Catholics Bring Light to the Darkness of Opioid Addiction

As an epidemic of drug addiction consumes the United States, Church ministries reach out to help affected persons and their families.

(photo: Pixabay)

SLIDELL, La. — On Divine Mercy Sunday five years ago, Deacon Louis Bauer had asked his parish priest to allow him to share after Mass about the new ministry he was starting. At each of the five Masses that day, he told the faithful that he was starting a new group to help those suffering from addiction. He asked a simple question at each Mass.

“By a show of hands, how many people here have either been afflicted with or affected by addiction in your family?”

From the pulpit, he saw almost 80% of parishioners raising their hands. He said, “Look around: This is not my ministry; this is our ministry.”

More and more Americans across the country are seeing the effects of a profoundly devastating but until recently little mentioned epidemic: opioid addiction. Opioids are a class of drugs that includes prescription painkillers such as OxyContin or Vicodin and illegal substances such as heroin and fentanyl that have swept through American communities, hurting both rural and urban areas.

Pope Francis highlighted the need for the Church to tackle substance addiction at a Vatican conference on narcotics in November, calling it “a new form of slavery.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than six out of 10 drug overdose deaths involve opioids, and drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the United States today. On average, 91 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.

The number of lives affected by the epidemic of opioid addiction is staggering, according to figures provided by the American Society of Addiction Medicine. In 2015, 33,091 persons died from overdoses of prescription drugs or heroin. An estimated 2 million Americans are addicted to prescription opioid pain relievers, and 591,000 are addicted to heroin.

But those numbers don’t tell the full story. Addicted persons never suffer alone. Erik Vagenius, founder of Substance Addiction Ministries (SAM), a faith-based program for addicted persons in recovery, told the Register that “every person afflicted with addiction affects at least four other people close to them, generally the family. Vagenius is himself a recovered alcoholic whose “recovery journey began on Oct. 28, 1973,” according to the SAM website.

“I don’t think there’s anybody on a Sunday morning in a church pew who has not in some way been touched by addiction,” said Vagenius, who served from 1998 to 2013 as director of the Office of Substance Addiction Ministry in the Diocese of Palm Beach, Florida.

The children of addicted parents also experience multiple traumas, from exposure to drug use to separation from their parents through foster care or the death of a parent. Pew Charitable Trusts found that in Georgia and Ohio parental substance addiction is a factor with more than 40% of children placed into the foster-care system. In 2011, the amount of children in foster care had been trending downward, but since then cases have been going up. From 2013 to 2014, the amount of children in the foster-care system increased 3.5%.


Unborn at Risk

The trauma of addiction also affects children who are exposed during pregnancy to opioids through their mother’s bloodstream. Opioid-affected infants at birth are, on average, smaller and weigh less than other newborns, according to a systematic review of medical studies done in 2011, and they are at higher risk for behavioral problems. In addition, shortly after birth, opioid-affected infants begin to show symptoms of drug withdrawal.

What can be more dangerous for unborn children exposed to these drugs, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, is when well-intentioned addicted mothers decide to abruptly end their opioid usage.

“Family members, when they find out someone is pregnant, they’ll say, ‘You need to stop using right away,’” Cheryl Calire, director of the Office of Pro-Life Activities in the Diocese of Buffalo, New York, told the Register. “That’s one of the worst pieces of advice they could give.”

Calire explained that the baby faces serious risks to his or her life if a mother goes through unsupervised withdrawal.

“So what we try to do is connect them right away with the proper doctors and clinics,” she said, to ensure proper medical aid.

Her office last year co-sponsored a seminar that focused on pastoral responses to the addiction epidemic. The event  brought together law enforcement, medical professionals and other speakers to educate the community about substance addiction and how to respond to it.

Calire said that, at first, some people were curious about the connection between substance addiction and pro-life ministry. But, as she explained, they both involve issues of life and dignity and “have a ripple effect on families.”

“The more we work together to educate and inform people, the better we’re going to be equipped to let them know the mercy of Christ,” she said.


Community Meetings in New Hampshire

Father John Mahoney Jr., director of clinical services at Catholic Charities New Hampshire, told the Register that his counseling team realized recently that they were seeing relatively few individuals with substance addiction, even though nearly all of them knew someone struggling with it. They decided on a new approach to help with the opioid crisis in New Hampshire, which has been a particularly hard-hit state.

“We looked to the Gospels as a model, and we agreed that Jesus didn’t stay in a clinic somewhere and have people come to him. He went out into the marketplace and reached out to help and heal,” the priest-counselor said.

So the counseling team at Catholic Charities of New Hampshire put together a format for presentations to families that discussed how to recognize opioid addiction in family members, how to avoid enabling them, and, most importantly, for many in attendance, how to communicate to loved ones about substance addiction.

Father Mahoney told the Register that this family-centered approach is an important way to address the challenge of addiction. “When one part of the family changes, the whole family dynamic changes, and so we have to heal at every level of the family to restore its dignity.”

“I think it’s important to note that the Catholic Church is addressing the problem through our families coping with the opioid addiction crisis and that we welcome with open arms people from every walk of life and faith tradition,” he said.


Small-Group Ministry

Erik Vagenius, who is a certified mental-health professional, has seen firsthand the important role parishes can play in helping families and individuals with addiction. He started the first Substance Addiction Ministry (SAM) group in 1997. SAM helps its members with education, prevention, referral and support, and has since spread to dioceses around the country.

“Addiction disconnects people: from self, loved ones and God,” Vagenius said. “SAM’s mission is to help these people reconnect.” In 2011, he did a training for Deacon Bauer and others in the Archdiocese of New Orleans who wanted to start a SAM group.

Karissa K. heard Deacon Bauer preach that sermon on Divine Mercy Sunday. She had just started recovery and felt God calling her back to the parish she had grown up in. When she saw so many others raise their hands, she was amazed.

“I felt like I was sitting in church alone, the only one with this problem,” she said.             

Realizing that she was not alone, and that her burdens were shared by others in her parish, was important for her and connected her to church. She had felt uncomfortable in church before the SAM ministry began. “I felt a calling to be back at church when I started recovery, but I didn’t really feel a part of it until the group was started,” she said.

She continues to attend Mass, five years later. “It’s about connecting back to God, finding him in the turmoil. Everyone’s there for healing.

“It’s the one place I can walk into and feel loved just the way I am.”


‘We Need Light to Come In’

SAM groups are parish based, said Deacon Bauer, and are most successful when they have the pastor’s strong support.

Deacon Bauer highlighted that SAM groups can help to overcome the stigma and shame of addiction that prevent people from seeking help for themselves or their family members.

“We imprison ourselves because of a fear of being discovered, fear of being judged,” he said. “We need light to come in — we need Jesus to come in and bring new life into us and give us the power of the Holy Spirit that is going to help this spiritual plague as well as this physical plague.”


Nicholas W. Smith is a Register correspondent.