward those involved in abortion.

I was part of a pro-life prayer and witness walk across the country during summer college break. Out for dinner at a pub, I accidentally bumped into a woman. When I apologized, she asked me about our group. At my reply, her indignation was apparent: “What do a bunch of Catholic college kids know about abortion? Have you ever had one?” I admitted that I hadn’t and that didn’t know anyone who had. She said, “Well, it’s easy to preach about something you don’t know anything about. But until you’ve walked in a woman’s shoes, you won’t understand.”

“Haley” opened up to me and told me she’d had three abortions over the course of two long and difficult relationships. I’ll never forget the despondency in her voice as she gripped her half-empty beer glass and asked, “Who’s going to marry me now?” It broke my heart to hear her say that she felt unlovable and unworthy because of her past. Shame and guilt kept her from having any hope of finding love and getting married.

Although we never spoke again, she opened my eyes to the wound that abortion inflicts on a woman’s heart and soul.

Many Suffer From Abortion. The numbers are staggering. Forty-two years after Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, it is estimated that over 56 million children in the United States alone have died from abortion. The number of women who have lost one or more children to abortion could be more than 35 million.

Twenty-eight percent of women who have abortions identify themselves as Catholic. This means that perhaps 10 million Catholic women have had an abortion in the past 42 years. Fathers and grandparents of the deceased child or other family members are often involved in the decision to have an abortion. They, too, may continue to blame themselves for their real or imagined failings that contributed to the fateful decision. So many around us each day are deeply wounded from involvement with an abortion and often suffer in silence.

The Church’s Response: Project Rachel. In 1975, the U.S. bishops expressed the need to help those suffering from abortion to experience Christ’s love and mercy. They committed “the pastoral resources of the Church” to “the specific needs of … those who have had or have taken part in an abortion” (Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities [1975], no. 6). They emphasized that “it is important that we realize that God’s mercy is always available and without limit, that the Christian life can be restored and renewed through the sacraments” (no. 24).

Project Rachel, the diocesan based post-abortion healing ministry of the Catholic Church in the United States, is available to help. The ministry is a network of specially trained priests, religious, counselors and laypersons who provide a team response of care for those suffering in the aftermath of abortion. The ministry provides an integrated network of services, including pastoral counseling, spiritual direction, confession, support groups, retreats and referrals to licensed mental health professionals.

How Can I Help? Pope Francis’ focus on mercy challenges us all to be merciful. What can we do to answer his call and mercifully accompany so many like “Haley” who suffer from abortion?

If someone you know suffers from involvement with an abortion, offer them your attentive listening and non-judgmental attitude. Encourage the person to contact their nearest Project Rachel Ministry. Locate it by clicking on the “Find Help” map on the Project Rachel websites www.hopeafterabortion.com and www.esperanzaposaborto.com. The U.S. bishops want every church-sponsored program and Catholic organization to know where to refer those in need of post-abortion healing.

Each of us can help raise awareness about the painful aftermath of abortion and help others seek help and healing in Christ. We can speak to those who have experienced the pain of abortion lovingly and tenderly of God’s mercy. We can offer them hope for relief of their suffering and provide information about help nearby. And, of course, we can remember their special needs in our prayers.

Mary McClusky is assistant director for Project Rachel Ministry Development at the USCCB Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities. To learn more about the bishops’ pro-life activities, go to www.usccb.org/prolife.

Vulnerable, Yet Strong

Kimberly Baker of the USCCB.

Kimberly Baker of the USCCB. (Photo by Renata Grzan/RenataPhotography.com)

As we near the conclusion of Lent with Holy Week and the Paschal Triduum, we enter into deeper reflection on the Passion of Christ. Both God and man, Christ humbled himself to experience very deep suffering and even death. This sacrifice of love ultimately led to triumph over sin and evil and made salvation possible for each of us. Christ’s passion invites us to reflect on the very real connection between vulnerability and strength.

