When I was twenty-seven, Dad began to court a woman from a small, extremely poor village next to his home town. Soon he was smitten, and I sensed that he would marry her. Within months, they eloped to Mexico, and Elvira came back to live with us. At first, she and I got along well. Over time, however, she began to show signs of distrust and anger toward me, which she never allowed my father to see. I tried my best to please her in everything, but even when she and my dad had a baby boy, I wasn’t allowed to hold my new little brother for long because I never did it “right.”
I told my dad that it seemed like Elvira didn’t want me around, but he didn’t want to hear it and accused me of making things up. My heart sank. He would take his wife’s side, and that was that. It now seemed that Dad didn’t need me anymore, and indeed he started to act that way.
Seeking comfort and place to belong, I drove to St. Hilary’s Church one day to pray. No one was inside when I arrived. As I walked forward down the center aisle, a tender peace touched my soul, like the soft caress of a loving hand. Drawn to my favorite statue, one of Our Lady of Fatima with stunning features and adorned with shining gems, I knelt before her. A nurturing presence swept through my most tender emotions, erasing my sorrow. My soul wanted more. From a place deep within, my prayers erupted in words: “Oh Mother, I want to love you to the fullest. Show me how to love you. Guide me to know more about you and your heart.”
Then I rose up from my kneeling position and sat down in the pew. A few seconds later, a woman came out of a side Adoration Chapel holding a bag. I had never seen her before. Without saying a word, she put the bag next to me and walked out of the church. Curious, I reached into the bag and took out three paperback books on Our Lady’s alleged appearances in Medjugorje.1 Mary had responded to my prayer almost instantaneously. As I opened one of the books, a small paper fell out. I picked it up off the floor and turned it over; it was a pamphlet for a Rachel’s Vineyard post-abortion healing retreat. “Must be a coincidence,” I shrugged.
As soon as I got home, I plopped onto my bed with the books and started to read. I didn’t know that Mary might be appearing on earth—and in my lifetime. She had allegedly started appearing to six children in 1981 in this small town of Medjugorje in the former Yugoslavia, now called Bosnia-Herzegovina, and she had already given thousands of messages to the world. Captivated, I read for hours, sometimes forgetting the need to eat and sleep as the Spirit carried me along. My soul devoured all three books in as many days. My love for the Blessed Mother was being set aflame.
Especially intriguing for me was Mary’s response to a particular question the Medjugorje seer asked of her during an alleged apparition. In the words of the visionary, Mirjana:
“When we were children, we asked her a childish question: ‘How come you are so beautiful?’
“She smiled at us and said, ‘I’m beautiful because I love. My dear children, if you want to be beautiful, start to love.’”
Our Lady’s words cut to the ugly core of my obsession with appearance. My thoughts were forever torturing me with worry over how I looked, what I wore, what people thought of me. Always desiring to be beautiful but never satisfied, I lived in fear and frustration over reaching an ever-impossible, aesthetic ideal. But Mary was talking about the source of real beauty. Anyone could dress themselves up; but only a person filled with love could be radiant. Love was what made Mary glow. Her heart was what made her so beautiful. This epiphany softened my crippling preoccupation, and I tried to show more and more love—more true beauty.
Three days later, I returned to St. Hilary’s to join an evening prayer group, and there I met a woman from Kentucky about my age. She was new in town, and we struck up a friendly conversation, hitting it off immediately. I invited her out to dinner, but she declined, saying that she was preparing to go to Medjugorje with her parents, so we postponed our get together. When she returned, she couldn’t wait to tell me about her experience, and I couldn’t wait to listen. Over dinner, she shared excitedly how their pilgrimage had saved her parents’ marriage. Before they left, her folks were on the brink of divorce, but in Medjugorje, they fell in love all over again; and toward the end of the trip, her mom and dad were holding hands and kissing, like two giddy teenagers. They even insisted on renewing their vows in the local Medjugorje church, St. James.
The minute Sarah came home, she wanted to go back. “Why? I asked.
“I believe there’s no place like it on earth. Once you feel the heavenly peace of Medjugorje, you never want to leave.”
