Healing Italy's Abortion Survivors; Heaven Previewed

California Native Takes Rachel's Vineyard to the Old World

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, OCT. 21, 2010 (Zenit.org).- In 1767, European missionaries traveled to California to bring a message of hope and love through the Gospel; 250 years later those seeds have returned to the Old World to bear fruit.

Monika Rodman, a native of the San Francisco Bay Area, moved to Southern Italy in 2007 and brought with her Rachel's Vineyard, a ministry conceived for women who have suffered abortions.

I had the good fortune to meet this pioneer from the New World during the 5th World Prayer Congress for Life in Rome in early October, where Rodman was publicizing her upcoming Rachel’s Vineyard retreat this Nov. 5-7 in Bologna.

In the United States, where more than 50 million abortions have been performed since the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe vs. Wade legalized it, the topic of abortion is much discussed and serves as potent political fodder. The multi-billion dollar business of abortion lobbies the government for funding and is omnipresent in the form of clinics in every city in the United States.

Italy legalized abortion in 1978. Through the mid-80s, there were an average of 230,000 abortions a year; the number declined in the 90s to an average of about 130,000. Abortion is technically only legal during the first trimester, with exceptions made for second trimester abortions, performed for fetal abnormalities that are deemed to psychologically harm the mother. Italians rarely discuss abortion, and a political party would never stand or fall on the question.

Despite differences in the social discourse surrounding abortion, Monika Rodman found one thing in common: Women who had gone through abortions were isolated, suffering and uncared for on either side of the oceans.

Rodman noted that “Omertà,” the Southern Italian code of silence, reigns not only in the Mafia-ridden regions of Sicily, but also in the culture of abortion. Rodman says, “Your pro-abortion rights friends say ‘get over it’ and you naturally fear condemnation from those who call themselves pro-life. Either way, post-abortive women quickly realize theirs is an unspeakable loss and a grief they must hide.” Even more so in Italy, Rodman points out, where “many people live with their families of origin, where the topic is never to be discussed.”

“Abortion is a universal wound, and it is hard to heal,” says Rodman after working for 12 years on the Rachel’s Vineyard project in Oakland, California, before moving to Puglia. The silence surrounding abortion in both countries causes the wound to fester rather than heal, often destroying families, marriages and relationships with God.

Rodman notes some interesting contrasts. Unlike the United States, where only 20% of abortions are performed in married women, in Italy two-thirds of abortions are obtained by married women. This trauma of the death of a child grows through denial as the couple never speaks of it and it thus moves underground, often damaging the marriage at its foundation.

Another particularly Italian case is that of mothers who force unmarried daughters in their 20s into abortions because they are “too young” and will hurt their chances for marriage or career. After the trauma of the abortion, the mother and daughter will continue living together, often for years, with unspoken resentment building between them.

In Italy, abortions are most often performed in hospitals, and covered by the state-sponsored health care system. These procedures take place on the same floor as the delivery wards, so women recovering from abortions see all the joyful new mothers as they enter and exit the building, adding to their own personal pain.

Rodman says that abortion statistics are not quite accurate in Italy, as many are performed illegally, or outside the parameters of the law (i.e. paid in cash at a private office). Some women want to avoid the seven-day waiting period, others would rather not go on record and still others are afraid to go to the public hospital for fear of being recognized. These women are even more isolated from assistance and healing.

Monica Rodman organizes retreats for Italian women who have undergone abortions. While the weekends are thus far offered only in the north, participants have also come from central and southern Italy. The retreat team includes both a psychologist and a priest, and the Rachel’s Vineyard method offers Scripture exercises and the sacraments, as well as a commemorative service for the unborn child. During this period of reflection, prayer and sharing experiences with other women and men who have known similar suffering, many start the long road of healing.

Rachel’s Vineyard has been greeted with encouragement by several Italian dioceses and has found a strong ally in Italy’s network of Catholic counseling centers, founded as an alternative to the Italian family planning centers that sprung up in the 1970s. Women contact Rodman through her Internet site, and referrals from friends, clergy, pregnancy help and Catholic counseling centers. Having understood the particularly private nature of abortion in Italy, she is very, very careful about discretion.

Rodman’s Italian apostolate is not only fueled by love, but was brought by love. Her marriage to Domenico Montanaro in 2007 brought Rodman to Italy, but also brought her husband to Rachel’s Vineyard. Her strongest supporter, Mr. Montanaro surprises with his impassioned advocacy, his clear understanding and his compassion. As Italian poet Virgil would put it, “Omnes vincit amor."

