When I first began my ministry in Russia 20 some years ago I recognized two subjects were off limits for me to speak of with my parishioners — alcoholism and abortion.
Although most of the parishioners were affected by the disease of alcoholism either though a spouse, a relative, neighbor or friend no one wanted to talk about what to do. I knew that most every woman sitting before me every Sunday had undergone an abortion — and most likely numerous abortions. And the men as well sitting before me probably played a major role in those decisions.
The pain was tangible but again no one was willing to speak about this tragedy, this pain and this sin. I knew the truth had to be spoken and it must be done with compassion. All things become visible when they are exposed by the light.
We began by inviting speakers to share their journey of finding a sober life with small testimonies after each Mass. People were hesitant to speak about their pain but it was done gently and with compassion. We started an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that met twice a week and began to talk about how alcoholism was destroying families and lives.
As a parish we decided to go completely dry and have no alcohol for any parish functions including weddings. The disease was now in the light.
We found a free treatment center in St. Petersburg and we agreed to sponsor anyone who wanted to go there for the 28-day treatment. We covered the plane fare, which was to be paid back some time in the future.
Today we are not too afraid to pray openly for someone who has fallen back into the addiction — to pray for the strength to day-by-day live with the gift of sobriety.
The second taboo subject was a bit more difficult to approach. After much prayer we decided to do three things. First, we taught about the gift of life in the womb so all parishioners would know that a pre-born child is not merely “tissue” as most women were told. To this end we got models of a baby’s development in the womb. We had children hold the little models and talk about what they looked like at that stage of their own life. These models were set out for all to see during Sunday school and after Mass. It was normal to have them picked up and played with by children. The gift of life was brought into the light.
Secondly we wanted to help young women who were in a crisis situation so they could choose life. We began our moms and kids’ program. We pledged a one-to three-year commitment to help these moms with clothes, food, baby supplies and even at times temporary housing. Our program was a beautiful way to say we are saving one child, one mom at a time.
The final step was to launch a healing retreat for women who had experienced the tragedy of abortion. These included powerful testimonies of healing, however, sometimes opening up the wound of abortion meant that one weekend was not enough. So we began a small group that met on Thursdays for women who had been on the initial retreat.
No longer are we afraid to speak about the pain and the tragedy of abortion. The gift of life is honored and the parish is an advertisement for women who want to save their babies. We are ready to give compassion and speak the truth.
The tragedies of our parish are not unique. Addictions are destroying lives and families. We have to bring compassion to the broken and help to the helpless. Is there a place in your parish for people to hear the truth and find a way through their addiction?
Abortion has to be preached about. Many of our Catholic parishioners have suffered from abortion — either directly or indirectly. Men and women struggle with the effects of this sin and need compassion, healing and forgiveness. They will be the best witnesses once they are able to speak about the pain and brokenness they experienced. Bring it all into the light. Let Christ change darkness into light.
Saint Edith Stein once said that we should not accept anything as the truth if it lacks love and that we should not accept anything as love which lacks the truth. We must bring compassion and speak the truth because, as our Scriptures teach, when you know the truth it will set you free.
The writer is pastor of the Church of the Nativity in Magadan, Russia.