Five women are sitting together in a circle. They light candles - many candles. Finally there are 47 tiny lights. This is the number of babies that these five women have aborted. For the first time in their lives, they can speak about it. Together they mourn their dead children, give them names and ask for forgiveness. Along this difficult and painful path, they are given pastoral care. The initiative was founded by Father Michael Shields, who comes from Alaska and has worked in the Russian city of Magadan for 20 years.
"Abortions leave a deep wound in the heart. If it is not healed, the women end up bitter and full of anger," Fr Shields explains. In the Soviet period, abortions were a widespread means of birth control, and even today the abortion rate is high. "Almost every woman here aged over 30 has had a termination of pregnancy. Some of them have had more than ten abortions. But when I started to speak about it in my sermons, hardly any women admitted it," he reports.
Now it is different: more and more women, their souls deeply wounded by these experiences, are seeking aid and healing. After the long and painful healing process, some of the women have themselves become helpers for others, recounting to young women the pain and suffering that is associated with abortion.
Help for the pregnant
But in Magadan, care is not only given to women who have already had an abortion, but also to expectant mothers who are desperate and do not know how they are to cope with life with a child. Often their partner does not want to accept any responsibility, and confronts his pregnant girlfriend with the choice of having an abortion or quitting their shared apartment.
In most cases, no help will come from the girl's parents either. "A woman's decision to have a baby requires a great deal of courage, because she suddenly faces the prospect of losing everything. She has no money, nowhere to live and nobody to support her, because many of them lose all contact with their family when they move in with their boyfriend," says Fr Shields. Many men even consider pregnancy "makes their partner look ugly".
Father Shields explains: "Pornographic films play a fatal role. Pornography is like a sickness in society. It is available everywhere, and it destroys relationships, ruins families and degrades women. Often, couples move in together although nothing unites them beyond sexual attraction - there is no feeling of responsibility and no sense of obligation to the partner."
But sometimes married couples also decide in favour of abortion because they feel that their economic circumstances do not allow them to bring up another child. In some villages there is an unemployment rate of 75 percent. For some, a child is seen as nothing more than a burden.
To convince women to choose in favour of having their baby, very concrete forms of aid are needed, Father Shields emphasises. "Fine words alone have no effect at all. The women must be able to see that they are getting real support. They need food, medicines, and money to pay the rent. The first time they receive these from us, they are amazed. We also help them to obtain ultrasound images of their unborn baby as soon as possible so that they can start to form a relationship with it.
"They should start to buy clothes for the baby as soon as possible so that they can look forward to the child with pleasure and be prepared for it. We also need to help them to buy the things they need for the hospital; nothing is provided there, and one must bring along whatever one needs."
Some women also need a roof over their head. For such emergencies, thanks to the support of the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) Father Shields has been able to furnish an apartment in his parish for young mothers with nowhere to stay.
Alongside material support, some women also need assistance to really grow into their role as mother, because many have never experienced what a real mother is. "They do not know what is required of them," says Father Shields. So they are accompanied by experienced mothers from the congregation who can give moral and practical support and offer human warmth and friendship. In some cases they are also helped to complete their schooling. "They must be able to see that they have the opportunity for a new life."
In his dedication to these activities, Father Shields can count on the full support of his Bishop, Kiril Klimowicz of Irkutsk (Diocese of St Joseph), for whom the protection of human life is a cause close to his heart.
"We must save every life. In this field, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches in Russia can work closely together. The protection of human life, and working for the good of the family, for the dignity of women and against abortion and pornography, are fields where unity is possible." Especially in Magadan, a place notorious for its Soviet prison camp, for many years no value was placed on human life. "The Communists practically destroyed human dignity," explains Father Shields. "Precisely here, where human life has been trampled underfoot, the Churches must act together in favour of life."
Beauty and hope
Now and again, he experiences moments of beauty and hope. In the end, many women decide to have their baby. And sometimes the young father, who had originally pushed for an abortion, also grows to love the baby when it has come into the world. Thus, a little family is born. Meanwhile, other young mothers have been able to complete vocational training and can now stand on their own feet.
Lights are burning before the icon of Our Lady of Life; lights for dead babies and lights for life. Without the support of Father Shields and his assistants, many children in Magadan would never have been born. Today, they are playing and laughing, helping to turn Magadan more and more from a "house of the dead" into a place of life.
From Aid to the Church in Need