The cross of addiction

Thirteen years ago, while living in Oklahoma City, Cheryl Gumerson had a life-changing moment of clarity. She realized alcohol had become too important to her, and she wanted help.

As a Catholic, she turned to her parish, but “the church didn’t know how to help me,” she said.

Fortunately, she kept looking and eventually found help. Now, Gumerson is giving back by helping to establish a substance-addiction ministry at her current parish, St. Monica in Edmond, Oklahoma. She wants fellow Catholics — whether afflicted themselves or suffering because of the addiction of a friend or family member — to see their parish as a place for hope, healing and reconciliation — and one that respects their anonymity.

family support

The ministry, Substance Addiction Ministry (known as SAM), offers a distinctively Catholic starting point to begin the process of healing. It is not, Gumerson said, a replacement for counseling, therapy, treatment or participation in a 12-step program. Rather, it helps to ease entry into recovery for both the afflicted and affected.

People afflicted with or affected by addiction are suffering from a spiritual malady, she added. Addiction disconnects people from self, from loved ones and God. SAM’s mission is to help people reconnect those relationships.

Gumerson’s pastor, Father Stephen Hamilton, is thankful for the ministry and believes SAM has great promise. He has served in both rural and metropolitan parishes and knows well the need for SAM. While recognizing that it is important to meet people where they are, he thinks it is equally important that they be met by people who have been in their situation.

“There are some matters that need a real personal witness, and that is the beauty of SAM as a lay apostolate,” Father Hamilton said. “An individual in need is connected with a fellow Catholic who understands, has sympathy and has the desire to help; and for those involved in the ministry, it is a beautiful way to live out their baptismal promises.”

Father Hamilton explains that the practical aspects of the ministry are twofold: to increase awareness of addiction through education within the parish family and community at large, and to provide a safe, confidential place for parishioners to call for help and receive appropriate referral and support.

The following statistics are from the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Mental Health, published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. All statistics relate to people ages 12 and older in the United States.

Addiction: By the Numbers
abuse statistic

Church-based ministry

It was just a year ago, Gumerson said, that she was inspired to seek a Catholic solution, and through an Internet search for “Catholic Church and addiction” she was led to the National Catholic Council on Addictions (NCCA), an affiliate of Guest House Inc., a rehabilitation facility for religious in Lake Orion, Michigan. The NCCA was originally founded as the National Clergy Council on Alcoholism in 1949 by Father Ralph Phau and is an organization that promotes hope, healing and reconciliation to those suffering from the disease of addiction and the effects of addiction on family, society and church. Its work has been endorsed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.


Mary Martin, director of NCCA, explains that, as part of meeting its mission, the council offers a training program for parishes wishing to establish a substance addiction ministry.

The creation of SAM was a direct response to the 1992 pastoral letter of the U.S. bishops titled “Communities of Hope: Parishes and Substance Abuse.” The program was initiated by Erik Vagenius, who continues to lead training workshops for NCCA. It was Vagenius who traveled to Edmond to help Gumerson establish SAM at St. Monica parish.

The four components of SAM as envisioned by Vagenius are education, prevention, referral and support. Vagenius refers to those in the ministry as “SAM teams” and sees team members as “stewards of the Church’s most valuable treasure, its people. Members share their time and talent, offering hope, healing and reconciliation to those touched by addiction. SAM teams provide a safe, confidential place for people to call for help and referral,” he said.

Team members do not have to be in recovery but need to acquaint themselves with addiction through the training. Those in recovery need to meet specific recovery requirements as well as general membership qualities, which Vagenius sets forth in the program’s training manual. All parish team members must be approved by the pastor who sponsors the program.

Vagenius, who was a therapist for 17 years at Guest House, said the seed for SAM was planted by a late mentor of his, Dominican Sister Mary Thérèse Goldman, who died in 2014. “Sister Mary Thérèse had developed an ecumenical program for Parkside Medical Services in Lansing, Michigan in the 1980s and that became our motivation for SAM,” he said.

After retiring from Guest House, Vagenius began the SAM program in the Diocese of Palm Beach, Florida, and in recent years has conducted training workshops in Kentucky, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and Louisiana.

He said that the ministry takes shape differently from parish to parish, depending on those involved and the needs of the faith community. His workshops simply provide a template and the parish SAM team develops its own dynamic from that outline. Parishes design their program based on local needs, leadership and the way they feel that God is calling them to serve their community.

