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Accompanying with forgiveness

Pope Francis urges us to put into practice the law of integration and mercy for women who have had recourse to abortion. He wants us to take on the burden of sin and to accept suffering. The Lord did this when he came into our world. This was a truly distinctive feature of his life in which he demonstrated his choices clearly: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Lk 5:31). Called to prolong her mission, the Church cannot, in the midst of an infinity of important tasks, pay less attention to what for the Lord is a priority.

It is necessary to discern charity, the driving force of Christians, to recognize to what extent it should be encouraged by the “mercy principle”, which is what acts in God’s heart and is ultimately responsible for his inclinations. For this reason the Gospel narratives record many of Jesus’ meetings with people in situations of adversity, or who have committed a sin for which they are clearly responsible and for which they are despised and condemned.

Lucas Cranach the Elder “Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery” (1532)

Pope Francis announced the Jubilee Year to remind us that the Gospel is good news precisely because it reveals the point to which the Lord was able to reach out to redeem, to heal and to be close to humanity’s wounds. This motherly love of God shows that mercy is not just one more nuance in the enormous riches of the Gospel, but must be that impulse which urges us towards others. In the face of wretchedness and frailty the first thing to do is to put mercy into practice. In fact we must not forget that in the history of salvation God is an “offender” because he loves in the first place. “If we want to be in his image, let us therefore do the same thing: let us love first of all. Pope Francis underlined the centrality of mercy and its consequences in the life of Christians in two letters which frame the Jubilee Year: the first, on the occasion of its announcement, is addressed to Archbishop Rino Fisichella as Archbishop of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, and in it the Pope expresses the hope that mercy may be part of the missionary spirit; the second, on the occasion of the closure of the Year, is addressed to all those who wish to read it and to make themselves an echo of his words so as to ensure that mercy does not become a “parenthesis in the life of the Church”.

One of the most striking points in both these documents – because of its newness and for what it involves in terms of drawing close to a specific situation of women – is the explicit mention of voluntary abortion as one of the situations in which the Church, in particular through the ministry of priests in the sacrament of Reconciliation, must manifest the Father’s welcome. And they must do this, in the Pope’s words, for two reasons: because God “wants to be close to those who have the greatest need for his forgiveness” and because “the love of the Father […] excludes no one”. These two ideas are also present in the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitia, in which the Pope expresses himself similarly with regard to the accompanying of the so-called “irregular” situations of families, in a document published precisely during the Jubilee of Mercy.

A Friday of Mercy of Pope Francis (12 August 2016)

Pope Francis asks us that this God who goes to meet human beings to embrace them in the midst of their wretchedness should not be out of focus or hidden by other tasks and principles; he asks us instead to reveal him immediately, because he is fundamental, so that “the faith of every believer may be strengthened” and thus “testimony to it be more effective”. Hence the desire to “overcome obstacles”, granting to all priests, by virtue of their ministry, the faculty to absolve women from this sin and thereby enable women going through this drama to have access to Reconciliation. The Pope lets the conviction shine out that although abortion is an indisputably serious event, it is complex and delicate and contains large doses of loneliness because of the historical exclusion which women have suffered in the past. The sensitivity which the Pontiff shows comes from his direct knowledge: “I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision”.

Everything changes when the memory is full of actual names of women who have lived through the drama of which we are speaking and on which we are discerning; when the pain of the other is a little our own. The universal laws and reasons cannot pass over suffering, or go by it on tiptoe. “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath” (Mk 2:27). Recognition of this does not mean denying that our culture is spreading a superficial awareness of what abortion entails, as the Pope denounces. Therefore we must not forget those women who are left with broken hearts and who live an existential and moral drama. They feel an incomparable loneliness, a sense of asphyxiating guilt, fear of themselves, sorrow for what could have been, a feeling of irreversibility in its harshest aspect, an impossibility and inability to communicate.... Nothing will ever be the same again.

Repentance, in such cases, is particularly painful. And the process of conversion is tortuous; full of fear and of a sense of guilt (real and necessary, but delicate to manage). Thus perhaps forgiving oneself is the most difficult act. For it is not only a question of the gravity of the matter. There are other sins too which do serious damage. Yet abortion has a special component for a woman: it is linked to her body and to her soul. It means interrupting, “getting rid of”, “tearing out” the life of a being from within her own being. And, although she is not the only one responsible, there is a substantial difference in comparison with the experience of others: she experiences it directly, without concessions to oblivion. This is because the body has a memory, and what happens remains imprinted in it, in a latent way which becomes present when one least expects it. And then remain the questions that no longer have answers: what would his or her life have been like... and my own?

After an abortion the best word in the face of bewilderment and acute suffering is silence. Accompanying this process with respect and trembling requires lucid people, sensitive and trained in the spirit of discernment. Good will alone is not enough. Thus Pope Francis urges priests to prepare themselves for this important task which presupposes being able to accept frailty, to reflect with the other person on the gravity of what has happened and to suggest a route – a route of charity – in order to take concrete steps in conversion and in the process of Reconciliation.

“We are called to promote a culture of mercy… in which no one looks at another with indifference or turns away”. Women are particularly in need of it, for they have experienced in many ways in the course of history that solely because of their condition their sin is more serious.

At the beginning of his Apostolic Letter Misericordia et Misera, the Pope, following St Augustine, recalls the moment when Jesus and the adulterous woman were left alone; and that in that moment of mercy and justice forgiveness unfolded a new path: “Neither do I condemn you”. And the woman was not excluded.…

María Dolores López Gusmán

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