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Favored in ecstasy

On Oct. 15, the universal Church celebrated the feast of the Spanish mystic and doctor of the Church, St. Teresa of Avila. Romans, however, can remember this great saint at one of the most spectacular works in the history of art, “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa,” designed and sculpted by GianLorenzo Bernini in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria.

The sculpture was commissioned in 1647 by Cardinal Federigo Cornaro, whose father was the doge or ruler of Venice, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Teresa’s canonization. After serving as patriarch of Venice from 1632 to 1644, Cardinal Cornaro moved to Rome and prepared his burial chapel in the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria.

Cardinal Cornaro succeeded in obtaining the services of Bernini, the most established artist of his age. Discovered at the age of 15, by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, Bernini had quickly become the most famous sculptor in Rome. Under Urban VIII, Bernini’s career had skyrocketed after he designed the altar canopy in St. Peter’s Basilica and the spectacular tomb of the Barberini Pope.

Along with Cornaro and Bernini, the third contributor to this great work was St. Teresa herself. The astonishing Spanish girl -- who in 1522 had run away from home at age 7 to seek martyrdom, had reformed the Carmelite order in the face of harsh persecution and had written books that still call souls back to God -- was an irresistible subject for the artistic imagination.

St. Teresa’s visions -- “favors” as she described them -- inspired the artists of the Baroque who vied to render the glories of the supernatural visible. Teresa describes her most frequent vision; "I saw an angel very near me, toward my left side, in bodily form. … He had in his hands a long golden dart; at the end of the point I thought there was a little fire. And I felt him thrust it several times through my heart in such a way that it passed through my very entrails. And when he drew it out, I thought it pulled them out with it and left me wholly on fire with a great love of God."

Several painters had tried to depict this experience, but only Bernini truly succeeded. Drawing on the word ex-stasis “outside of one’s self,” he designed a monument that would take the viewer out of space and time and draw him or her into Teresa’s vision. Like a movie director, he combined painting, sculpture and architecture, the three fine arts, to achieve maximum effect.

The walls seem to part in the chapel and colored marble gives way to reveal two figures bathed in golden light, suspended in midair. The rest of the chapel is heavy with expensive colored marbles, but Teresa and her angel seem weightless. A concealed window above their heads bathes the pair with radiance and the light daubs of fresco in the vault reveal the Holy Spirit at work.

In richly decorated galleries on the side of the chapel, Bernini portrayed the distinguished members of the Cornaro family. They pray, discourse, mediate and read, looking to evoke Teresa’s mystical state -- but only the saint is accorded such special favor.

Looking more closely one can see why: Teresa yields herself completely to God, her body slumps backward offering no resistance or impediment. One bare foot dangles over the edge of the cloud, an allusion to the discalced Carmelites, the name of Teresa’s reformed order.

Only the sumptuous undulating drapery indicates her emotional turbulence. It swirls and eddies with a life of its own, giving expression to otherwise immobile Teresa. Bernini captured Teresa’ preview of heaven, the eternal reward, so convincingly that future generations would continue to be affected by it.

When first unveiled in 1652, Bernini’s son, a priest, wrote a poetic homage to the work, “A swoon so sweet Should have eternal guise\But since suffering does not rise, To the heavenly portal, Bernini in this stone made it immortal.”

Bernini’s own age understood the tension of the work between the pain of death and comfort of heaven, but the sophisticates of the Enlightenment were not so elevated in thought.

Francesco Milizia, an Italian nobleman, wrote in 1787 “The St. Teresa in the Vittoria swoons in ecstasy, not of Divine Love, but of a very worldly nature.” He said of Bernini that “his gifts are brilliant vices. He was the first to produce license and errors under the pretext of Grace.”

His French contemporary Charles De Brosses simply snickered, "If this is Divine Love, I know all about it."

In the 19th century, Jacob Burckhardt, the father of the history of western art and son of a Calvinist minister, roundly condemned the work, “The saint reclining on a mass of clouds extends her limbs in an hysterical swoon with a listless gaze, while a libidinous angel takes aim with his arrow (this would be a symbol of divine love). The degradation to which the supernatural has been exposed is so grave that the scandalized soul forgets about stylistic questions.”

In our own age, novelist Dan Brown dispenses with wit, analysis and accuracy, filling his novel "Angels and Demons" with cheap drivel. With characteristic pomposity, Brown’s character Robert Langdon sums up Bernini’s classic work by saying: “Pope Urban VIII had rejected 'The Ecstasy of St. Teresa' as too sexually explicit for the Vatican. The sculpture … was anything but scientific -- pornographic maybe.”

Alas, the conceits of the “Enlightened” make them all too willing to believe their own fictions. Often those who reject faith in God substitute it with a fascination with mere sensationalism.
 
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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org