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April 23, 2000


Pastoral Letter to the Clergy, Religious

and Laity of the Church of Pittsburgh

Most Reverend Donald W. Wuerl

Bishop of Pittsburgh

St. Mary of Mercy Church sits surrounded by the bustle of downtown Pittsburgh. There in a chapel tranquilly set off to the side, lit by flickering candle flames, is a statue of Mary of Mercy. In this special place Mary holds her child in a compassionate pose that invites those hurting from an abortion experience to find healing, understanding and forgiveness in His love.

The memorial is inscribed with the words from Isaiah, "See upon my palms I have written your name." (1) It is a reminder that solace can be found from the knowledge God never forsakes us and always loves and cares for all his children.

Abortion has been legal in the United States since 1973. Since that time, 40 million abortions have been performed. Forty million human lives have ended before they see the light of day. It is estimated that at least 20 million women have had these abortions. The laws, and some voices in our community, say to these women, you are free, move on, nothing happened of consequence.

Unfortunately large numbers of women know all too well the anguish and grief that can follow an abortion decision. These women recognize that what they did was wrong but mistakenly believe that they have committed an unforgivable sin and have become separated from their relationship with God. Thinking that they are unique in experiencing this type of suffering, they all too often silently endure the emotional and physical manifestations of this trauma alone.

As followers of Christ our response to abortion must be two-fold. We must never forget the child whose life is lost to abortion. Each child is valuable and precious in God's eyes, and in our hearts. At the same time we must recognize and address the very real need of women to find healing after an abortion experience. The Catholic Church, while never minimizing the grave evil that is abortion, has been at the forefront in offering hope for healing and reconciliation from the pain of an abortion experience. As I wrote in my recent pastoral letter, God's Good Gift of Life, "To all who have had an abortion or who have facilitated one, the Church continues to hold out the loving mercy and forgiveness of Christ." (2)

Our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, expresses well the desire of the Church to be a vehicle for concern and reconciliation to anyone hurting from an abortion decision. In his encyclical, The Gospel of Life, he reminds women who have had an abortion of God's love and forgiveness. "If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation." (3)

Recognizing that the "same Spirit who brings sin to light is also the Consoler who gives the human heart grace for repentance and conversion" (4), our faith community is acting to express God's mercy.

The Sacrament of Penance is one essential element in the post-abortion healing process. In this sacrament, the penitent is guided by the grace of Christ in a conversion that leads us back to the Father, overcomes the tragic alienation of sin and restores harmony. (5)

In 1999, a year of focus on the Sacrament of Penance in preparation for the Great Jubilee of 2000, the Diocese of Pittsburgh sponsored special opportunities to receive this healing sacrament. During Lent and Advent in 1999, through the program entitled "The Light is On For You," each parish offered expanded opportunities for the Sacrament of Penance. The priests of the diocese were more available for confession, and became sacramental agents for God's compassion for large numbers of Catholics.

Another aspect of the post abortion healing process is Project Rachel. This outreach is a source of healing for those hurting from an abortion experience. It is accessible through a confidential phone hotline (412-456-3167) as well as confidential e-mail ( and web site access. All who contact Project Rachel will find a caring response from someone who understands the pressures that lead to the doors of an abortion clinic.

According to each individual situation, a contact to Project Rachel may result in a referral to a priest for sacramental forgiveness, a referral to a Catholic Charities post-abortion counselor for professional assistance or a referral to the post-abortion support group, Rachel's Vineyard. The Diocese of Pittsburgh is also home to 32 memorials for unborn children including the memorial chapel at St. Mary of Mercy Church in downtown Pittsburgh. Each of these memorials is a promise of heartfelt prayers for those who have had abortions, as well as a public witness to the everlasting and forgiving love of God.

The hope of healing that is available through all these efforts can be heard in the words of one woman who participated in the Rachel's Vineyard support group. She said, "My self esteem, my self worth has climbed. I no longer think of myself as unworthy. I have come back to Jesus and am so happy about this." At the heart of Project Rachel is the perception that reconciliation and healing need to embrace every aspect of the person -- physical, mental, spiritual, and relational. The healing touch of God the Father is mediated through the words and acts of compassionate human beings within the Church.

Successful post-abortion outreach is accomplished not only by priests and professional counselors, but also by every Christian responding with compassion and prayer for all people hurting from abortion. We must make it a priority to bring to light the very real pain of post-abortion trauma. It is important to let those suffering in silence know that they are not alone and that there is compassionate help available. Often, we may not know the secret that a neighbor, a family member, or a fellow parishioner holds, namely that he or she participated in the evil of abortion. Only by our willingness to "hate the sin but love the sinner," and the Spirit's gentle urging, may someone come forth to share this sin and begin the road to reconciliation and healing.

Near the close of The Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul II wrote these words, an unprecedented and deeply moving "cry from the heart:"

"I would now like to say a special word to women who have had an abortion. The Church is

aware of the many factors that may have influenced your decision, and she does not doubt that in

many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet

have healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to

discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it

honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to

repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the

Sacrament of Reconciliation. 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. Through

your commitment to life, whether by accepting the birth of other children or by welcoming and

caring for those most in need of someone to be close to them, you will become promoters of a new

way of looking at human life. " (6)

At the dawn of a new millennium, in this year of Great Jubilee of the 2000th anniversary of the Incarnation of our Savior, Jesus Christ, it is my hope that all who are burdened by abortion may begin to find reconciliation and peace. Every member of the Church is called to make this year one of special grace and great forgiveness. The Sacrament of Penance, Project Rachel and Rachel's Vineyard are available to all who seek healing and wholeness. The Church stands ready to be an instrument of Jesus' compassion. We especially invoke Mary, Mother of God and our mother, to assist us in bearing one another's burdens. May these words, and our prayers and actions, be steps on the road to reconciliation.

Faithfully in Christ,

Donald W. Wuerl

Bishop of Pittsburgh

April 23, 2000

Easter, The Great Jubilee

  • Isaiah 49:16.
  • Bishop Donald W. Wuerl, STD, Bishop of Pittsburgh, God's Good Gift of Life.
  • Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, #99.
  • Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1848.
  • Bishop Donald W. Wuerl, STD, Bishop of Pittsburgh, Reconciliation and the Sacrament of Penance.
  • Pope John Paul lI, Evangelium Vitae, #99
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