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How To Be a Bridge to Recovery and Sobriety

Addiction recovery touches nearly every aspect of diaconal ministry

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“I am new to the faith. I was afflicted with drug addiction for 10 years, but I’ve been sober now for seven. I was also afflicted with sex addiction. I’m sober now from pornography for 147 days,” was the story told by one young man. God is transforming this man from the darkness of addiction to the light of Christ and a 12-step recovery. His story is common, although it’s much more common that someone like him who is impacted by addiction, compulsion or unhealthy attachment fails to get help, according to the 2022 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Addiction touches practically every issue related to pastoral care under the umbrella of the diaconate, including family life, service to the poor, prison ministry, the dignity of human life and meeting the personal needs of community members. Alcoholism, drug addiction, pornography and lust addiction, compulsive eating behaviors, gambling, codependency and other unhealthy attachments are at the root of most family dysfunction, divorce, homelessness, mental health challenges, incarcerations, suicides and grief. Rates of use are alarming, and the impact on Catholic families and individuals demands that pastoral leaders are, at the very least, educated on addiction and aware of available support.

Debunking Myths

Much of what we think we know about addiction and recovery is grounded in myths that further stigmatize and isolate individuals or families in need of help. A lot of progress can be made in our approach to serving those shackled by addiction if we uncover what those myths are and replace them with truth.

First, addiction does not discriminate. It does not discriminate based on gender, race, socioeconomic status, religious affiliation, vocation or other demographics. By the grace of God, neither does the solution.

Second, the presence of an addiction in someone’s life or family is not a moral referendum on who they are. Addictions, compulsions and unhealthy attachments typically begin as a means to cope with circumstances in life and then, over time and repetition, manifest biological, cognitive, emotional and spiritual consequences.

No human power can relieve the addiction problem. God’s healing is an essential part of 12-step recovery, which had significant Catholic influence in its formation, even though 12-step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, or Al-Anon, to name a few, have no religious affiliation. As the culture at large has become more secularized, 12-step recovery meetings are not immune from individuals who share anti-Catholic sentiment or an attitude that being raised Catholic is a condition from which one needs recovery.

At its essence, however, there is a notable overlap between the 12 steps and the sacramental life of the Church. As outlined in my book “The Twelve Steps and the Sacraments” (Ave Maria Press, $16.95), our plunge into the waters of baptism runs parallel with Steps 1-3, the fullness of confession is embraced in Steps 4-9, we seek daily bread and conscious contact with God in Steps 10-11, and, like in the Sacrament of Confirmation, we recognize that we can only keep what we’re willing to give away by serving others and answering the call to make disciples in Step 12.

As my book was being prepared for publication in 2017, I was given opportunities to share the experience, strength and hope of my own addiction recovery and return to the Catholic Church at local speaking events and workshops. The best part of those events was when I was done talking and others in attendance had a chance to share their difficulties with addiction, their recovery or the challenges of coping with their loved one’s addictions. What was especially enriching was that each person shared through the lens of their faith so that things that would otherwise violate some unspoken rules in secular recovery meetings — such as referring to Catholic devotions like the Rosary, Scripture, saints related to recovery, or the sacraments — were shared freely, leading to a depth of honesty and humility hard to find outside the confessional.

Catholic in Recovery

From this, the first Catholic in Recovery meeting was born. It was clear that there would be many benefits of bringing people with a variety of addictions, compulsions and unhealthy attachments together in the Catholic Church to share faith, fellowship and freedom. A format was developed to integrate liturgical themes and Scripture, foster honest sharing, and help form personal relationships between members in need of recovery and those who know that they can best maintain and strengthen their recovery by helping others.

Catholic in Recovery does not claim to be a substitute for secular 12-step groups, but rather supplemental to them, acting as a bridge between the Church and recovery and helping many begin their sobriety.

It has been seven years since the first Catholic in Recovery meeting in San Diego. Now there are more than 100 in-person Catholic in Recovery meetings throughout North America and 50 weekly virtual meetings to support individuals and family members impacted by a variety of addictions.

Many deacons have helped launch Catholic in Recovery groups with their own addiction-recovery experience, or they have been ambassadors for Catholic in Recovery meetings, advocating for the value of offering a group or referring those in need of support.

Deacon Dennis Petrie, who serves the community of St. Anthony on the Lake Catholic Church in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, is just one among a handful of deacons who have successfully advocated to get a Catholic in Recovery group started in his parish. After Deacon Petrie and his wife took an interest in community mental health support, he noticed a common thread of addiction among the people with whom he was working, and he wanted St. Anthony on the Lake to take an active role in healing.

After several months of spreading the word about interest in starting a group, a few individuals with recovery experience (mostly in Al-Anon, a recovery fellowship for family members impacted by a loved one’s alcoholism) came forward with interest in starting a meeting. After a family and friends recovery meeting got off the ground, someone with recovery from alcoholism came forward and began a general recovery meeting for people with a variety of addictions.

The result: “My parish in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, started CIR approximately a year and a half ago. It brought me closer to Christ and understanding the powerlessness of alcohol users in my life,” one parishioner of St. Anthony on the Lake explained when talking about Catholic in Recovery. “It’s an amazing program, and I highly recommend it for anyone who’s addicted or a family member or friend of someone with an addiction. It also applies to almost any situation in life and [is] a wonderful way to increase your relationship with Jesus. It’s all confidential and follows the guidance of 12-step programs.”

SCOTT WEEMAN is a husband, father, the author of “The Twelve Steps and the Sacraments” (Ave Maria Press, $16.95), and founder of Catholic in Recovery.

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