Healing wounds: Ministry gives post-abortive mothers hope


Gina Keating

  The Catholic Sun - Phoenix, AZ

An international grassroots outreach gives women the courage to admit to having had an abortion. It also gives those mothers the faith to accept the embrace of God’s forgiveness.

Rachel’s Vineyard is a weekend retreat experience for post-abortive women and men.

With the support of a priest and licensed counselor, participants expose layers of emotional pain associated with an abortion, receiving spiritual healing through the process.

Magdalin Leonardo, 43, hid her secret for 18 years. Her life was renewed and the burden of guilt lifted after attending a retreat in 2005.

“It can destroy your soul if you don’t confront it, admit the mistake, pray about it and truly be sorry,” Leonardo said. “I wonder if I had gone through this retreat 10 years ago how my life would be different. Maybe I’d be married, maybe I’d have children.”

In the 30 years since Roe v. Wade legalized abortion, more than 30 million women have had one or more abortions.

The group most affected by abortion is women ages 18-25.

Founded in Philadelphia a decade ago by Theresa Burke, Ph.D., Rachel’s Vineyard strips the veil of isolation away by allowing participants freedom to share their stories in an atmosphere of understanding and acceptance.

It gets to the core issues in a short period of time, but in a way that people feel a tremendous amount of healing.

Fr. Jim Wall, pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish, helped initiate Rachel’s Vineyard in the Phoenix Diocese more than five years ago.

A key element of the retreat is having a priest accessible for sacraments and Mass.

The sacrament of confession can be a difficult but necessary process for healing.

“We never downplay the severity of an abortion. You have to acknowledge it, but God’s love and mercy are greater than that,” Fr. Wall said.

Team members take a retreat before helping others.

“Even if team members are not post-abortive, we’ve all aborted God’s will in our life at some point and because of that, anyone can enter into scriptural meditations,” said Nikki Westby, a Phoenix-based licensed professional counselor. “It’s a beautiful role to have, to be able to carry a woman’s or man’s heart that is in pain.”

One of the most poignant elements of the weekend centers around meditative readings taken from the Bible.

The “Living Scriptures” is a dramatized meditation of scriptural events that incorporates traditional Catholic symbols, gestures and signs to make spiritual realities more tangible.

“I knew the minute I left the retreat I wanted to be involved,” Leonardo said. “It’s like a transformation. You can see a visible change. I’m proof of it.”

Mike Phelan, diocesan director of Marriage and Respect Life Issues, said his office receives several calls a month for referrals to post-abortion healing groups.

Rachel’s Vineyard begins the healing cycle by first addressing the levels of trauma experienced by those who have had or were associated with an abortion.

Oftentimes the stress manifests through self-destructive behaviors like self-mutilation, chemical dependency, substance abuse or eating disorders.

“We often think of trauma as being war or a car accident, but abortion is trauma. It changes the brain and we need to recognize that, and we need help to get back to normal,” Westby said.

For more information, visit their Web site, www.rachelsvineyard.org.