Marie found herself in a position which, unfortunately, many young college girls do. Just three months into her freshman year she discovered she was pregnant. As soon as she told her boyfriend, he let her know in no uncertain terms that it was her problem and then she never heard from him again. She was too afraid to tell her parents. It did not look as though there were many options for her. Alone and afraid, she unfortunately made a choice that came to haunt her for the rest of her life. She chose to end the life of her unborn child.
The workers at the clinic she was referred to could tell she was nervous and afraid and tried to calm her by telling her the procedure would not take long and she would feel relieved when it was over. However, that was far from the truth. For the next several weeks, she felt sick to her stomach and burdened by shame and guilt. She found it hard to concentrate on her schoolwork and would lock herself in her room to cry herself to sleep. All the while she kept what she had done to herself.
As the years passed, she was able to put the guilt she was feeling behind her. There were times the shame would wash over her again, for instance, when she heard a baby cry or would find out a friend was pregnant. But, for the most part, she was able to get on with her life. Eventually she married but kept her secret even from her husband.
Everything changed, however, when she became pregnant. She could not shake from her mind the fear that God would punish her by taking this baby away or by giving her a difficult pregnancy. The feeling that she did not deserve to be a mother and did not deserve to be happy haunted her. It got to the point that she could barely stand it anymore. So she did what she had not done in over ten years. She went to confession hoping to find some peace.
After living with so much shame, it took all the courage she could muster to admit to what she had done. Though she expected the priest to scold her, he turned out to be understanding and sympathetic. He reassured her that God was a God of mercy, that He did not punish us but wanted us to repent and turn back to Him. As she poured out her heart and told the priest about the years she had kept her sin a secret, he told her about a retreat called “Rachel’s Vineyard.” It is a weekend retreat for women who have had abortions. There she could meet other women who had lived with the same secret she had and come to find some healing for the guilt and shame they were feeling.
After her confession, Marie felt instantly relieved and refreshed. She had expected to find condemnation, but instead experienced love, acceptance and forgiveness. When she got home, she told her husband everything. Though he was shocked that she had kept the secret to herself for so many years, he also told her he loved her no matter what and that he would always stand by her.
She looked into the retreat that the priest had told her about and was able to find one about an hour’s drive from her home. On the Friday night of the retreat, she was nervous, not knowing what to expect. However, the first talk was from a woman who had found herself in the same situation she was in so many years ago. She too had thought that she had no other options, and she also kept the secret to herself for decades. Like Marie, she fully expected God to punish her for her sins but, through the Sacrament of Penance, found mercy and love. She came to know God as a Loving Father who does not want to castigate His children, but wants to embrace them in His forgiving arms.
The weekend totally changed Marie’s life. She no longer was alone with her secret. She no longer carried her burden of shame and grief by herself. She no longer felt like the greatest sinner in the world. And she no longer avoided God, but came to turn to Him as a Loving Father. Today, she is the mother of four children, and shares her story with others in hopes that they too, no matter what sins they may have committed, can come to know God, not as a punishing avenger, but as a Father of mercy.
In Jesus’ day, people tended to see any tragedies as punishments by God. If the Galileans were killed and had their blood mixed with sacrifices to an idol, it must have been because they sinned. If a tower fell and killed eighteen people in Siloam, they must have done something to deserve it. We can look on their ideas as backwards, but how often do we fall under the same misconception? How often do we look at misfortunes in our lives as punishments from God? Most especially, how often are we tempted to think that our neighbor’s hardships are probably deserved? We do that because we have not come to understand that the God of Jesus Christ is a God of mercy, love and forgiveness. He does not want to punish us, but wants us to turn back to Him. No matter what we have done, He is capable of forgiving and consoling us.
If you are living with a secret that has been eating you up inside, if you are haunted by the fear that somehow God is going to punish you, if you think that you cannot have a relationship with God because of your past, then there is hope and healing for you. Make the time to go to the Sacrament of Penance. Unburden yourself of all that shame and guilt you have been carrying around. Learn that He is a loving and forgiving Father. Let Him set you free.
That is what this Lenten season is all about. It is a time for us to experience all the graces that come when we turn away from sin to live in the love of our Heavenly Father.