THE CHURCH'S RESPONSE TO PEOPLE TOUCHED BY ADDICTION
On Easter Sunday 1983, my wife and I were attending Mass at an alcoholism treatment center for male clergy and religious. After the gospel was proclaimed the homilist announced, "Rejoice! Today is the alcoholic's feast day." He went on to elaborate how people touched by addiction, once in recovery, have been privileged to experience the Paschal Mystery. Their spiritual journey has indeed been a sharing of Jesus' Passion, Death, and Resurrection. I received that gift of recovery on October 26, 1973. Since that time, God has allowed me to minister to His people touched by addiction.
In 1994, I retired as director of that treatment center. What most impressed me in my fourteen years serving those special men was the vast number who returned to their parishes and openly shared their journey through alcoholism into recovery. As a result of their transparency, they were able to reach out to literally thousands of others who had been touched by addiction, both the "afflicted"
and the "affected".
It became apparent that "church" can play an important role as "healer". Clergy and laity alike, who have been given this gift of recovery, have been called to share their experience, strength, hope, and weakness with others. In July 1998, I was appointed to establish and develop the Substance Addiction Ministry (SAM)
in the Catholic Diocese of Palm Beach (Florida), a program designed to facilitate hope, healing, and reconciliation to people touched by addiction. The creation of SAM was a direct response to the 1992 pastoral letter of the American bishops entitled Communities of Hope: Parishes and Substance Abuse.
People afflicted with or affected by addiction are suffering with a spiritual malady. Addiction dis-connects
people: from self, loved ones, and God. SAM's mission is to help these people re-connect:
with self, loved ones, and God. For every one who is afflicted with an addiction, a minimum of four other people will be affected. SAM is a quality of life ministry.
And yet, many of us deny the presence of the problem or the magnitude of addiction's effects.
It is important to mention that SAM could not have begun nor continued to exist without the ongoing support and encouragement of the Bishops, clergy, religious, and laity of the Diocese of Palm Beach.
SAM Team Membership and Training
Since July 1998, fourteen parish SAM teams have been commissioned in the Diocese of Palm Beach. The team's mission is to:
- Increase awareness of addiction through education to various ministries and groups within the parish family and the community at large; and
- Provide a safe, confidential place for parishioners to call for help and receive appropriate referral and support.
Establishing SAM is very simple. The first step is to enlist leadership support to present an overview of SAM at a parish or diocesan gathering, e.g., clergy convocation or parish weekend Masses. Secondly, parish or diocesan volunteers are enlisted to form a core group to enter a course of training and formation to initiate SAM at the parish level or subsequently train parish teams within the diocese. Team members do not have to be in recovery but will need to acquaint themselves with addiction through the training. Those in recovery will need to meet specific recovery requirements as well as the general membership qualities, which are set forth in the SAM Training Manual. All parish team members are approved by the pastor.
The training process will focus on the following:
- How Can a SAM Team Serve Your Parish?
- Overview of Addiction
- Addiction and The Family
- Committee Formation and Procedures
- Implementing SAM
The final step is a Commissioning Ceremony which takes place at a weekend Mass, with the SAM team being introduced to their fellow parishioners. Throughout the course of training and implementation of SAM is the reinforcement of the strict need for confidentiality between team members and those seeking help. Without this, no trust could exist.
Parish SAM Team Activities
"Sowing seed" is essential if SAM is to be effective. The phone won't ring if parishioners don't know SAM exists or what SAM does. Creating awareness is not a complicated task. Simply announcing SAM's presence or educational activities is a start. This can be done from the pulpit or in the weekly parish bulletin. In the ministry's early days, an average of two phone requests for assistance from a parish that did not yet have a SAM team were received by the Diocesan SAM Office. A bulletin announcement simply read: "Are you or a loved one touched by addiction?" Call the Diocesan Office of Substance Addiction Ministry (SAM) for help at (phone number) or parishioner volunteer (name and phone number). Many had access to help as a result of that simple, repeated weekly message.
An important aspect of education is its role in prevention, especially with our vulnerable youth. SAM teams (and the Diocesan SAM Office) currently provide many educational experiences for parish elementary schools, diocesan high schools, religious education classes, college students, and home-school associations. A priest, who had heard confessions of 13-16 year old youth preparing for Confirmation, related that "50% of these young people had confessed sins of drunkenness and stealing liquor from their parent's liquor cabinet at home." A primary focus for this age group is on nicotine, alcohol, and prescription drugs. These "gateway" drugs, singly or in combination, are the most available and the greatest "killers" and life-wreckers that we know of.
Another group that has become an increasing focus of SAM is the elderly. At this vulnerable time of experiencing loss in their lives, (e.g., retirement, death of a spouse and close friends, failing health, reduced income) they become susceptible to increased alcohol consumption. In addition, most people in this age group are on any number of prescription medications. Alcohol and drugs are a deadly mix. The result is a decreased quality of life. These, tragically, never are experienced as "The Golden Years". Some local programs here in our diocese have gently focused on the dangers of the potentially lethal alcohol-prescription drug combination and helped many of our seniors achieve the enriched life quality they have earned.