There is something about vulnerability – its humility, its directness, the capacity to be hurt – that is frightening and uncomfortable. Yet, how many human endeavors require vulnerability as a pre-requisite for success? Romantic relationships begin with the risk of rejection. Athletic training carries with it the risk of injury and pain. In wartime, the soldier who faces his enemy is at his most vulnerable, yet also his most courageous. A person who is willing to be vulnerable has a chance at succeeding at any number of things. Vulnerability requires a certain boldness.

And here we see a strange contradiction: a person who refuses to be vulnerable may actually be very fragile inside, whereas a person who knows how to be vulnerable in a healthy way may have a lot of internal strength. This positive kind of vulnerability might be manifested in choosing to face new challenges, giving generously in the different aspects of life, and finding security in Christ’s love and therefore freedom from fear of personal weaknesses or setbacks. If vulnerability can be connected with interior strength and contribute to growth on the personal level, the same is true for our culture, especially in how it views its weak and dependent members.

In his encyclical letter, Spe Salvi (Saved in Hope), Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote: “A society unable to accept its suffering members and incapable of helping to share their suffering and to bear it inwardly through ‘com-passion’ is a cruel and inhuman society” (no. 38). When we refuse to accept and support the weak and suffering members of society, we lose our compassion as individuals and become less human. Society does not improve by disregarding its weaker members; it instead stifles love and care for others by setting increasingly narrow standards on what lives are acceptable and what lives are ‘burdensome’ or ‘worthless.’

The pro-life perspective does not fear vulnerability in the human condition – it embraces it. A culture of life does not pressure people to live up to an artificial standard of health or physical perfection in order to feel a sense of self-worth and purpose. Rather, each person is regarded as special and unique, as a gift to the community in a profound way, no matter their state of health and mental or physical abilities. A society that reaches out to and accompanies its weaker members in their suffering and vulnerability is a truly strong and courageous one.

Our acceptance of our vulnerability, individually and as a society, is the measure of our humanity. Let us remember how immensely we are loved by God – especially when we are vulnerable – and how greatly we are valued in his eyes, no matter our physical or social condition. As we meditate on the suffering of Christ during Holy Week, let us not be afraid to walk in his footsteps as we spread this beautiful pro-life message to others. For in Christ we have our greatest example of someone who could be vulnerable, yet strong.

Kimberly Baker is programs and projects coordinator for the USCCB Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities. For more on promoting a culture of life, visit the Secretariat’s Life Issues Forum.

Dependent.

Aaron Weldon of the USCCB.

Aaron Weldon of the USCCB.

Shortly after my wife had given birth to our first son, I held my little boy and was immediately struck by his helplessness. Before that moment, I may have had some idea of how dependent a child is on others, but it became very real when my wife handed him to me on that sweltering summer day in Washington, D.C. Those moments at the beginning of life, as well as at its end, show us in a vivid way one of the deepest truths about being human: we are radically dependent on others.

We know that “no man is an island.” We are all interdependent, and our actions affect others. But in much of our culture, we glorify the idea of total independence and self-sufficiency. Dr. Seuss’s character from the The Lorax, the Once-ler, puts it well when he says, “I have my rights, sir, and I’m telling you, I intend to go on doing just what I do.” The independent woman. The self-made man. The myth of the self-sufficient individual can be seductive, but it is false.

This individualistic idea of the human person comes to the fore in debates about assisted suicide. Proponents talk as if the suffering patient were the only person involved. To be sure, in these discussions, we want to focus on people who are suffering. At the same time, we cannot forget that a suicide is a death in a family, a wound to a community. It leaves others behind who must pick up the pieces. In fact, a recent study in Switzerland, where this practice is legal, found that one out of six friends or family members who are present at an assisted suicide suffer afterward from clinical depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. It seems assisted suicide doesn’t end suffering. Rather, it transfers suffering to others. This is a profoundly communal issue, and we must see it as such.

We tend to hear about the family, friends, and community who surround the elderly or terminally ill when the one contemplating suicide says that she doesn’t want to be a burden on those she loves. In a culture formed from the myth of the autonomous individual, we struggle with the thought of being a burden. We feel that our dignity is eroded when we depend on others to care for us. This is cause for lament. Receiving the gift of support from loved ones as we approach the end of life is part of being human. Indeed, the truth of the matter is this: we are all, at all times, dependent on others.