Reaching out

The one common thread, Vagenius said, “in all effective parish-based SAM ministries is having leaders who have a fire in their belly for this ministry.”

One person who has that fire is Deacon Louis Bauer of St. Margaret Mary parish in Slidell, Louisiana. He said that according to Scripture, deacons were first chosen because widows and orphans were being neglected, and today they are all called to meet the needs of those who are neglected, forgotten, brokenhearted and alone.

“What has caused more orphans, widows, people who are forgotten, brokenhearted and alone than the disease of addiction?” Deacon Bauer asked. “What has caused more breakups of the domestic family than addiction? What has filled our prisons more than the crimes caused by the use, trade and violence attributed to alcohol and drugs?”

He said that many families suffer quietly in pain from the destruction that alcohol and drug abuse has caused and they feel that they cannot expose their secret for fear of being judged and treated differently.

“This fear and shame keeps them from seeking help,” he said. “But I believe that if people who are hurting start hearing the message of freedom that can be offered through SAM, they can find the promise that Jesus offers us in Luke 4:18: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.’

“Jesus went out of his way to notice the unnoticed and bring healing and peace to the hurting and outcast,” he added. “I truly believe that He has called this SAM ministry into existence to do just that.”

Father Esposito “I would plead with pastors to realize how fundamental it is to allow SAM to be present in their parish; to realize this is really about the dignity of the human person, the keystone of Catholic social teaching. If we really believe what we believe, what are we doing to support that belief?”
—Father Sam Esposito, Diocese of Pittsburgh

Support system

Deacon Bauer and the lay members of the St. Margaret Mary SAM team host two meetings each month at the parish.

“We are not in the business of treatment, evaluation or assessment; we leave that to the professionals,” he said. “We meet the person where they are and offer ourselves as empathetic listeners and pastor them and offer the proper referrals to them.

“Many people in these situations have disconnected themselves from God in the belief that they are unworthy,” he added. “We aid in helping them connect spiritually with God through our support meetings.”

The first meeting each month features an education component with a speaker who is a professional in the field of addiction and recovery, addressing both the afflicted and affected, while the second meeting focuses on the spiritual aspect of the disease, emphasizing Scripture, prayer and meditation. It is a message of both hope and community.

This twofold message is echoed by Dr. James Flannick, a licensed psychologist with professional experience as a mental health practitioner dating to 1975. In addition to his work as a clinician, he has been an assistant professor of psychology at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio.

“It is very helpful for a person to know they are not the only ones with a given problem,” Flannick said. “Meeting other family members facing similar circumstances will reduce a person’s sense of isolation and also their shame. In their informal interactions with other affected individuals, they likely will trade ideas of things that have been at least somewhat helpful in helping them cope. Social psychological research has shown the most credible and influential individual is someone who has been troubled by the same difficulty, but who has — at least partially — successfully navigated it.”

Flannick also made the connection between hope and prayer.

“A praying person is a hopeful person, since praying implies the possibility of achieving the intention of the prayer (the recovery of the substance abuser). Hope is very powerful — no matter how bad the current situation, hope for improvement will sustain a person.”

Vagenius said that approach is similar to the one utilized by Deacon Bauer’s Louisiana team, which also has taken root in the Pittsburgh diocese at a number of parishes.

Expansion to Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh provided a unique challenge for Vagenius when he was invited to present his workshop last year.

“Normally, the training is presented to 20-25 parishioners from one or two parishes, but when I showed up in Pittsburgh, they had more than 130 Catholics from 61 parishes,” he said. “It was the largest workshop I have ever presented.”

What happened in Pittsburgh, Vagenius explained, demonstrates the hunger for this ministry. He was initially contacted by one parish, but said “the Holy Spirit was obviously at work.” The individual at that one parish who first contacted the NCCA also brought SAM to the attention of the diocese, and the decision was made to form a steering committee comprised of a priest, a religious brother, a diocesan official, a drug and alcohol professional, a pastoral minister and two laypeople.

The committee decided to identify five parishes for a pilot program, but after the workshop was scheduled, a second decision was made to open it to all parishes in the diocese. That decision, according to committee member and parish pastoral minister Barb Kralik, was based partly on the assessment of the need for SAM given by Father Sam Esposito, a regional vicar in the diocese with vast experience in prison ministry.

