Understanding God's mercy.
There is a beautiful Eucharist Prayer in the Roman Missal that says this: “God of love and mercy, You are always ready to forgive, we are sinners and You invite us to trust in Your mercy.”
He does not force us. He invites us. He tells us that his mercy is there for us, and it is up to us to accept his invitation.
Mary had been to confession multiple times before she came to our “Entering Canaan” post-abortion ministry retreat. She often shared, “I have confessed my abortion so many times, but I just do not feel forgiven.” Because of various circumstances in her life, Mary had not been able to trustingly accept the mercy of God.
It is not unusual for someone who has been involved in an abortion to voice those feelings despite having received the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Many do not “feel” that they’ve been forgiven. In fact, in my experience, most Catholics who have lost a child in an abortion will confess this sin again and again. So much of what we believe as human beings is based on our feelings or past experiences. But feelings and experiences are not reliable guides to the truth.
Being forgiven and “feeling” forgiven are two very different things.
Part of the problem is that most of us can point to few genuine examples of forgiveness in our personal life. All too often, people dispense forgiveness in grudging, calibrated doses. The right words are said, but the heart nurses its hurt. It can’t let go and be free with acceptance and love.
Another part of the problem is being unable to forgive yourself. This is usually the second greatest obstacle to healing after abortion, and sometimes it is an even greater challenge than believing in God’s forgiveness.
Many also find it hard to believe that anyone could be forgiven for their involvement in abortion by the simple acts of walking into a confessional, telling a priest about it, and fulfilling a penance of three, or three thousand, Hail Mary’s. How can this ever equate to, how can it ever cancel out, participating in the death of your own child? It just seems way too easy. Thankfully, it is that easy.
We can never make up for our abortions, and three or three thousand Hail Mary’s will never be enough. Neither is speaking out publicly or working in ministry or praying in front of clinics. All of these are good activities in and of themselves. But no one has to “atone” for abortion by doing these. They are not required for forgiveness or salvation. And no one should feel obligated to take part in them unless they do so out of love for God and neighbor.
There is only one thing that atones for the sin of abortion (or for that matter, any sin): the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The healing we receive is through his freely and generously given gift of mercy, not through anything we do, apart from making a worthy confession.
Mary Ellen put it this way:
“Something to hold onto in the dark,” not a feeling. A knowing, while still in the darkness of self-recrimination! A choosing to believe in this mercy in which we’ve been invited to trust.
Believing that our “feelings” are somehow a gauge of our forgiveness can be misleading. Kathy had gone on a weekend retreat and left feeling totally healed and forgiven. She was experiencing a spiritual high. However, as the days went by and the old familiar refrains of self-hatred and despair begin to play again in her head, the “stinking thinking of abortion” once again told her she was not forgiven or healed. “He healed everyone else on that weekend but not me,” she thought, ”My sin must be worse. He loves and forgave the others, but not me.”
Kathy reacted the same way Mary did to an absence of positive feelings. Both believed that forgiveness would bring permanent feelings of joy and peace—the opposite of how they felt after their abortion. Here is the truth: if you go confession and receive absolution, you are forgiven, no matter what the sin or circumstances around it or how you feel afterward!
Healing from abortion is multifaceted. In addition to confession and growth in one’s relationship with God, it’s important to understand the dynamics of the abortion and explore the reasons it happened. Also key to the healing process is identifying personal abortion connectors (i.e., people, places, sounds, odors or other things that subconsciously trigger vivid memories of the abortion experience). Often one needs to delve into other issues in one’s life that became manifest before or after the abortion, such as abuse, addiction or psychological disorders that need to be addressed for healing.
As people move through this process and confront other painful experiences and actions they regret, it may often seem to them that they are moving backwards. So it is crucial that they make an act of the will to trust God’s mercy no matter what. As they grow in their relationship with God, they are able to look honestly at their lives, knowing they are unconditionally loved regardless of what they’ve done. Having the support of others—through ministry, professional counseling and/ or spiritual direction—is essential in this process.
As Mary Ellen says so well:
Mercy is a way of life, and it is life-changing. Now whenever darkness calls, I choose Mercy and life.