The myth of the self-made, independent individual clouds our vision, leading all too many of us to view society as divided between those who are strong and those who can be cast aside. However, our dependency is one of the beautiful aspects of human life. We depend on mothers and fathers to nurture us. We depend on family and friends to put up with our imperfections. A successful community requires the cooperation of everyone. The story of a human life is replete with acts of giving and receiving care. These acts are seeds of a culture of life, a culture that flourishes when we, dependent creatures that we are, allow ourselves to rest in our humanness.

Aaron Matthew Weldon is a staff assistant for the USCCB Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities. He is also a Ph.D. Candidate in Systematic Theology at The Catholic University of America and a former intern for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. For more on promoting a culture of life, visit the Secretariat’s Life Issues Forum.

Yes. The Church Is Opposed to the Death Penalty

“All Christians and men of good will are thus called to fight not only for the abolition of the death penalty, whether legal or illegal, and in all its forms, but also to improve prison conditions, with respect for the human dignity of the people deprived of their freedom”
Pope Francis, October 23, 2014

Anthony Granado, USCCB

Anthony Granado, USCCB

Last week, the chairmen of the USCCB Committees on Domestic Justice and Human Development and Pro-Life Activities, joining Pope Francis, reasserted their opposition to the death penalty. In their statement, Cardinal Sean O’Malley and Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski welcomed the U.S. Supreme Court’s January 23, decision to review the drug protocols for lethal injections in Oklahoma. This comes after the April, 2014 botched execution of Clatyon D. Lockett, where witnesses recounted that he was seen in pain for some time before finally dying.

The case of Glossip v. Gross is being brought by three men on Oklahoma’s death row, Benjamin Cole, John Grant and Richard Glossip. They are asking the court to reject the three-drug protocol used in lethal injection in Oklahoma claiming this violates the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The Court is expected to begin hearing arguments in April.

Pope Francis, building on the legacy of his predecessors, has called for the abolition of the death penalty. It was Pope Saint John Paul II in his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, who was instrumental in urging society to reconsider the death penalty. He reminded us that the Lord is not a god of death but the God of the living. He spoke of the very limited means when recourse to capital punishment may be unobjectionable, such as when there is no other way to protect the common good of civil society (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2267). But such theoretical instances in modern society, he said, “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

With scandalous frequency, people on death row have been exonerated through DNA testing of crimes for which they were convicted. It is abhorrent to hear of innocent people being put to death by the State or that botched executions have taken place resulting at times, in the slow, painful death of a human being; a person created in the image and likeness of God.

Cardinal O’Malley and Archbishop Wenski’s statement is consistent with over 40 years of opposition to the death penalty by the American bishops. According to Archbishop Wenski, “the bishops continue to say, we cannot teach killing is wrong by killing.”

Cardinal Sean O’Malley echoes St. John Paul II in reiterating that there are better ways to protect society without taking human life. He hopes the Supreme Court’s review of Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocols will lead to the realization that that state’s actions erode a reverence for human life. The only logical and life affirming conclusion he sees, is that “capital punishment must end.”

We believe and put our trust in a merciful and loving God. We are conscious of our own brokenness and need for mercy. Our Lord calls us to imitate him more perfectly by witnessing to the inherent dignity of all persons, including those who have committed evil acts. Today, instead of repaying death with death, the Church is calling us to also witness to something greater and more perfect: a Gospel of life, hope and mercy.

Anthony J. Granado is a policy advisor at the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.

Go deeper:
Listen to Anthony’s interview last week on the Catholic Church and the death penalty on the Drew Mariani Show.
Check out the work of our collaborator, Catholic Mobilizing Network, to end the use of the death penalty.

In the Midst of #9DaysforLife

9DaysforLife

Right now, Catholics in the United States are in the middle of a powerful period of nine days of prayer, penance and pilgrimage. Did you know that the U.S. Catholic bishops are asking us to pray a novena for life from January 17-25? This novena, easily accessible by computer, phone, or by download, can unite us in these days surrounding the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision which legalized abortion throughout pregnancy.

