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“I will be forever grateful for the mercy I received:” Rachel’s Vineyard Weekends in Maine Providing Hope and Path Forward for People Affected by Abortions

PORTLAND---“My ignorance, fear, and youth were used against us. If anyone had told me of the secret shame, fear, pain, and lifelong regret, my baby would be alive today.”

It is a sentiment echoed by the thousands of women who have participated in Rachel’s Vineyard Weekends across the world, bringing with them regret, hurt, anger, and sometimes shame. The weekends gather anyone who has been affected by an abortion, including women, their spouses, parents, grandparents, and friends, even former abortion workers.

“Our hope is always that this will be the last time they will feel compelled to confess the abortion, thus, finally accepting God’s forgiveness,” said Annette Rioux, a facilitator of the weekends in Maine since their inception 20 years ago. “The grief and emotional pain associated with their abortion are not necessarily healed yet. The retreat is what can help them continue their journey to spiritual wholeness.”

“Some are people of faith, and some are not,” said Judy Shaw, who works with Annette in presenting the weekends. “Even though we don’t realize it, they are the people sitting beside us in a coffee shop, waiting in line at the grocery store, or sitting in the pews next to us each Sunday.”

Though the retreats are sponsored by the Diocese of Portland, participants need not be Catholic to take part. The weekend events are held in different areas around Maine with the locations only given to retreatants once they register to preserve privacy and ensure safety.

“When they arrive for the retreat on Friday evening, they are scared, petrified of what they might face, fearing being judged and condemned, and fearing that their confidentiality will not be respected,” said Annette. “They feel shame and guilt and don’t know how to grieve the loss of their children as a result of a choice they made, often decades prior.”

Annette and Judy, along with facilitators across the country, carefully plan the retreats to preserve the dignity of those who participate. No more than eight people attend a given retreat, allowing for solace to more easily be offered and inner healing to begin. Every situation and participant are different, of course, requiring a variety of approaches all based in kindness and care.

“One woman had had four abortions,” said Annette. “She wore very heavy makeup so that you could hardly see her real face. She was sure that God would not forgive her. She struggled hard on the weekend, then came Sunday morning. She came to breakfast with her face glowing. I went to her and said, ‘You don’t have any makeup on. You’re beautiful!’  Smiling broadly, she said, ‘I don’t need to wear a mask anymore.’ She went on to be part of a Rachel’s Vineyard retreat team in another state.”

Judy draws guidance and inspiration from her own life.

“When I did my retreat, I was blessed to really be able to connect with my son in Heaven, Alex. I ask Alex before each retreat and during the retreat to please pray for us. At one retreat, after I joined the retreat team, a participant was struggling to connect with her child. She said her daughter must be ashamed of her because each time she pictured her, her daughter would hide her face and turn away. That night, as I was praying before bed, I heard my son, Alex, say ‘Mommy, please tell the nice lady that her daughter loves her very much. We are all hiding our faces from our parents. Her daughter is a trickster, and we are all playing a game with her, but she loves her mother so much.’ The next morning when we gathered, I shared that story with the participant. She started to cry and said ‘That is my daughter! Her father loves to play jokes on people.’ From there, she felt a stronger connection to her daughter. Alex isn’t always so bold, but at every retreat I can feel his presence.”

There is no judgment or condemnation, only love. Almost uniformly, participants over the years describe how the experience allowed them to encounter God’s love and forgiveness, learn how to forgive those who contributed to the abortion experience, and learn how to forgive themselves in the process. The weekends require commitment, focus, and hard work, but a fruitful harvest and mercy await.

“This is a healing process that proceeds step by step and is well prepared and well organized,” said one participant. “It was a unique and profound experience. The Church doesn’t turn its back on you.”

“Participants grieve the loss of their aborted children and form a ‘spiritual relationship’ with them, thus believing through the mercy and love of God that their children can forgive them,” said Annette. “When they can believe that, the possibility for genuine spiritual and even emotional healing can truly begin.”

“I will be forever grateful for the mercy I received and for the opportunity to share that mercy on each retreat with others who also suffer from their decisions,” said Judy. “Participants have a desire to understand the strange emptiness within and how the Holy Spirit fills that abyss. They leave with a sense of understanding that God is merciful and that there is a path forward. They leave with a relationship with their child and the belief that they have been forgiven and need not suffer anymore.”

For more information about Rachel’s Vineyard Weekends in Maine, or if you are hurting but aren’t ready for a retreat, leave a confidential message at (207) 321-7897, email [email protected], or visit www.portlanddiocese.org/projectrachel.