Published February 1, 2007
Sister Patricia Thompson, RSM, was working as a chaplain with the Mercy Mobile Care Unit of Saint Joseph’s Hospital in 1996 when she often came across women who needed to talk about their abortion experience. Not wanting to add more to their pain, Sister Patricia sought out the experience of Mary Ann McNeil, director of PATH, Post Abortion Treatment and Healing, a non-judgmental counseling ministry. Not long afterwards the sister began her training, which included experiencing a special Bible study that was part of the PATH program for those hurt by abortion.
“During the sessions, it was God’s providence that there were six people, all very Catholic, whose parents were active in the church.”
She listened as the participants shared stories of their crisis pregnancies and their decisions later to have abortions.
“Over and over I heard them say, ‘I couldn’t tell my mom and dad’ or ‘I don’t feel I belong in church.’ Then I realized that I represented the church as a Religious and I told them that ‘you do have a place in the church’ and that God was ready to forgive them.”
Few clergy were involved with PATH at the time, she said, so after her training she decided to join McNeil in serving those who were ready to participate in the program.
“I wanted them to know that they do have a place and that God wants to love them,” the sister said. “It’s a ministry that just kind of happened.”
PATH’s program includes a Bible study and a weekend retreat called Rachel’s Vineyard, which is offered in Atlanta and in other cities nationwide. In the archdiocese, PATH has offered 17 retreats since the year 2000, which have drawn 148 women and men. Over 100 women and men have completed the Bible study.
“In my experience, most healing comes when you do them both. It doesn’t seem to matter the order in which you do them, though,” said Sister Patricia, who now coordinates Circle of Friends, a ministry to people of limited economic resources that provides emotional, social and spiritual support to help them continue to move forward in their lives. She is also part of Kairos, an ecumenical team that leads retreats at the Metro State Prison.
While initially women were the ones most likely to seek post-abortion counseling, the sister acknowledged that more men are coming forward. “We didn’t realize how much men suffer as well.”
Women affected by either their own abortion or women and men affected by the abortion of a loved one are encouraged to participate. Whether one is a volunteer or participant, everyone experiences God’s forgiveness.
“We all have our own issues,” she said. “It’s very powerful. … We get to watch the miracle of God’s love and forgiveness.”
As the weekend for the Rachel’s Vineyard retreat approaches, others often offer their prayers that Sister Patricia “has a good retreat,” not always realizing the anguish that the process will involve.
“They don’t understand that we go to the foot of the cross. We really do. But then we see the resurrection. It’s humbling to think that I’m a part of that. … I see what (participants) look like on Friday night and what they look like on Sunday. I marvel.”
She explained that there tends to be a slight surge in participation in the programs following January 22, the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion, but most often people seek out the program when “there comes a moment.”
“A lot of times it’s when they realize that their lives are in such pain and chaos. They realize it’s been messing up their lives too much and decide to get help.”
For some people, 30 years pass before they seek treatment from an abortion experience, she said.
“It’s the same as all of us, like when we’re in physical pain. We wait until the pain becomes unbearable. We try to push it down and rationalize it as being something else.”
Younger women are coming earlier, though, she said.
“God is always tugging. He’ll wait; He’s patient. It’s a ministry of just God’s timing and when someone is really ready.”
It often doesn’t work when others try to “push” someone into counseling, as the desire to heal must come from the individual, she explained. She wants all to know that those who face a crisis pregnancy have a place to go.
“They need to know that the church is always where they need to turn. Nothing should keep them away from the church.”
In 2005 PATH received close to 200 calls and e-mails, from those seeking help for themselves or on behalf of another person—a sister, a friend, a daughter.
She spoke on the role parents have when they talk to their children about abortion, saying that they need to share their “support of life” and also express their compassion for all of those who suffer because of one.
“It’s an important thing for parents to explain to their kids that people (who have abortions) made a terrible mistake. … They had a lot of things going on in their lives.”
Also important for parents is to avoid expecting their children to be perfect, telling them that they will still love them even despite mistakes. Otherwise, if their child has a pregnancy outside of marriage, she or he may turn elsewhere for direction.
“That’s part of the problem. Sometimes the kids think ‘it will just kill my mom and dad—they’ve done so much for me’ or ‘I didn’t want to let my mom and dad down.’”
Sadly at times, some parents are “misguided,” focusing on the effects of what an unplanned pregnancy may have on their child’s career and future, and advocate for an abortion. They neglect to consider the unborn child.
“No grandparent, once they’ve seen the child, is ever disappointed,” Sister Patricia said, and referred again to the roadblock that often hinders parents. “They think only of their own child or their future.”
And that’s where pro-choice has “won over,” she added, particularly with infusing society with language that refers to an unborn child as “it.”
“When you no longer talk about the baby as a child, it’s harder to make that choice (for life),” she added and later explained, “(pro-choice advocates) help people think not of the child, that the baby is no longer a human being. That ‘it’s’ no big deal.”
And then women go through with an abortion.
“The women know immediately by the pain that life has been sucked out of them. Then what do they do? They hide it. They try to think that it’s no big deal. They don’t talk about it even though it’s messing up all of their relationships.”
She understands that people don’t make choices “in a vacuum.”
“In my work with women it is obvious that at the time of the decision (to have an abortion) all the other things were considered. The spotlight was not on the child but on everything else—the woman’s future, honor, disappointment or the feeling of ‘I can’t do this.’ Everything in the equation except the child. That’s what the devil does and (that) is really the start of the lie. It’s a profound moment … the biggest lie.”
People then may begin to pull away from the church, she said.
“They often ask, ‘How did I ever get to this point? I went to Mass every day. Why did this happen?’ It takes a lot of soul-searching.”
She noted recent statistics indicating that one in three women of childbearing age has had an abortion.
“How many women carry that secret and don’t know what to do about it? Yes, it’s awful; yes, it changes your life. But it’s not the end of your life. God is bigger. He has a plan to turn it into a blessing.”
In her ministry she tries to tell those seeking healing that “it’s not the end of the story.”
“… by the end, you will be able to say, ‘yes, I’m not proud,’ but what God has done for them—that’s the miracle. This is what God changes in you. He transforms you.”
Many experiencing healing often say that because of their aborted child—their “little martyrs”—they have regained their faith.
“Because of their child they are able to have life. This is what can come from (the healing process). … God’s love and forgiveness are there. All we have to do is ask for it.”