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By Barry Schoedel

September is National Recovery Month, a program sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (www.recoverymonth.gov) to promote the societal benefits of prevention, treatment, and recovery for mental and substance use disorders. It is also an opportunity to celebrate recovery, to praise the good work of the many professionals committed to the treatment of persons with mental and substance use disorders and to promote the message that recovery in all forms is possible.

Many people may not realize this, but the Church, primarily through the commitment of individual Catholics, has been involved in reaching out to those enslaved to substances or behaviors since the Incarnation of Christ in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Indeed the Word became Flesh to reconcile an estranged humanity to the Father, and this reconciliation leaves no stone unturned. It embraces all that is good and true in medicine while completing it with the love of God. It is intrinsic to the vocation of the Church that she effects and guides the liberation of peoples from their various forms of bondage. This includes those who are harmfully enslaved to substances and behaviors. As Catholics we are grateful for the medical disciplines that support recovery and at the same time have a responsibility to proclaim the love of God in Jesus Christ to all peoples, especially the mentally ill and those suffering from substance abuse disorders.

Even before the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous, through such organizations as the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association of the Sacred Heart of Jesus – founded by Fr. James Cullen S.J. in Ireland in 1898 – there have been Catholics specifically committed to serving the good of those who are dependent on alcohol. Venerable Matt Talbot was freed from the compulsion to drink when he recognized that he was enslaved to it and only a new life in God could free him. After reaching out for help from others, he gave his life to God through devotion to Jesus, daily Mass, meditation and prayer, receiving spiritual direction, and mortification. Matt is an inspiration to many people in recovery because he was a simple man, a humble Irish laborer, whom God used as an instrument of grace to communicate that his grace could relieve people of the compulsion to drink. Matt’s life was a continual seeking of the reconciliation offered in Christ, allowing himself to be led by the Holy Spirit to a restored relationship with God the Father.

Bill W., one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, considered Fr. Ed Dowling, S.J., an important spiritual director. Bill W. grappled much with the Catholic faith and made a sincere effort to try to understand the faith, though he struggled with accepting the authority of the Church. An often unmentioned and behind the scenes founder of Alcoholics Anonymous was Sister Ignatia Gavin. In 1935 she admitted a patient that Dr. Bob (another founder of A.A.) brought to her hospital for the treatment of alcoholism. The hospital didn’t want to admit alcoholics. The disease aspect of chemical dependency was not well understood at this time and it was seen as strictly a moral problem and a problem of the will. Sr. Ignatia was able to admit this patient under a diagnosis of acute gastritis, thus revolutionizing the approach to the treatment of alcoholism. Sr. Ignatia worked to get alcoholism accepted as a medical condition serious enough to have its own criteria for admission so that alcoholics didn’t have to be admitted through the “back door.” Her efforts resulted in an entire ward of the hospital being devoted to the care of recovering alcoholics. This was a huge advance in the treatment of alcoholism and has influenced how we approach all chemical dependency issues.

Fr. John Doe (Fr. Ralph Pfau), a priest who was trained at St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana and served in Indianapolis, is believed to be the first Roman Catholic priest who sought the help of Alcoholics Anonymous to be free from the compulsion to drink. Fr. Ralph Pfau was a prolific author of materials to support both Catholics and non-Catholics in recovery from Alcoholism. Books such as Sobriety Without End, Sobriety and Beyond, and his Golden Book series were well used resources by both Catholics and non-Catholics in the early history of AA. They remain some of the best recovery resources available. Fr. Ralph also was instrumental in the founding of what is now the National Catholic Council on Addictions. Fr. Ralph especially worked during his life to reach out to priests and religious who were alcoholic, which led to the founding of what is now called Guest House, a substance abuse ministry to clergy and religious who are alcoholic and/or addicted. Their mission statement is, “to provide information, education, treatment and care needed to assure that clergy, men and women religious, and seminarians suffering from alcoholism and other related conditions have the best opportunity for quality recovery.” The success of Guest House led to the foundation of a similar program in India called Friendship House as well as the establishment of the National Catholic Council on Addictions.

The late Jesuit and moral theologian Fr. John C. Ford was also an early A.A. member and friend of Bill W. Fr. John Ford became an important resource for the Church’s developing understanding of the psychological and moral aspects of alcoholism. The late Fr. John C. Ford is to this day considered an eminent moral theologian, who helped the Church articulate such Catholic teachings as the moral evil of contraception. More recently, Cardinal Justin Rigali (the then) Archbishop of Philadelphia, held a one day conference on addictions, delivering a keynote address titled, “Let the Oppressed Go Free: Breaking the Bonds of Addiction,” which is now available in book format. Just this summer, Archbishop Tobin of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, delivered the keynote address at the annual meeting of the Guest House ministry, sharing honestly about his own confrontation with chemical dependency and his journey in recovery. Many other clergy and religious are also involved head on in addressing the problems of addiction and substance abuse, both in the Church and society at large.

Alaskans are no strangers to alcoholism and chemical dependency problems. Alaska is continually recorded as having among the highest “amount of alcohol consumption per person ratio” among all 50 states. Although certainly not limited to Native peoples, among Natives this rate is inordinately high. An article in the Juneau Empire last year mentioned that in 2010 alcohol and drug abuse cost Alaska’s economy 1.2 billion dollars. This is a staggering figure, yet it doesn’t completely communicate the spiritual and moral diminishment that alcoholism and chemical dependency causes in hearts and souls, and in homes, families, and communities.

Whether we are recovering addicts or alcoholics, those in need of recovery, or those who love them, we are called as Catholics to be evangelized by the love and goodness of Christ, to make disciples, and to proclaim the Kingdom of God. In Southeast Alaska we have a special obligation and opportunity it seems, to carry on this tradition of participating as a Church and as individual Catholics in the liberation of our neighbor, through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. As we approach the Synod and examine our commitment to the Mission of the Church we have to ask ourselves what we can do to better reach out as the Body of Christ, with love and truth, to those suffering from painful and debilitating addictions.
Thankfully, it is not a matter of reinventing the wheel, but instead receiving more fully in what has come before us in terms of the Catholic tradition of helping alcoholics and addicts. We must trust that the Christian faith is important to complete moral and spiritual recovery and that we have something immeasurably good to share with those suffering from addictions. We must be willing to meet people in the midst of their bondage and to accompany them with Christ to freedom.
Under the guidance of the Bishop and as an aspect of our call to be missionaries of the love of Jesus we have the opportunity and obligation to develop an intentional approach to ministry to persons and families affected by alcoholism and addiction. We have to believe that we can more fully give of ourselves to those trapped by the bondage of addiction in Southeast Alaska by introducing here Catholic movements such as the Calix Society, the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association for the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Catholic resources such as the writings of Fr. Ralph Pfau, the Guest House, the National Catholic Council on Addictions. Also, we must become aware of, and better understand, how to introduce people to the places of recovery that are already established in our communities, such as 12-step meetings, inpatient and outpatient programs, and Native resources.

If you are interested in participating in a more intentional approach to discipleship and ministry to alcoholics and addicts in Southeast Alaska please contact me at: southeastalaskacatholic@gmail.com.

Barry P. Schoedel is the Diocesan Assistant for Evangelization and Technology and member of the Synod Preparatory Commission.