By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” an oft-quoted piece of wisdom, is widely understood and accepted when considering the virtue that governs the social order. Recently Pope Francis decreed that mercy also would no longer be delayed when a repentant sinner confesses the sin of abortion in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Pope Francis announced Tuesday that all Roman Catholic priests would be empowered to offer absolution for the sin of abortion during the church’s Holy Year of Mercy, which begins on December 8. Though most bishops in the United States have already empowered their priests on the issue, many in other countries have not — meaning women seeking absolution can face delays, obstacles or rejection. Francis’ edict effectively streamlines the process for a single year. The reasoning behind the traditional pastoral practice is that the Church views abortion as such a grave sin that it put the matter of granting forgiveness for an abortion in the hands of a bishop, who could either hear the woman’s confession himself or delegate that to a priest who is expert in such situations.
Francis’ offer is not without precedent. Pope John Paul II enabled priests to offer the same absolution during the last Holy Year, in 2000, yet it shows his broader push to make the Church more merciful and welcoming.
“I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision,” Francis said in a statement issued by the Vatican. “What has happened is profoundly unjust; yet only understanding the truth of it can enable one not to lose hope.”
Facing the truth of having terminated life at its earliest stages can be deeply painful, but it can set one on the path of healing, hope, and freedom from the shackles of the past. This can be a matter of shame, but God wants no one to wallow in shame, a state of mind and heart that can be so destructive. This is the stuff of healthy guilt that can lead to forgiveness and reconciliation. A movement through guilt to forgiveness and reconciliation, and a new lease on life, is the truth that sets one free, and an experience of the life in abundance that Jesus Christ offers through faith in Him.
As a priest in the Diocese of Scranton I had the blessed experience of participating in the Rachel’s Vineyard weekend retreat. It is a ministry that offers women who have experienced the trauma of abortion or miscarriage the opportunity to find healing and hope, and the peace that can only come from God, the Shalom of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. The following quote is from Dr. Theresa Burke, the founder of Rachel’s Vineyard’s Ministries, and we would agree that her words are in harmony with Pope Francis’ invitation to cross the Threshold of Mercy.
“I would like to personally welcome you to Rachel’s Vineyard! If the emotional and spiritual wounds of a past abortion have been sapping faith, love and joy from your life, I can promise, that if you enter this process for healing, your life will begin to change. A journey into Rachel’s Vineyard is a gift only you can open your heart to receive. The spiritual process of reconciliation with yourself, with God and your lost child will truly result in wholeness and freedom and a difference you will be able to feel inside your heart. This healing process will give you a deeper compassion for yourself. It’s also a journey that will give you a new appreciation of your strength and courage. By traveling a path of healing in Rachel’s Vineyard, you will experience an end to isolation, despair and hopelessness. You will have the potential to revisit abandoned goals and dreams, and articulate your truest and deepest desires for your future.”
The Rachel’s Vineyard Website provides a comprehensive overview of the beauty and the power of this amazing ministry.
For the final part of this column I want to recall the passage from the Book of Lamentations in the Old Testament which shows the depth of brokenness that can overwhelm a person in the throes of sin, followed immediately by the gift of God’s mercy that provides a path to new life. These words of God are intended for all, and especially those ensnared in the shackles of sin.
My soul is deprived of peace;
I have forgotten what happiness is;
I tell myself my future is lost,
all that I hoped for from the Lord.
The thought of my homeless poverty is wormwood and gall; Remembering it over and over leaves my soul downcast.
But I will call this to mind.
The favors of the Lord are not exhausted;
His mercies are not spent.
They are renewed each morning so great is his faithfulness.
My portion is the Lord, says my soul;
Therefore, will I hope in Him.
Mercy will not be delayed to anyone who seeks the gift of forgiveness and freedom from the choice to abort unborn life, woman or man. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is the ordinary means in the life of the Church that offers the extraordinary mercy that can only come from God. Perhaps a person is too paralyzed to make a move toward God. Remember the experience in the Gospel when Jesus was preaching and four friends opened up the roof for their paralyzed friend and lowered him right in front of the Lord. “Your sins are forgiven; get up and walk” were the Lord’s immediate response.
Through the help of others, or by our own efforts, may we place ourselves in the presence of the Lord Jesus that we may be forgiven and restored in a manner that is befitting for the children of God.