By Pamela Seal
Diocese of Lake Charles
No matter what side of the abortion issue you are on — pro-life or pro-choice — one thing is certain. The life of a child is lost every single time. Whether the abortion took place last week, last year or even 30 years ago, Marjorie Long wants people to know something else that is certain: forgiveness and healing through a Rachel’s Vineyard Retreat.
“Healing is out there. It is available,” said Long, the licensed site leader for Rachel’s Vineyard in the Diocese of Lake Charles. “We are going to take them (retreatants), love them, welcome them, and serve them the best way we know how.”
A worldwide ministry for Priests for Life and sponsored locally by the Diocese, the weekend scripture-based retreat is for anyone struggling with guilt, depression, regret or other difficult emotions brought about from an abortion. The step-by-step process provides “therapy for the soul” in a safe, strictly confidential, non-judgmental environment.
“The salvation of souls is what I am after in these retreats,” said Long with determination in her voice. “If their soul is truly healed and they feel forgiveness from God’s mercy and love, they will have the power to work through all the pain,” she said. “It’s still going to be a journey for them. It’s not going to happen with just one weekend, but they will have what it takes to continue on their journey of healing.”
This summer marks 10 years for Rachel’s Vineyard in the Diocese of Lake Charles with Long having completed 18 months of training and preparation before that first retreat in July 2010. There were nine retreatants with 25 babies memorialized. The following year, Long began scheduling two retreats per year and has done so ever since with Saint Charles Center in Moss Bluff as the setting for sensory-based therapy which integrates emotional, psychological and spiritual dimensions.
Founded in 1995 by psychologist Dr. Theresa Burke, Rachel’s Vineyard Ministries has grown to more than 1,000 retreats annually, at 375 sites, held in 49 states and 70 countries, with many new sites in development. The retreats are currently offered in 27 languages in both Catholic and interdenominational settings.
The weekend offers an opportunity to examine the abortion experience and identify ways that the loss has impacted the persons involved. The retreat helps to acknowledge any unresolved feelings that many individuals struggle with after abortion. These buried feelings can surface many years after the fact and can lead to symptoms of post-abortion trauma and self-destruction taking on many forms.
Having worked in a pregnancy crisis center for 10 years, Long had seen firsthand the impact abortions can have on the mothers of unborn children. It is all too common for them to experience feelings of emptiness, low self-esteem, self-hatred, depression and low self-worth, she said.
Acknowledging that what she witnesses weighs heavily on her heart, Long said she knows without a doubt that God wanted this ministry in the Diocese; he just needed a servant. Still, she is careful to strengthen herself spiritually in order to fulfill her role.
“I know that God has called me, and he has given me the graces and gifts,” said Long. “I armor myself with daily Mass, frequent confession, and receive the Eucharist as often as possible.”
When Long hears people say that abortion is not really their concern, her response is: “It’s all of our concern. It affects everyone because that is a life not here that God intended to be born. One abortion has such a rippling effect on so many people.”
Long emphasizes that Rachel’s Vineyard is for anyone who has been affected by an abortion or anyone who played a part in the abortion decision. She said for every abortion, multiple lives are affected — including mothers, fathers and family members of aborted children, as well as those who have been involved in the abortion industry — and it doesn’t matter how long ago the abortion took place.
“Grief hits different people at different times. Certain things trigger their lives,” she said. “They are not just dealing with the loss of the baby. Some people will also have triggers from the physical part of the abortion,” Long continued. “It might be a smell, something that connects to the trauma that took place at the abortion clinic.”
While we are all called to forgive one another, sometimes the hardest thing to do is to forgive ourselves for our own sins. Rachel’s Vineyard wants to help the retreatants uncover what led them on their journey to making the decision to abort their baby, and then help them forgive themselves.
In one of the series of scriptural exercises, the retreatants reflect on the story of the Woman at the Well. (John 4: 4-30). It is during this part of the retreat where they are learning to let go of their shame.
“It’s hard for them to let go of the guilt,” Long said, “because the guilt is all they have left of the child they don’t have anymore. Most of them have gone to confession over and over even before coming to the retreat,” she continued, “but they are still trying to live with their decision. You cannot get through it until you go through it. They can go through it at Rachel’s Vineyard.”
Long said the retreat gives them permission to own their actions, to let it go, to give it to God, and to allow themselves to accept forgiveness.
During another scriptural exercise, retreatants reflect on the story of the Blind Man. (Mark 10:46-52)
“In this exercise, we want them to understand, you are not a bad person. People can get caught in the devil’s trap,” said Long. “They begin to see where they were blinded. What was going on in their life that led them to the decision of abortion?”
A lot of Catholics let their choice to have one or more abortions keep them away from the sacraments. “When they have been living with this kind of sin, they are usually staying away from the very things that can help heal them,” said Long. “They lose sight of their faith.”
There is an opportunity during the retreat for the mothers to reconnect with their babies on a spiritual level. This is a chance to give the unborn children honor and dignity through a memorial service on the final day of the retreat. Because of the nature of the pregnancy loss, the baby was never held or properly buried, Long explained.
After sharing in the “Cup of Grace” segment, participants move directly into the memorial service — a time for mothers and fathers to place a bereavement doll in a “Moses” basket. Long said by doing so, this is another way to release the pain and heartache and place their baby in the arms of the Creator. It brings comfort, allowing to let go. Also during the service, a chance to reconnect with the unborn children is offered through poems, written letters and songs.
In addition to discussions and spiritual exercises, the weekend includes the Sacrament of Reconciliation, a Mass of Entrustment, and Exposition of the Holy Eucharist. A monstrance designed especially for Rachel’s Vineyard retreats is hand carved in the form of the Blessed Virgin Mary, cradling the Eucharist.
Retreatants are invited to kneel at the altar with the Blessed Sacrament and express out loud to Jesus what they are feeling as they gaze their eyes upon Christ.
“At the end of the road, when this part of their life is healed, the retreatants will have what it takes to live life,” said Long. “Yes, they own the consequences of their actions, but they can accept the healing. They are putting their relationship back together with God. He never left.”
The retreat format used in the Diocese of Lake Charles is Catholic-based, but any denomination is welcome to attend. Team members consist of a licensed counselor, women and men who have experienced abortion, compassionate volunteers and a priest. Retreat sizes are small, usually 8-10, so participants can receive individual care as needed. Nothing is forced on anyone during any time of the retreat.
The next Rachel's Vineyard Retreat is scheduled for Feb. 12-14 and Oct. 22-24 in 2021. Long encourages anyone to make the call, come with an open heart. “You are worthy of it,” she said.