by Moira Cullings
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — “As I look back on it, I think my entire life there’s been this connection,” said Sandra. “I just didn’t know what it was.”
Sandra has always felt drawn to Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, despite the trauma and shame she’s experienced in her life.
A survivor of abuse by a representative of the Catholic Church, Sandra’s belief in the True Presence is at the forefront of her faith.
Receiving Communion is a gift she doesn’t take lightly.
“I just close my eyes and let the Eucharist dissolve,” she said. “Whatever comes to me comes to me.
“And it’s usually a deep breath.”
Road to forgiveness
Sandra, whose name has been changed for anonymity, was featured in the Oct. 30, 2020, issue of The Leaven.
She grew up in the Catholic Church, but her parents were Christmas and Easter Catholics.
“It wasn’t very emphasized in our home — going to church, the Eucharist, all of that,” she said.
Sandra’s abuse occurred at the same time her parents were getting a divorce.
She spent much of that time with two friends whose families were devoutly Catholic.
“I would go to Mass with them on a Sunday morning,” she said. “After the Eucharist [was distributed], it was so quiet with them. I could just tell that they were so connected [to Jesus].
“I remember being young and going to Mass with them and always feeling like this was the true presence of Christ.”
When Sandra went off to college, she made an effort to make it to Mass each Sunday night.
But when she had an abortion in her early 20s, a deep-rooted struggle began.
“I remember at that time thinking, ‘I’m going to regret this the rest of my life,’” she said.
Sandra was afraid and had a lack of support at the time. She emphasized that the decision was far from easy.
A few years later, Sandra went to confession anonymously and received absolution for the abortion.
But she couldn’t shake the feelings of guilt, shame and hypocrisy that overtook her when she stepped inside a church.
“I really, really struggled,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I was really worthy of receiving the Eucharist.”
Sandra found Project Rachel, where she felt supported in her healing journey.
“But it just wasn’t quite hitting the core of everything,” she said. “Now looking back on it, it’s because of the abuse and the chaos [I experienced] growing up.”
Sandra eventually suffered several miscarriages in the early years of her marriage, which left her grieving the loss of more children.
Even though she grasped onto her faith, her anxiety was intense.
“During that time, there was a lot of shame that you would hear in homilies and different places,” she said.
A voice inside her head while she was at church nagged at her: “You really shouldn’t be here. You’re kind of a hypocrite.”
Help and healing
Sandra went on to have children, who she sent to Catholic school. She continued going to church but often found herself going through the motions, distracted by the busyness of family life.
Once her kids were in high school, she stopped going entirely.
“I left for a while because I [thought], ‘I don’t deserve to be here,’” she said, “not necessarily because I didn’t want to be there.”
When she reported her abuse to the office for protection and care more than two years ago, Sandra longed to receive Communion again.
When visiting with Father John Riley, chancellor for the archdiocese, upstairs at the church offices, he would ask her, “Are you ready to go downstairs [to the chapel] and receive Communion?”
For about five months, Sandra couldn’t bring herself to do it.
Often, Catholic artwork and other memories would bring her back to the abuse she suffered, hindering her from the act of receiving.
“I just remember Father Riley saying, ‘In God’s time. It’s all in God’s time,’” she recalled.
The office worked with Sandra at her own pace.
When she was ready to receive Communion again, Father Riley met her after daily Mass so she could do so in private.
The peace it brought was profound.
Then last December, on the anniversary of Sandra’s abortion and the feast of the Holy Family, he met her privately so she could receive Communion and write a letter to her unborn child.
“It was the most healing experience I think I’ve had in this whole process,” said Sandra.
“Secrets will kill you,” she continued. “They really will kill you or get pretty close. There was a time when I was extremely suicidal over this.”
But she never gave up.
Eventually, Sandra started going back to Mass. At first, Linda Slater- Trimble, the victim care advocate for the office of protection and care at the time, accompanied her.
That is until last Easter, when she was able to go by herself.
Sitting quietly in eucharistic adoration was a key part of Sandra’s journey.
“That was huge for me when I could not receive Communion,” she said. “I’d schedule my day around being in the chapel.”
Sometimes, she would feel overwhelmed.
“But most of the time, it was just so healing,” she said. “And I think for anyone that wants to come back to the Eucharist, that’s a great place to start.
“For me, I needed that time alone with Christ. I was blessed to feel his presence. It was there I knew he was calling me back.”
Another technique played a role in her journey back to Communion.
“One of the things I used to do to get past the shame part of it is I was always going for someone else,” she said.
Whether it was for family members or challenging situations, Sandra would offer up Communion for other intentions.
She is still on her healing journey, but her faith is unshakable.
The connection she has with Christ’s presence in the Eucharist brings her peace.
“There are times I still walk into church and Mass feeling a little anxiety,” said Sandra. “For many years, I felt I did not belong and so I know that is where that anxiety comes from.
“However, when I receive Christ in the Eucharist, all that fades away and I feel his love.”
She hears God telling her, “You’re home. This is where you belong.”
“I can’t tell you how great it feels to truly be home,” she said.