An end to abortion is not the only intention. We are praying for life at all stages: children in need of adoptive homes, an end to the death penalty, awareness of the tragic reality of domestic violence, those mourning the loss of a child through abortion, those near the end of their lives, and much more.

Have you signed up yet at www.9daysforlife.com? Prayerfully consider these 9 reasons to participate in #9DaysforLife:

  1. It’s important. Abortion has been legal for 42 years. Children need life-long families. An increasing number of states are considering legalizing doctor-assisted suicide. Men, women and children are suffering in a variety of ways and need our prayers.
  2. It’s an age-old tradition. For centuries, Catholics have made the commitment to pray for nine days for special intentions. This is a way to practice perseverance, setting aside time each day to spend with God.
  3. It’s “unforgettable.” You can download and print the prayers for each day or, so that you don’t forget to participate, you can sign up to receive them daily through emails, text messages, or an app.
  4. It raises awareness. Does the world know that so many of us value and respect every human life from conception to natural death? You can share the intentions on social media and even download a special Facebook cover photo and profile picture to spread the word.
  5. It unites us with other participants. One mark of the Catholic Church is its universality. This is an opportunity to gather in prayer with thousands of people for a united, prayerful purpose.
  6. It unites us with those suffering. Prayer is a way to recognize our solidarity with those who are suffering. We are called to support one another in prayer and in action.
  7. It is spiritually enriching. 9 Days for Life will not only send out prayer intentions for each day, but also short reflections, actions, and articles. Nine days later you’ll be more informed about issues related to valuing all human life.
  8. It calls us to action. Different actions are suggested each day as a way of offering reparation for the ways our country has not respected God’s gift of life. Additionally, the novena may end after 9 days, but the need to protect life never will. Throughout these 9 days you may find a specific aspect or stage of life that you feel called to particularly advocate for.
  9. It will bless us! Remember that whatever we give to God, He gives back to us a hundred-fold. By offering nine days of prayer to Him, we are not only allowing Him to work through us in the lives of others, we are opening our hearts to receive His love and grace in our own lives as well.

So, can you take a few minutes each day to pray for life? Sign up now at www.9daysforlife.com, and invite others to the same. 9DaysSmall

A Culture of Compassion Starts with Prayer

Anne McGuire, USCCB

Anne McGuire, USCCB

The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which the Church celebrated yesterday, marks the traditional end to the Christmas season. Witnessing the suffering in the world around us, we know that many did not have a carefree, merry Christmas season.

This Christmas Eve Mass, one song, “O, Holy Night,” particularly stood out to me:

Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
‘Til He appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

The world is broken. There is suffering. And God Himself comes into that suffering to be with us. This is the true nature of compassion – to suffer with. But awareness of the brokenhearted and God’s great gift of Himself could easily become just another insight that comes and goes. So in the New Year, how do we carry the message of Christmas in our hearts? How do we live its truth in our lives, rather than pack it away with the ornaments?

We are called to love one another as Christ has loved us, to enter compassionately into the suffering of others, and to share Jesus’ love with them. One important way we can do this is through prayer.

A specific invitation to prayer surrounds January 22, when our nation will mark the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal in the U.S. throughout the nine months of pregnancy. Since that tragic decision, more than 56 million children’s lives have been lost to abortion, and many women and men experience – often in silence – deep and lasting suffering due to their involvement.

The US Catholic bishops are inviting the faithful to participate in 9 Days for Life, a period of prayer, penance and pilgrimage set aside to observe this anniversary by taking part in local events and by joining Catholics across the country united in prayer. Each day of the novena includes simple prayers and different brief intentions, reflections and actions. Along with prayers for the end to abortion, the novena also includes prayers for the end to domestic violence and use of the death penalty, for those near the end of their lives, and for children awaiting adoption.

