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The Field Hospital Is Open


Vicki Thorn

Pope Francis prays at the Holy Door of St. Peter’s Basilica

Pope Francis prays at the Holy Door of St. Peter’s Basilica after opening it to inaugurate the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy on Dec. 8, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, seen in the background, was also present for the historic event. (Photo by L’Osservatore Romano)

Every year, 40 to 50 million abortions are performed worldwide. Though the number of women who have experienced the tragedy of abortion is unknown, theirs is a pervasive wound begging for God’s mercy. The Church seeks to provide this mercy through reconciliation and post-abortion ministries such as Project Rachel.

Early in his pontificate, Pope Francis said, “I see clearly that the thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds. … I see the Church as a field hospital after battle.”

In his September 2015 letter in anticipation of the Year of Mercy, which began Dec. 8, 2015, the pope spoke in particular about women who have had abortions.

“I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision,” he wrote. “What has happened is profoundly unjust; yet only understanding the truth of it can enable one not to lose hope.”

Pope Francis emphasized that the forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented, especially when that person approaches the sacrament of confession with a sincere heart. As a special favor for the Year of Mercy, he extended to all priests “the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it.”

Some found the pope’s directive puzzling. After all, can’t priests already forgive this sin?

Because of its gravity, abortion is considered by canon law to be not only a sin but also a crime, which can bring with it sanctions that must be addressed by the local bishop. But for decades, bishops in the United States have granted priests the faculty to remove canonical penalties that may be incurred.

In 1975, U.S. bishops addressed the need for healing in response to legalized abortion. That year, the bishops’ first Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities stated, “Granting that the grave sin of abortion is symptomatic of many human problems, which often remain unsolved for the individual woman, it is important that we realize that God’s mercy is always available and without limit, (and) that the Christian life can be restored and renewed through the sacraments.”

In this light, the sacrament of reconciliation lies at the heart of the mission of Project Rachel, the post-abortion healing ministry of the Catholic Church in the United States. Project Rachel began in 1984 in response to the call for mercy from U.S. bishops, who, as confessors, had heard the pain of a mother’s heart. This confidential ministry, which is present in the majority of U.S. dioceses, is a network of healing composed of specially trained confessors, mental health workers, spiritual directors, medical professionals and others who work together to accompany and care for women, as well as men, who have been touched by an abortion loss.

Over the years, the Knights of Columbus Supreme Council, together with members at the state and local levels, have worked diligently to support this ministry. For example, the Knights have sponsored conferences on post-abortion healing and have arranged specific mourning sites — “Memorials to Unborn Children” — in Catholic cemeteries and elsewhere to remember the unborn.

Throughout the years, the work of Project Rachel has helped multitudes of women throughout the country encounter God’s tender mercy and forgiveness in confession. Women will sometimes approach me with tears of gratitude in their eyes and whisper in my ear, “Thank you.” They tell me about how they found the way back to their faith and explain the deep appreciation they have for the priests who truly reflected the face of Jesus to them.

Priests who have ministered to the women involved in Project Rachel have themselves told me that our work has been a gift to their priesthood. Whenever they show God’s mercy to those who do not think they can experience forgiveness, they personally encounter the Lord in a new way.

St. John Paul II addressed post-abortive women directly about the transformative power of confession in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life).

“The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the sacrament of reconciliation,” he wrote. “You will come to understand that nothing is definitively lost and you will also be able to ask forgiveness from your child, who is now living in the Lord. With the friendly and expert help and advice of other people, and as a result of your own painful experience, you can be among the most eloquent defenders of everyone’s right to life” (99).

Pope Benedict XVI cited his predecessor’s words in 2008 during an address to a K of C-sponsored international congress at the Vatican titled “Oil on the Wounds,” which examined the effects of divorce and abortion. Addressing congress participants, Pope Benedict also repeated a theme from his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, stating that, like the Good Samaritan, a Christian is called to have a “‘heart that sees’ … where love is needed and acts accordingly” (31).

This model of the Good Samaritan, together with that of the field hospital envisioned by Pope Francis, inspires the work of Project Rachel as we minister to those whose lives have been shattered by abortion. Our mission is about meeting those who dwell in darkness and pain where they are and without condemnation. It is about accompanying them in their suffering and acknowledging that only God’s mercy can heal their wounds. And these healed women and men become the cornerstones of the culture of life.

VICKI THORN is the founder of the National Office for Post-Abortion Reconciliation and Healing and Project Rachel.