Sarah and I quickly discovered that we had more and more in common as we opened up our lives to one another and shared in confidence things we hadn’t told anyone—ever. Leaning forward across the table, Sarah revealed to me in a whisper her most private and painful secret, that she had undergone an abortion in her past. She also mentioned that she had recently received tremendous healing from it.
“How?” I asked.
“From Rachel’s Vineyard retreat.” My breath stopped. “Not again.” Although I hadn’t planned to reveal my checkered past to anyone, I told her that night that I, too, had had—one.
Sarah and I met again on Good Friday. As we were kneeling side by side in a pew before the Blessed Sacrament after praying the stations of the cross, I asked her, “What was the greatest turning point for you in your life of faith?”
I waited for her to say, “Medjugorje.”
She looked at me and answered, “Rachel’s Vineyard.”
“What?” I stammered. “Really?”
“That retreat completely changed my life. It transformed and healed me in so many ways I never thought possible. It is really, really beautiful.” Looking me straight in the eye, she added, “Patricia, I want you to go.”
For the first time in my life, my mind opened a mite to the idea. I trusted Sarah because she had already gone on the retreat, and I knew she was picky. Yet my heart kept me paralyzed with fear. “If she had the courage to go,” I wondered, “then why don’t I?”
Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his own face in a mirror. He sees himself, then goes off and promptly forgets what he looked like. But the one who peers into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres, and is not a hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, such a one shall be blessed in what he does.
I went onto the Internet that same day and found that a Rachel’s Vineyard retreat2 was happening soon in my area. At Sarah’s insistence, I reluctantly agreed to let her give the organizers my number, as long as everything would remain completely confidential. Soon I started to receive calls—ones I didn’t dare pick up. But after playing back a few lovely voicemail messages, and some cajoling from Sarah, I finally decided to call back.
Unawares, I found myself in the midst of an intake interview. The organizer’s voice sounded so soothing and welcoming that, much to my surprise, talking to her gave me peace. It was hard to wrap my mind around the fact that we were calmly discussing my abortions, and that this was somehow okay—though an arrow of anguish passed through me when I said the word “three.” I hadn’t told a soul in ten years. But I heard no judgment, purely understanding, in her voice. After asking me a few basic questions, this kind stranger named Valerie said, to my relief, “Patricia, I’m so sorry to tell you that the retreat has filled, and there is no more space.”
“Good!” I thought. “It wasn’t God’s will that I go, after all. And it’s not my fault. Oh well, I tried.”
Valerie continued, “If it’s God’s will for you, someone will cancel, and a spot will open up.” I began to pray right away that nothing would open up. But God wasn’t interested in my pleas. One day before the retreat was to start, she called me to say that a place for me had miraculously become available. “We’re excited for you to come!”
“Oh great,” I said facetiously. All that day, I planned on bailing. I simply wasn’t going to show up. On the next day, Friday, I received a series of encouraging texts from Sarah. Each time one came in, my mind railed against it: “I don’t really need this. I’m being forced into it… I can’t believe people are going to know how many abortions I’ve had… I can’t handle their judgment…. I don’t need any healing… There’s always next year…” Finally, I forced myself to get in my car, almost against my will. Fear pulsed through my veins, making me short of breath. To drum up courage, I thought to myself, “I’m going to go simply to make God happy and to get this over with. I’ll get some healing, and that’s it. I’m done. No one else will ever, ever know about my abortions, and I won’t have to deal with this subject ever again.”
When I drove up to the retreat center, my body was quivering. This would be my first overnight retreat, and memories of my being stuck at the Fr. Sudac retreat flooded in. “Once I’m in, I can’t escape! What will I do? Maybe I should turn around.” But when I saw two people waving at me—a sweet-faced religious brother wearing the brown Carmelite habit, and a beautiful young woman standing next to him, wearing a kind of smile—my pulse slowed down. They helped me with my bags and received me with such love that I stopped trembling. When we walked in, my antennae were on the lookout for someone who might recognize me, even though I had been assured by Valerie that the chances were almost zero. “Whew! She was right.” Then two arms extended toward me. Suddenly, I was hugging Valerie.