“In my prison ministry, I have seen that drug and alcohol addiction and abuse are at the root of all their problems, and is one of the most significant underlying issues in our culture today,” Father Esposito said. “It is the women who have left their children because of their addiction that is so saddening. How do you get them out of that pattern? Pastors are stretched today and, seeking balance in their own lives, understand that they alone cannot do all that they would like to do, so it is helpful to know that SAM is essentially a lay apostolate and peer ministry that allows the laity to live out their baptismal promises.”

‘Jesus in disguise’

Due to the tremendous response to the workshop, the diocese identified 12 host parishes and has fostered a clustering approach among neighboring parishes.

Vagenius said that Pittsburgh is an excellent example of how each SAM ministry develops its own dynamic. In a slight modification of his template, the ministries offer programs of “prayer, presentations and personal presence.”

According to Kralik, this format embraces the original four components of education, prevention, referral and support. Each host parish facilitates monthly communal prayer — such as a Rosary for recovery, a Holy Hour for recovery, or prayers of Our Lady, Undoer of Knots — as well as quarterly presentations of an educational nature, and fosters personal presence by encouraging those with like experience to make themselves available to both the pastoral staff and fellow parishioners in need of support.

At Kralik’s suburban Holy Trinity parish, people from a half-dozen parishes gather the second Tuesday of each month to pray a Rosary for recovery before the Blessed Sacrament. Following the Rosary, there is an hourlong social gathering with open discussion or a presentation.

“We all suffer challenges in our lives, be they physical, emotional or spiritual, but each one of us is made in the image and likeliness of God,” Kralik said. “As followers of Christ, we are called to love one another as Christ. Anyone suffering from addiction deserves our love, our prayers, and our support. When we love these people, we love Jesus in the distressing disguise.”

‘Beauty in the Church’

One of the regular presenters is Josie Morgano-Craig, a certified interventionist with 20 years of experience working with families affected by addiction. Her presentations deal with the landscape of teenage drug use and alcohol abuse. She was drawn to the ministry by its connection with the Church.

“Something that really excites me about this ministry in particular is that it allows me to help fill a hole by integrating the medical and the spiritual,” Morgano-Craig said. “What better place for me to do that than in the Church which is the mystical body of Christ?

“There is beauty in the Church integrating with what is very good in the science, counseling, therapy, 12-step programs. You can’t put the spiritual in a box. God is always there. When the bodies begin to heal, who gets the credit? We did all the right things and the rehabilitation and treatment may have ended, but God remains. Also, there is something that I am receiving in this ministry, something that I need spiritually in my own journey to sainthood. We give and we receive.”

Morgano-Craig pointed to an example of the effectiveness of presentations and personal presence demonstrated by events that followed one of her talks at St. Louise de Marillac parish in Upper St. Clair, Pennsylvania, on Aug. 14, 2013, the feast day of St. Maximilian Kolbe, patron of addicts.

One of the people in attendance was the pastoral minister at a neighboring parish, who was approached the very next day by the father of a young man with a drug problem.

The father, desperate for answers, was looking to the Church for help. The pastoral minister was able to connect him to another father from the host-parish SAM team who had a very similar experience. That father, in turn, introduced the family to an interventionist that they had used with success. A member of the SAM team reports that the young man is more than a year clean and sober, attends a regular Bible study with his father and is active in parish life.

Sacraments key

Vagenius is quick to point out that the sacraments are an important aspect of SAM. The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is celebrated as a means to facilitate healing from addiction. The Sacrament of Reconciliation also adds a restorative dimension to a recovering person’s continuing growth. He said homilies about addiction can have a profound impact in combatting the conspiracy of silence that often perpetuates the illness by impeding a person from seeking treatment and recovery. Vagenius told an anecdote related publicly by a pastor that 100 percent of his pastoral counseling is centered on addiction problems and 50 percent of his confessions deal with problems of alcohol and other drugs.

“I would plead with pastors to realize how fundamental it is to allow SAM to be present in their parish; to realize this is really about the dignity of the human person, the keystone of Catholic social teaching,” Father Esposito said. “If we really believe what we believe, what are we doing to support that belief?”

James K. Hanna holds a master’s degree in theology and is an online instructor for the University of Notre Dame’s STEP program.

Story of Recovery
Our Sunday Visitor received the following testimonial from a man who has known the tragic results addiction can bring, and who has found healing through Substance Abuse Ministries. The writer wished to remain anonymous.