Compassion behind the collar

Of all the complex theological tenets and moral teachings of the church, Father Jamie Workman has found it most difficult to preach from the pulpit on the sanctity of human life. Though the belief is simple - life should be protected from conception to natural death - the culture has made it a little more difficult, he said. Beyond being highly politicized, the subject can be an emotional one for the men and women in every congregation who are directly affected by the pain of abortion.

"In (our) fervent defense of life, we have to remember in our language that there (is) a way of expressing the truth of the dignity of the human person that elicits an understanding in someone who is post-abortive," said Father Workman, who works in the Office of Canonical Affairs and the tribunal. "Mercy is readily available to them, and they are not outcasts from the church."

Hearing both the truth about life and a message of compassion from the pulpit is essential, said Jo Balsamo, program assistant for the diocesan post-abortive healing ministry, Project Rachel. "The biggest fear for post-abortive men and women is judgment," she said. "But they don't need to be judged by others because they are already drowning in their own guilt." The world tells women abortion is a wonderful, easy solution, said Balsamo. Yet after experiencing the procedure they often feel traumatized and alone in their suffering.

Priests serve as a visible face of the church to men and women who often feel separated from the body of Christ. "What can keep women from being reconciled and healed is an apprehension that they've committed the unforgivable sin," said Father Workman, who has been on post-abortive weekend retreats, called Rachel's Vineyard, to counsel, listen and administer the sacraments. "There's a sense they cannot be accepted by the priest or God, and none of that is the truth. The church calls us all to receive the healing mercy of Christ, no matter what," he said.

Though he is there to serve, Father Workman said he feels blessed to witness the transformative power of the retreats. "It's hard to put into words how tangible and real God's life is working in the midst of that work. It's hard to not be inspired by the courage and willingness (of the women) to allow Christ to heal them," said Father Workman. "I just highly encourage any man or woman to not be afraid to come forward and to begin the process that leads to real freedom in your lives."

Father Anthony Killian, parochial vicar of St. William of York Church in Stafford, called volunteering at a Rachel's Vineyard retreat "a special moment in my priesthood. (The attendees) know that a human life has been taken, they regret it and they're seeking forgiveness. The really profound thing about the Rachel's Vineyard retreat is to watch the women accept God's mercy," he said.

In the New Testament, Jesus didn't ask the men and women He healed from infirmities to do anything except believe in His saving power, noted Balsamo. "Go in peace, your faith saved you," she quoted. Likewise, Project Rachel challenges men and women to believe that God can heal their pain.

"Abortion is the loss of a child. In life when we lose someone, people come around us so we can grieve in a healthy way," said Balsamo. "There's no socially condoned way to process the grief with abortion, so the grief becomes a poison that seeps into every part of your life until you find a way to heal."

Though priests have the power through God's intercession to forgive sins, all people are able to be channels of mercy to those wounded by the sin of abortion. For anyone approached by a post-abortive man or woman, start by acknowledging their pain, said Balsamo. "Don't say, 'you made the right decision for you,' because it's not helpful to make excuses. Say, 'I'm sorry for your pain, God loves you and He wants you to be healed.'"

Balsamo encourages people to promote Project Rachel resources at their parishes through means such as handing out bumper stickers with a post-abortion helpline number, hanging up flyers in bathroom stalls and submitting bulletin announcements about upcoming Rachel's Vineyard retreats. She also hopes people join their monthly holy hour at St. Mary of Sorrows Church in Fairfax Station. "The only way we'll win is through prayer and the conversion of people's hearts" she said.

Father Workman believes that for priests and laypeople, extending mercy to others begins most simply and vitally with a personal relationship with God. "Catholics who hold onto the richness of the church's faith should be transformed in a way in which they radiate the mercy of God to all they encounter, so that their interpersonal relationships alone can be an invitation to receive the healing mercy of Christ," he said. As Father Killian put it, "We're instruments of God, to be witness of His love."

For more information, visit the Project Rachel website or call 888-456-HOPE.

To find ways to help, click here.

Di Mauro can be reached at zdimauro@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @zoeydimauro.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016