The second major focus or the SAM team is to provide appropriate referral and support to those parishioners seeking help. These contacts are primarily the result of "sowing the seed" of awareness. Means of contacting SAM can be parish phone, team pager, or team cell phone. Referrals are made to 12-Step Fellowships, detox centers, inpatient and outpatient treatment programs, local therapists, halfway/recovery houses, and clergy/spiritual counseling. An appropriate referral contact list is developed and maintained by the team.
Parish SAM Team Activities
The SAM program of the Diocese of Palm Beach has developed an extensive program of activities. A principle responsibility of this office is training and "nourishing" existing parish SAM teams and responding to "calls for help" from persons experiencing distress in their lives as a result of addiction. The scope of contact of this office is extensive and has been enhanced by the SAM website. Listed below is a partial list of SAM's typical Diocesan outreach and some estimates of the number of people contacted.
- Parish Mass Talks: 3,000-5,000 people per weekend.
- Workshops to Priests, Seminarians, Permanent Deacons.
- Catholic Charities Supervisor Training.
- Parish Schools and Religious Education Classes.
- National Catholic Council on Alcoholism (NCCA) Pre-Conferences in Dioceses of Orlando, Savannah, San Diego, and New Orleans.
- International Institute for Clergy Formation.
- Serra Clubs, Knights of Columbus.
- Recovery Retreats.
- Consultant to Marriage Tribunal.
- Intervention Assistance.
- Training of a core team to implement SAM in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis; 30 team members from 7 parishes.
- Write monthly column "SAM Scripts" in Diocesan newspaper, The Florida Catholic: 20,000 family subscriptions.
- Annual SAM Team Renewal Day.
Parish SAM Team Activities
As noted above, the Palm Beach Diocesan SAM model has been presented at NCCA Pre-Conference workshops since 2005. As a result, the Archdiocese of Indianapolis requested a SAM training. Three training sessions were presented over a 12 month period to a core group of approximately 30 people from seven parishes. An important participant (who continues to make things happen) is the Archdiocesan Director of Family Ministries. It can't be stated too frequently that the support
from on high, whether at parish or diocesan level, is essential for SAM's viability and success.
The question keeps coming up as to how to start SAM. Listed below is the SAM Training Schedule which was presented to the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and can be adapted to any (arch)diocese desiring diocesan/parish SAM teams.
Session 1: (2 hours)
Session 2: (4-5 hours; lunch included)
- Meet with core group (10-20) from diocese and parishes.
- Diocese of Palm Beach SAM Training Outline.
- Establish future training date (approximately 3-6 months).
- Invite parish potential trainers.
Session 3: (6 hours; lunch included)
- Video: "Reflections From the Heart of a Child".
- Discuss overview of SAM training sessions.
- Establish final training date (approximately 3-6 months).
- Review and discuss SAM training manual.
- Commission trainers.
- Set firm time frame for establishment of individual Parish SAM teams.
- Set tentative dates for trainers to meet and evaluate progress and problems areas. (Quarterly or semi-annually)
- Set tentative date for "Renewal Day" for SAM teams.
SAM and the Role of the Sacraments
The Sacraments of the Catholic Church are an important aspect of SAM. Periodic Masses, both at parish and Diocesan level, focusing on gratitude and recovery are celebrated regularly. The Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick is celebrated as a means to facilitate healing from addiction. The Sacrament of Reconciliation adds a healing dimension to a recovering person's personal inventory, prescribed by all 12-Step programs. Homilies about addiction always have a profound impact in confronting the conspiracy of silence that perpetuates the illness and precludes one's access to treatment and recovery. At one SAM Team's Commissioning Ceremony, the pastor publicly stated that "100% of his pastoral counseling is centered on addiction problems and 50% of his confessions deal with problems with alcohol and/or other drugs".
Though we do keep a record of the number of calls received at each parish, it is difficult to know how many lives we have touched. In fact, focusing on the "numbers game" or "success stories" can be a trap. Several years ago at a Diocesan Mass of Healing, the number of attendees was far less than I had hoped for. I was greatly disappointed and discouraged. The next morning, I received a phone call from a lady who had attended that Mass with her 80 year old husband. He was so touched by that experience that he wanted to get help for his 60+ year drinking problem. The lesson of the Good Shepherd was brought home.
For us who are in recovery, God has called us to be His "Wounded Healers"
. Indeed we are His "Good Samaritans"
Jesus said, "I am the Way
, the Truth
, and the Life
". With Jesus we have the courage to help others who carry the cross of addiction, both the afflicted
and the affected
. Facing the Truth about addiction through SAM is a Way
to a new Life
For more information on how to start a
Substance Addiction Ministry in your diocese or parish,
contact Erik Vagenius at (561) 373-3854 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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