To be perfectly honest, we were feeling pretty good about things.
As part of the diaconate formation in our diocese, each candidate is required to develop an Icon of Christ the Servant ministry project. Essentially, each man or couple is to ascertain a genuine need in the community and undertake a personal outreach ministry to fill it. This directive doesn’t mean a new ministry must be developed. For example, some fellow deacon candidates are visiting shut-ins in hospitals and nursing homes. Others are working with homeless shelters in the area. One couple is bringing a Catholic divorce care program to the area. All worthy endeavors that have the potential to bear much fruit, both practically and spiritually.
As we discerned the particular need we might explore, we kept coming back to one thing: miscarriage. If you have read our previous columns, you may know we have suffered two miscarriages ourselves. Through those experiences, we found our local Catholic community was rather ill-equipped to deal with the practical and spiritual questions that arise, let alone help effect some spiritual healing. To be fair, our local Catholic hospital actually has a part-time perinatal bereavement coordinator who is also a labor and delivery nurse. She has done great work over the years with little funding or help to assist those who have lost a child in the womb. However, for parents who don’t end up on her radar screen, well, good luck. They don’t likely know she exists. There is no diocesan component to her work, so there is virtually no connection back to the local parishes.
We learned about her work with miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant loss though a chance conversation with a deacon friend who is also a hospital chaplain. We met with her and discussed that a community outreach was needed and decided the best place to start was in the local Catholic parishes. We barnstormed a number of the parishes with her to meet with people, and discuss what was missing. Most people’s response could be distilled down to one thing: the Church. In the case of a miscarriage, when there is generally no funeral, how does a couple memorialize their baby? Without any direction at the parish or diocesan level, parents were left to wonder if the Church even cares.
We contacted the director of our diocesan Marriage and Family Life Office to see if the diocese would be interested in partnering with us to plan an Infant Loss Memorial Mass. The response was enthusiastic! Together, we planned the liturgy, which was celebrated by the bishop himself with specially selected prayers and music. A naming rite was also included in the Mass, and the names of the babies were collected, and sent to the Sisters of Life who prayed for them throughout the month. Following the Mass, there as a reception with related resources such as infertility and grief support. Attendance was double what we expected, and the feedback was humbling, particularly from parents who had lost babies many years ago.
“For myself, and I believe others who lost babies some time ago, it was the Mass I had requested long ago but was told is never done for babies.”
“I was moved seeing so many candles burning that evening, so many babies. Although we lost our [child] nearly 30 years ago, tears came to my eyes as I actually wrote her name on the card — to see her name and to know that so many were praying for her and for us.”
The Infant Loss Memorial Mass was a success by every measure, and is now an annual event. To help promote the last one, we met with the regional prolife committee to enlist the support of the individual parish representatives. Many praised the initiative and assured us of their support. Again, we were feeling pretty good about things.
Then one young woman spoke up. “Are post-abortive women welcome?”
Joel stammered through what turned out to be a rather long-winded, unsatisfying answer. It could be summarized as, “I guess so.” To the woman who asked the question, a post-abortive mother herself, it probably sounded more like, “No.”
We probably should have expected the question would come one day, but we weren’t at all prepared to deal with it. Can parents who lost babies they desperately wanted grieve alongside those who have had abortions? We don’t know.
If miscarriage grief is somewhat disenfranchised, how much more is this the case with abortion grief? Perhaps that was the point of the woman’s question. Post-abortive parents grieve, too. How much more is that grief compounded by having chosen to end the child’s life, often coerced by other(s) to do so.
There are those who work hard to convince the rest of us that abortion is a valid choice for the parents, never mind the child. To be fair, not everyone who has procured an abortion grieves. Some parents regard their abortions with indifference. Still others celebrate theirs as a sign of freedom and liberation from biological slavery. But not all. Many grieve deeply, only realizing later what they have truly done. Programs like Rachel’s Vineyard provide a wonderful resource to help bind the wounds of post-abortive parents. But what about the local Church?
One of the elements that many who attend our diocesan Infant Loss Memorial Masses find most healing is that the bishop himself celebrates the Mass. By him doing so, the institutional Church enters into their grief in a tangible way. The experience says, The Church cares about you and wants to help you heal. Couldn’t post-abortive parents benefit for a similar gesture of support? Absolutely. But how?
Not all parents who long to hold children they lost through miscarriage regard post-abortive parents so charitably. Without judging that particular dynamic, that’s simply a fact. Many women who have suffered miscarriages report feelings of anger, and even jealously toward women who have had abortions. Since that is our particular target audience with this healing ministry, we are extremely hesitant to group the two together.
As we approach the anniversary of Roe v. Wade and mourn the loss of tens of millions of children to abortion, we continue to ponder the following questions:
- How should individual parishes and dioceses enter into the grief of post-abortive parents?
- How should the local Church recognize and remember the lives lost to abortion?