I walked into Rachel’s Vineyard not knowing what I was carrying inside. The agony of my abortions had been repressed for so long and to such a degree, that I wasn’t at all aware of my great need for healing. Through the exercises, prayers, and nurturing atmosphere of that weekend, I not only received healing for my abortions, but many long-held sorrows from past circumstances and resentments miraculously disappeared. In Rachel’s Vineyard, there was no judgment, only forgiveness. We were all paddling in the same boat, fearful of being swept away by the currents that had buffeted our souls for so long, and we found safe shores in one another and in God.
Each exercise opened me up to a new dimension of healing, but one moment in particular affected me most profoundly. On Saturday night, the Lord gave me an enduring and life-changing gift. While deep in prayer with my eyes closed, I found myself on a grassy field. As I walked forward in the vision, I noticed three children, standing side by side in the distance, poised somewhat stiffly, like in the photographs of the three Fatima children who received apparitions of Our Lady of Portugal. Somehow, I knew in my spirit that this was a divine appointment, and that Our Lady herself had been preparing these children, even dressing them up for the occasion. I also knew, without question, that these children were mine.
My heart filled with a strange mixture of joy and grief. I could see the children clearly but without color, as the vision was in black and white. The oldest and tallest stood on the left: a girl looking about age nine, wearing a long-sleeved blouse underneath a square-necked, straight dress that reached her knees. I noticed that she looked a lot like me when I was young—thin with big eyes and medium-length brown hair—but her personality seemed more reserved and serious that mine ever was. On her left (to my right), slightly shorter than she, was a strikingly handsome boy, about seven years old, whose features took after Saul’s—his father’s. Timid and shy, standing with his shoulders hunched slightly forward, he looked adorable in his checkered shorts with suspenders, socks up to his knees, and a beret. I’d always thought I would dress my boy in such a way. The third child, a little girl about six, possessed a round, doll-like face, and showed less resemblance to me or to Saul. The front part of her long brown hair was pulled back into a bow, and the rest ended in curly tips that reached down to her waist. She was wearing a short-sleeved, button-down shirt, and an exuberant smile.
All of them looked as though they didn’t dare move, should their special outfits end up looking less than perfect for me. Then my field of vision zoomed in to my youngest girl’s face—so close that I could see the dimple on her left cheek. Catching sight of me, she threw away all decorum and began to jump for joy. Turning her head to the side (which was how I noticed the bow in her hair) she grabbed her brother’s shirt and began to scream, “Here she comes! Here she comes!” My spirit knew they had been praying for me and looking forward to this special encounter for a long time. As I walked closer to them, I realized that I had, too. Smiles of great joy spread across all of our faces and, with a love deeper than words, we stared at one another adoringly. Then the vision vanished.
I was sad to lose sight of them, but I felt simultaneously overjoyed. I hadn’t once thought of my abortions as children. To now know, without a shred of doubt, that they not only existed but were still alive—and not only alive, but basking in the joys of heaven—was an unparalleled gift. I wasn’t a murderer anymore; I was a mom. And the fact that I would one day see my children again—not for a moment, not for a day, but for all eternity—was beyond my human concept of mercy.
I named my three children: Mariana, in honor of the Virgin Mary; Emmanuel, in representation of Jesus; and Rosie, after the Holy Rosary. I rejoiced in the knowledge that they actually loved me and, being so pure and in the ever-presence of God, had forgiven me long ago. How could they not have? And the realization that they had been interceding for me, their mother, for the past ten years of my life, filled me to overflowing with gratitude. That weekend, my abortion procedures changed from unforgivable blights on my soul to human mistakes covered over by the Cross, which Jesus was now using to shower me with love. The Scriptures were true. “We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)”
Late that night, I wrote my children this promise: “Since I didn’t give you a chance to live and to walk the earth, I will do everything in my will to defend life. I will be the voice for those who have no voice.”
