MILWAUKEE — When Vicki Thorn, Project Rachel founder and executive director of the National Office of Post-Abortion Reconciliation and Healing, flipped through her mail one day in May, she was stunned to see that intermingled among bills, catalogs and other correspondence, was a letter from Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the late Vatican nuncio to the United States who died in July.Upon opening the letter, she learned that she was appointed a “Corresponding Member” of the Pontifical Academy for Life. Admittedly, she wasn’t quite certain what this title meant for her, but quickly made a few phone calls and did some research on this prestigious five-year, renewable appointment.
“I didn’t even know about this; it isn’t something you apply for, it just comes from the Vatican as an appointment,” said the Milwaukee native. “I was, and still am, shocked and very, very honored by this. These are people who really bring to the Vatican, their expertise and knowledge and keep the church apprised of things going on in the country. My first thought when I read the letter was, ‘Oh my gosh, what am I doing and what am I going to bring to this?’”
Priests for Life founder, Fr. Frank Pavone, is also a “Corresponding Member” of the Pontifical Academy for Life and was appointed in May 2010. According to Leslie Palma-Simoncek, communications director, Priests for Life, Thorn joins approximately 160 members from around the world who are charged with studying ethical and moral issues surrounding the sanctity of life from an interdisciplinary perspective and informing the church, the scientific and health care communities, the media and society at large of its findings and conclusions.
“The members of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life form an impressive who’s who of international advocates for life,” she said in a May 2010 Priests for Life press release.
Founded in 1994 by Pope John Paul II, the Pontifical Academy is composed of 70 “ordinary” members and a similar number of “corresponding” members. Members become “honorary” when they reach the age of 80.
“I don’t really know all of what this appointment requires yet,” explained Thorn. “The Pontifical Academy for Life is a consultative body for the Holy Father. We work with others, and I know that the whole group comes together in February and we work on subcommittees. It is an incredible honor to be able to have this kind of input into life issues. I will be able to work with people who are movers and shakers in terms of the world’s pro-life and natural family planning issues.”
In 1977, Thorn became the first respect life director for the archdiocese, and on Sept. 18, 1984, Project Rachel was formed as the Catholic Church’s healing ministry to those who have been involved in abortion.
“Thanks to a lead story in the Milwaukee Sentinel, this story went around the world, and I only learned two years ago that Sept. 18 is the Feast of Our Lady of LaSallette, Consolation of Sinners,” she said. “The bishops of the U.S. had called for post-abortion ministry as part of their Pastoral Plan for Pro-life Activities that was issued in 1975. They called for education on the sanctity of all life, from womb to tomb. They called for pastoral care for those facing an unplanned pregnancy and post-abortion care, but no one knew what that looked like in 1975.”
The bishops’ call bled into Thorn’s heart as she grappled with the ongoing despondency of a close friend forced by her mother to have an abortion while in high school.
“There was abuse in the house and her brother was the father of the second baby, and I am guessing of the first one, too,” she said. “It was her pain that sensitized me to the need for this. It was clear that as church we had what was needed – confessors and mental health professionals and others who could provide one-on-one care. When I asked the priests about it, they had all heard the confessions, but didn’t think they knew enough.”
With the support of Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland, Thorn received the financial resources to begin Project Rachel.
“He was, in fact, at the first training day and I believe he was the one who told the reporter that there was a ministry coming,” she said. “I had only invited the press to cover the training day, the first of its kind in the world.”
The National Office of Post-Abortion Reconciliation and Healing began in 1990, and when there was need for ministry space, Archbishop Weakland provided an office.
“A local Project Rachel priest found a donor to allow me to begin and a man that a Project Rachel priest had connected me to arrived from New Jersey with a truckload of furniture, files, Xerox machine, etc.” she said. “He also purchased our phone system and our 800 number, 1-800-5WE-CARE and we were in business. Our office remains in the Cousins Center with the blessing of Archbishop Jerome Listecki.”
Thorn has traveled worldwide presenting her recent research on the biochemistry of sex and the biology of bonding and attachment and the biology of the Theology of the Body. She has written and spoken about the sociological changes in society since 1960 and the spiritual and psychological wounds carried by Generation X and Generation Y because of those changes.
She has also authored a book on Project Rachel, titled “Progetto Rachele: Il Volto Della Compassione,” published by the Vatican Publishing House, Libreria Editrice Vaticana and currently available in Italian, Spanish and French.
“This book on Project Rachel means that there will be accessibility to information on the ministry all over the world, such as ‘here’s what it is and how to help.’ This isn’t a healing book,” she explained.
Thorn, 62, holds a degree in psychology from the University of Minnesota, as well as a certificate in trauma counseling from UW-Milwaukee. She is a longtime member of the Association of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health and a frequent workshop presenter. She is also a trained bereavement facilitator through the American Academy of Bereavement and was certified through Resolve Through Sharing Prenatal Loss as a prenatal loss facilitator.
She and her husband, Marquette professor William Thorn, have six children and two grandchildren. As a couple, they were inducted into the Pontifical Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre in October 2008, as Knight and Lady. In August 2009, she received the People of Life Award from the Pro-Life Secretariat of the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops for her pro-life service to the church.
“We are blessed to be members of the Pontifical Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre as this has given us the opportunity to get to know people from other countries, especially with Bill’s role in the International Catholic Press,” she said. “If I had a woman (dealing with abortion issues) in a another country I could probably find her a priest because of my connection to the international press. The aftermath of abortion is not unique to the United States or to Catholics, and I am blessed that Project Rachel is spreading around the world and not just addressing women, but the men who are suffering parental loss.”
The appointment serves as a boost to Thorn’s tireless work in the aftermath of abortion, pro-life advocacy and Natural Family Planning, and while this service to the Catholic Church is voluntary, she is excited to play a role in furthering education and healing in the world.
“I hope to be able to make a difference, and work with others to facilitate the movement of Project Rachel,” she said.
Archbishop Listecki is pleased and proud that Thorn will be serving the worldwide Catholic Church in her new role.
“For more than 25 years, Vicki Thorn has been devoted to defending the sanctity of life and providing support to those who bear the scars of abortion,” he said. “We are proud of her connection to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and confident that her good work will continue as a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life. I am proud to be her archbishop and friend.”