Parish life, peer education and public-private partnerships are needed to combat addiction, said Darren Butler, national coordinator of the Irish Bishops' Drugs Initiative during an Aug. 22 presentation at the World Meeting of Families 2018 in Dublin.
More than 140 people listened Aug. 22 as Butler described the multifaceted pastoral response developed by the initiative, established in 1997 to address the issue of substance abuse in Irish society. Since then, the initiative has worked with numerous local and national agencies to provide resources for recovery.
Parish and diocesan structures are key to the initiative's mission, said Butler, as they enable his team "to reach areas many other programs miss."
Since young people are vulnerable to drug and alcohol experimentation when transitioning to secondary school, the initiative invites students preparing for confirmation to pledge themselves to a healthy lifestyle. As part of their "confirmation commitment," they attend a ceremony at which their sponsors promise to serve as positive role models. Students are then presented with commemorative wristbands and bookmarks listing the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Panelist David Conway of Kilkenny, Ireland, noted that his parish had created "family fun days" to strengthen both the confirmation commitment and communal life.
"Events like this will transform your parish," said Conway, who became active in the church a decade ago, after being sidelined by a work-related disability at age 42.
Unable to continue in his manufacturing job, Conway began organizing simple parish picnics that eventually spawned a peer education program on a range of youth issues, including substance abuse and cellphone safety.
Having since completed a degree in social sciences, Conway stressed that teens are vital to addiction-prevention efforts.
"When you give young people a challenge, that responsibility enhances their self-esteem," Conway said, adding that older teens often can advise younger teens with greater credibility and sensitivity.
The presentation included a dramatic performance by Alison and Ciara Blair, a mother and daughter who acted out an addicted teen stealing from a parent and snorting heroin.
Alison Blair then described in detail how addiction radically alters family dynamics. Mothers, often the first to suspect abuse, can become "lifelines and leaders in bringing the family" back to stability, she said.
Panelist Tracey Doyle said families have been the driving force in Ireland's response to addiction.
"In the 1980s, heroin use was widespread here, and there was no real aid," said Doyle, who now works with Ballyfermot STAR, a Dublin-based organization that provides addiction recovery resources to the local community. "Families started to mobilize, and then the church and the government started to get on board."
Auxiliary Bishop Eamonn Walsh of Dublin exhorted attendees, particularly the laity, to redouble their support for addiction recovery outreaches. A former prison chaplain, he said he had buried 11 young women over a two-year period due to heroin overdoses, spurring him to a new compassion for those struggling with substance abuse.
Bishop Walsh reminded attendees that Pope Francis "asks us to leave a mark" on the world as part of the call to holiness.
"You can make a difference," said Bishop Walsh. "Remember that God walks with us, even if we look away. We have to walk with one another and never give up on anybody."