While he was still speaking, people from the synagogue official’s house arrived and said, “Your daughter has died: why trouble the teacher any longer?” Disregarding the message that was reported, Jesus said to the synagogue official, “Do not be afraid; just have faith.” He did not allow anyone to accompany him inside except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they arrived at the house of the synagogue official, he caught sight of a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. So, he went in and said to them, “Why this commotion and weeping? The child is not dead but asleep.” And they ridiculed him. Then he put them all out. He took along the child’s father and mother and those who were with him and entered the room where the child was. He took the child by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you arise!” The girl, a child of twelve, arose immediately and walked around. [At that] they were utterly astounded.
While driving home from the retreat, I received a text on my phone. It was from Saul. I was now twenty-seven and hadn’t heard from him in seven years. I had long since changed my number. “Hi, how have you been?” read the text. “I really felt a need to say hello to you and to see how you were doing.” An old, familiar feeling of repulsion came over me, but I recognized it as a symptom of post-abortion syndrome3. I wondered what God was up to, but I already knew the answer. Had Saul not contacted me, I would have never looked for him to tell him the truth. The excuse I had long kept in my head was that since I no longer knew anything about him, not even his whereabouts, he would never know.
But my excuse was not part of God’s plan. Too scared to speak to Saul, I texted him, asking for his address so that I could send him an important letter. That night, I sat down to write.
Dear Saul, I am writing you to ask for your forgiveness, which I do not deserve. When you texted me, I was on my way home from a retreat called Rachel’s Vineyard, for people who’ve been through abortion, where I found great healing and experienced the love and mercy of God. Now I must tell you the truth. I didn’t abort one of our children, I aborted three. Our first pregnancy did not end in miscarriage, and I had a second pregnancy from you, which I also terminated. It is hard for me to ask this of you, but I would like your forgiveness. I am so sorry for taking away your children and your right to be a father.
Three or four days later, I received a simple text back: “Thank you for telling me the truth. I hope one day I can find the healing that you have found. Take care of yourself.” I felt the pain in Saul’s words, and they were hard for me to read; but at the same time, I knew that because of my participation at the retreat, grace had also fallen onto him. The timing of his first text was far too uncanny. Perhaps our children in heaven had started pestering God to let them meet their father, too.
The following day, although dead tired in body, I still felt alive in spirit and decided it was time to reach out to my mom. Not only had she urged me to go to Rachel’s Vineyard, but she had also invited me each year to go to the Walk for Life West Coast in San Francisco where about fifty thousand people gather yearly to hear talks and testimonies and peacefully pray and walk for an end to abortion. She said that the experience was grace-filled, even amazing, but I never accepted her invitation because of my own hypocrisy. The retreat gave me the courage to tell her the “why,” so I sat down with her and said, “Mom, I need to talk to you. I need to let you know that I didn’t have a miscarriage the first time I was pregnant. The truth is I’ve had three abortions total, and this past weekend, I finally went to a Rachel’s Vineyard retreat.”
Looking at me without a trace of surprise, she responded, “I’ve been waiting for you to say that. The Lord told me about your abortions three years ago, and that’s why I kept insisting that you go on the retreat.” In truth, each of us already knew what the other would say. It was a conversation we’d had before in the awkwardness of silence, and when it was voiced, a tangible sense of peace descended on us both. What had seemed impossible only three days earlier had escaped our lips naturally, like the exhaling of a deep breath.
With the exception of my mother, I still planned to never reveal to another soul the fact of my abortions. As I descended from the mountaintop experience of the retreat, my vow to my children slowly retreated into a secretive, shadowy corner. I still wanted to defend life, but without ever revealing that I had taken life. The outside world was not like Rachel’s Vineyard and, at the bottom of the mountain, the view looked different. What need could there possibly be to share my secret shame with a world that I felt would not embrace my story or me?
If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will He not also give us everything else along with Him? Who will bring a charge against God’s chosen ones? It is God who acquits us. Who will condemn? It is Christ [Jesus] who died, rather, was raised, who also is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?
— Romans 8:31b-35
Excerpt from Chapter 11