9 Days for Life

Visit 9daysforlife to download a free app for your Android or iPhone or to sign up for daily emails or text messages. To receive daily text updates*, send 9DAYS to 55000 (9DIAS for Spanish speakers). Printable versions of each day’s content will also be there. You can even download a special cover photo and profile picture for Facebook to stand in solidarity and raise awareness, which are available in the sidebar of 9daysforlife. Flyers, web ads and other promotional and planning resources are available on the leaders’ resources page.

The daily intention will also be posted on social media with the hashtag #9daysforlife. Follow People of Life on Facebook, and join the Facebook event to be notified of daily postings.

As we begin the New Year, let us remember the brokenhearted and the suffering in our prayers and, remembering Christ’s own love for each of us, reach out to be with others in support and in love. Though we may not see the immediate effects of our prayers and good works, we can trust in God’s power to work through us.

Anne McGuire is assistant director of education & outreach at the USCCB Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities.

*Opt-in Terms: Summary Terms & Conditions: Our mobile text messages are intended for subscribers over the age of 13 and are delivered via USA short code 55000. You may receive up to 11 message(s) per month of text alerts. Message & Data Rates May Apply. This service is available for phones with text messaging capabilities, and subscribers on AT&T, Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile®, Sprint, Virgin Mobile USA, Cincinnati Bell, Centennial Wireless, Unicel, U.S. Cellular®, and Boost. For help, text HELP to 55000, email prolife@usccb.org, or call +1 2025413000. You may stop mobile subscriptions at any time by text messaging STOP to short code 55000.

Solidarity and Vision

October is Respect Life Month.

Each of us is a masterpiece of God’s creation. This is a fact of Christian belief. At the center of Catholic social teaching stands the conviction that each person is a beautiful work of the Creator, a masterpiece that elicits wonder and affection from those with eyes to see. Such a teaching is what Pope Benedict XVI calls a performative truth. It is not a truth “out there” but one that makes a claim on us. It challenges us to see the world in a particular way. How can we deepen our vision, that we might see and help others to see?

In his 2014 Respect Life Month statement, Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities, states that “solidarity is the antidote” to “the culture of death that flows from the extreme individualism of our age.” Solidarity heals this wound in our age, in part, because it opens our eyes to the beauty in all persons. Solidarity enables us to proclaim that each of us is a masterpiece.

Solidarity means that we act with a common purpose. It is not merely an attitude. To faintly echo St. James, if I feel badly for poor persons in my community, but contribute to a culture that ensures their invisibility, what good is my attitude? Solidarity requires that the concerns of my neighbors become my own concerns. It requires that I act with a view toward the good of others. It requires that I encounter others.

When I begin to take up the aims and struggles of my neighbors, all my neighbors, as my own, then my vision expands. My experience of the world is inseparable from the practices and rituals that make up my life. Through the actions that I repeat day after day, I develop habits of thought and affection. When I act in solidarity, when I share a common life with others, a particular vision develops. The “issues” are no longer abstractions. Solidarity with vulnerable persons – immigrants, the poor, the oppressed – opens my eyes and enlarges my understanding of the beauty of human life.

Many people are invisible to our society. The poor and the disabled, the elderly and the unborn – these persons are simply irrelevant in the moral calculus of powerful segments of our culture. Pope Francis rightly refers to this culture of exclusion as a throw away culture. Through our acts of solidarity, we who are disciples of Jesus Christ form a habit of seeing the handiwork of God in all people, and this habit enables us to make the audacious claim that those whom our utilitarian society regards as disposable are, not only persons with rights, but masterpieces of creation.

The 2014 Respect Life Program presents a beautiful truth that reaches to the core of our Christian faith. We are loved. This truth that makes a demand on us. It demands that the Church build bonds of community and friendship with those that the world would rather not see. When our work, worship, and lives break out of the “extreme individualism of our age,” out of the “throw away culture,” then we become liberated to see each person as a masterpiece of God’s creation.
Weldon headshot
Aaron Matthew Weldon is a staff assistant for the USCCB’s Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities. He is also a Ph.D. Candidate in Systematic Theology at The Catholic University of America and a former intern for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

Go deeper:
Learn about the USCCB’s pro-life advocacy.