The guilt and pain of having an abortion can last for years. For some it leads to depression and anxiety. Others may develop an inability to connect with children. Catholic dioceses across the country offer healing through Project Rachel Ministries, the Catholic Church's outreach to women and men affected by abortion.
To strengthen its efforts in the Diocese of Buffalo, Cheryl Calire, diocesan director of Pro-Life Activities, held a three-day awareness program for her Project Rachel team and area priests from May 4-6.
During a daylong training at the Catholic Center on May 5, the diocesan team met with the Project Rachel training team for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who explained the roles of volunteers as listeners, the types of callers they will receive, and how to offer the healing voice of Christ.
Julia Shelava, director of Project Rachel in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., proposed the idea that we live in a post-abortive society. Symptoms of post-abortive women include guilt, shame she cannot share, depression and low self-esteem. She may suffer from suicidal thoughts, withdrawal and alienation from spouse, family and friends. She may also fear God will punish her. Anxiety can manifest itself in eating disorders, cutting, problems sleeping, abortion-induced nightmares and fear of intimacy. Anniversaries of the abortion, the child's due date, and Mother's Day may increase these reactions.
Volunteers answering phones should know they are the first step in the callers healing from abortion. One practical tip for volunteers is expect a high level of unpredictability from these women.
"You're dealing with a lot of erratic and sporadic realities in the ways they work with you," Shelava said, adding the women will be very accomplished in repression and denial. "Repression and denial are coping mechanisms. I propose to you that these coping mechanisms, we didn't make these up. These were given to us from God. If you're not able to heal from these pains that we have here, until you get to heaven, how are we going to deal?"
Shelava spoke on the importance of respecting boundaries when working with post-abortive women. Beginning and ending healing events on time builds a trust. These women will learn they can count on you to end on time so they can go home and be with their children. Letting her cry on the phone and at healing events is fine. Many women have been victims of abuse, so volunteers should refrain from hugging. It's good to respect their boundaries and let them lead.
"Not only does she need boundaries, we need to model them in our relationship with her and with each other. She may be put off at first by boundaries, but in time she will feel and experience that safety that healthy boundaries provide," Shelava said.
Confidentiality is important in building trust. The USCCB team recommended keeping all files in one location in a locked file cabinet. Doors should be closed when speaking with a client. When a caller knows her privacy is valued, she will feel cared for.
The team demonstrated good phone ministry through role playing with the Buffalo volunteers. Callers told of their feelings and needs, to which the volunteers listened, asked questions and helped to get the caller on the road to healing, either by helping her get in touch with a counselor, a mental health professional or a priest.
"Trust your instinct. God has called you to this ministry. He has given you the tools that you need. Trust them. Go with them," advised Shelava.
Listening is the biggest part of the job, said Sarah LaPierre, program director for Project Rachel for Diocese of Arlington, Va., who often hears from "active seekers," who have thought about calling for a while and are ready to share.
"One of the most important gifts you can give to post-abortive women is listening, compassion and light; asking questions sensitively, explaining your understanding of the pain that abortion can cause, and building your relationship lifeline for hope and change," she said.
A national helpline will automatically direct calls to participating dioceses.
The USCCB team came to Buffalo as part of a pilot program for training dioceses on the use of Project Rachel. Buffalo is the third diocese visited.
"Over the past couple of months in conversations with Cheryl, we probably have a pretty good sense for the Project Rachel Ministry (in Buffalo)," said Tom Grenchik, executive director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, USCCB. "She seems very well organized. She's very energetic, seems very committed to the ministry. She seems like the kind of person who can balance many different projects at the same time."
Mary McClusky, USCCB assistant director for Education and Outreach at Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, commended the support of Bishop Richard J. Malone, who served as Project Rachel priest during his early days in Boston.
"It's wonderful that (Calire) has such support from Bishop Malone and a great team that she has gathered around her as well," McClusky said.
The ministry strives to heal the wounds of abortion and bring post-abortive women and men back to the church. Shelava finds that once a woman does finally heal from her abortion, she is a changed person.
"She is the most humble holy woman I have ever known," Shelava said. "She is free. She is a completely new creation. She is not the woman I talked to the first time on the phone. She's a woman who can now hold her head up high and smile."
The team also spoke to diocesan priests at Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora and attended a Mass for the second annual Blessing for the Child in the Womb Mass held at St. Joseph Cathedral in downtown Buffalo.
Anyone looking for help following an abortion may call 888-456-HOPE(4673) or visit the Hope After Abortion website.