The Diocese of Pittsburgh has launched a new addiction ministry to bring rehabilitation to addicts and families through a holistic approach, including spirituality and close relationships.
“We have a big opiate crisis in Pittsburgh, like every big city,” said Father Michael Decewicz, a recovering alcoholic and one of the leaders behind Addiction Recovery Ministry (ARM).
“How can we as Church respond in love to the addicted and the afflicted? This is our chance as Church, as people of God to reach out to those who are suffering addictions and afflicting their loved ones,” he told CNA.
ARM began Feb. 10 with a Mass of Healing from Addiction. An estimated 200 gathered at the liturgy, where addicts received Anointing of the sick.
Anointing of the sick “can be administered to a member of the faithful who, having reached the use of reason, begins to be in danger due to sickness or old age,” according to the Code of Canon Law.
Father Decewicz noted to CNA the proximity of the program's initiation to the Feb. 11 feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. He said it correlates to the healing miracles of Lourdes, but also emphasized that addiction is a disease, not a moral choice.
The ministry is funded by Pittsburgh’s Our Campaign for the Church Alive, a fundraising initiative designed to fund extraordinary ministries in the diocese.
Located at the John Paul I Center in Sharpsburg, the program will begin with three meetings a week of either Narcotics Anonymous or NARANON, a support group for friends and family of addicts suffering from an addiction to narcotics.
Decewicz said program will later add Alcoholics Anonymous and ALANON, the family support group for alcoholics, and eventually have a variety of all four of these meetings three times a day.
The program will also include monthly opportunities for education on the disease of addiction and spiritual nourishment, which may include “a talk on the spirituality of recovery and addiction,” said Decewicz.
He said this ministry is an opportunity for evangelization. The results might not be immediate, he said, but these are moments to plant the seeds of the faith and help people, who often have been wounded by organized religion, reconsider the Church.
“God calls us in our brokenness. We need to spread that message that God touches us in our brokenness and in our frailty. To bring a message of compassion and empathy….to affirm the dignity of every human being regardless of what they are suffering,” he said.
“For years AA has met in the basement of the church, it’s time to invite them upstairs,” he said.
Father Decewicz said a major component of the ministry will be the opportunities for one-on-one encounters. If people call the program, he said the organization will the return the call within 24 hours and connect the person to a recovering addict who can be a guide or a friend.
Decewicz will be one of the individuals answering calls, helping direct people to the proper services, and discussing his or her experience. Another volunteer for the ministry is Carol Smith, a retired Program Manager for a women’s residential facility and a recovering addict of nearly 24 years.
“You need the right tools, the right people around you to support you,” she told CNA. “There is someone here who can help you, who can identify with you, and get [you] to a meeting.”
She stressed the healing potential of 12 steps programs and shared her own experience with addiction – getting into prescription drugs when she was about 12 and the damage that followed.
Smith was introduced to prescription painkillers because of a dental procedure. She fell in love with these opiates, she said, noting she began stealing drugs from her father’s drug store. After her little brother was born and she felt more estranged from her family, Smith began to spend more time with the wrong crowd, getting deeper into alcohol and other types of drugs.
Even as the drug habit progressed, she was able to function, receiving good grades throughout high school and getting accepted into the University of Pittsburgh. While maintaining an addiction to heroin, Smith graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and later on worked for the government as a supervisor in the welfare department.
She said her life began to take a tragic turn after her husband died. She was forced to resign from her position because of a problem with theft, and eventually ended up in the hospital with sores on her legs from heroin abuse. From the hospital, she was taken to jail which then led to a work release program.
After prison, the addiction was still too much, and Smith again began shooting up heroin. “[Getting high,] that’s all I know how to do. I’ve been doing it for the past 40 years,” Smith told her supervisor when she was confronted about her relapse. But, instead of getting taken back to jail, Smith was taken to an eight week outpatient program, where she was introduced to NA.
“I started going to meetings every day and that’s when the bulb finally went off – you can get through a day without getting high, you can live without using.”
Smith explained the importance of faith in the 12 step program, calling it an opportunity for people to experience the love of God. She further added that evangelization efforts begin with people living this love.
“God is a part of it,” she said. “There’s a lot of people, especially people in addiction, they think that God’s given up on them and that he could never love them with the horrible things they’ve done.”
“The biggest thing is you let them know that God’s love them,” she said. “I think it is more about being an example if you are going to try and have other people come to God or look at him the way you do.”