It was just over 20 years ago that I was invited to attend a meeting about how to support women and men affected by abortion, writes Sister Veronica McCluskie SGS.
I was very unsure of how I could be of any assistance, but I went along. So began my deep involvement in Rachel’s Vineyard Retreat Ministries, Sydney.
It was the late Julie Kelly who introduced this supportive and healing retreat to Sydney and so to Australia. Julie had come across this ministry while attending a conference on the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) in the USA.
This ministry struck a deep chord in Julie’s heart so she decided to return to America to learn more by attending a retreat and facilitation workshop. It was on her return to Australia that she invited Fr Peter Maher (then Parish Priest of Newtown) to help her share this ministry here. It was then, at the very beginning, that I was invited to help. But this was not just Julie’s idea. The ministry is directly connected to Rachel’s Vineyard Ministry in the US.
Dr Theresa Bourke discovered early in her career as a psychologist working on eating disorders that many of her patients who suffered from symptoms related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) had also had an abortion.
In 1994, she published Rachel’s Vineyard: A Psychological and Spiritual Journey for Post Abortion Healing. After writing the book, Theresa developed a Catholic weekend retreat to help those affected by abortion to come to healing. The retreat, which is firmly based in Scripture, invites participants to enter into their own reality through a variety of Gospel stories, reflections, symbolic actions and personal sharing.
In the past 20 years, the Sydney group has grown into a well-organised team. I have been privileged to be part of that team. We have had our ups and downs over the years. In the beginning we had no funds. I was delighted that Sr Sonia Wagner (Good Samaritan Congregational Leader at that time) not only encouraged me to be part of this ministry, but also allowed us to use Mount St Benedict at Pennant Hills as the place for our retreats.
Initially, the Congregation carried some of the costs so that participants could pay only what they were able to afford. This allowed the team of volunteers to lead the retreat without worrying about finance. Over time, through the advocacy of Julie Kelly, support was given by the Archdiocese of Sydney and the Dioceses of Broken Bay and Parramatta.
What is it that I have learnt about this ministry?
I have discovered that while mainstream society appears to accept abortion as a means of dealing with an unwanted pregnancy, I have come to realise that for many women and men this is not all the story.
Yes, in some ways abortion appears to solve a problem, but for many it simply creates more, often-hidden, problems. The term ‘abortion’ is replaced with ‘termination’, which for some is easier to say. But even that is often hidden from others. While people may readily talk about operations they have had, the topic of an abortion is not readily discussed. I wonder if this is because this is not just about the physical, but somehow it reaches into the very depths of our human psyche?
Over many retreats I have listened to the pain, the guilt, the soul-destroying agony of both men and women, young and old, as they shared their stories, some for the first time.
The retreat space was a place of safety where such stories could be told. I heard the anguish of those who thought there was no forgiveness. I heard stories of shame and guilt that blinded the retreatant not only to see the love of others for them, but to reject it. I cried with a young man as he told of how he discovered that his child had been aborted. My heart broke as I heard so many times the cry, “I just want my baby.”
But over the time of the retreat I also witnessed a slow and gradual healing. Nothing magical, but certainly grace filled as new insights emerged. The image of God changed from that of an angry ogre ready to condemn, to a God of mercy and love, who is ready to understand and forgive.
Often there was a discovery that God’s love challenges and encourages love and forgiveness in return. I recall one woman coming to the realisation that something was missing from her story. When asked what it was, she replied simply, “God.” When asked what she wanted to say to God, she very quietly whispered, “I miss you.” When asked what she thought God wanted to say to her, she paused, thought for a moment and then said, “I miss you, too!”
I witnessed women naming their child and beginning to see light in the darkness as their child is named in the simple ritual of remembrance. Often at this time of the retreat, women also give a name to a child of a miscarriage.
Healing is not magic, it takes time. One retreatant wrote: “Some years after my retreat I still carry feelings of regret and sadness. Grief never really goes away completely, but I have been able to forgive myself and the others in my story and to turn my terrible experience into a positive one. My lost child is an important part of my life that I hold within, and Rachel’s Vineyard has enabled me to bring dignity and acknowledgement to his life. Never fully healed, but well and truly in a much better place with the knowledge that my God understands, loves and forgives.”
The team is made up of volunteers. Some who have come via the retreat experience are there as a means of support and guidance. One team member is always a priest. For many Catholics, that presence, and indeed mine as a Religious, gives some participants a different view of Church, which, I have been told, is itself the beginning of the healing process. The retreat provides an opportunity to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation and includes a celebration of Eucharist before the final lunch together.
While this is a retreat founded in the Catholic tradition, it is open to anyone of faith. For me it is a truly amazing way of being a Good Samaritan to some very wounded persons.
For more information about the retreats now held at Mount Carmel Retreat Centre, Varroville, call or SMS the Rachel’s Vineyard confidential number (voice mail) 0400 092 555, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit rachelsaus.blogspot.com