CATHOLIC DIGEST, Vol. 51: 98-100, May, 1987
I AM AN ALCOHOLIC PRIEST
by Father Anonymous
Most Catholics have known at least one priest who likes to drink too much. Some parishioners cater to the weakness by giving Father a bottle for Christmas or making sure he gets safely back to the rectory after a social evening in someone's home.
But other parishioners would just as soon avoid the alcoholic priest. His drinking has slowly twisted his personality so that he treats others rudely and insensitively.
I am sitting at my typewriter because I would like to share with you what it is like to be that alcoholic priest. I call myself "Father Anonymous" not because I am ashamed to be an alcoholic, but because I respect the tradition of that wonderful organization, Alcoholics Anonymous. I belong to A.A., and members always mask their identities when speaking on the radio, television, or to the press.
Through the grace of God, I have not taken a drink for twelve years. My recovery from alcoholism has greatly affected the kind of priest I am. Let me tell you a story to show what I mean.
One evening I took off my collar and changed into more comfortable attire before going to an A.A. meeting. As I walked into the hall, I was surprised to see an elderly parishioner who was attending for the first time. She looked at me quizzically and said, "You look just like my parish priest!"
"I am," I replied.
It took a moment for my answer to settle in, but finally the woman recovered enough to ask, "Why are you here, Father?"
"For the same reason you are," I said. "I'm an alcoholic too." She looked at me for a moment, then covered her mouth with her hand, and exclaimed, "Oh, my God!"
I found this incident humorous, and have recounted it often to the amusement of my A.A. friends. But I also realize that this poor woman was in a great deal of pain. She was shocked because she thought of alcoholism as a moral problem, and here was a priest admitting that he was guilty of immoral activity.
And if my friend thought that I was guilty of immorality, she must also think the same of herself. She was a good woman, had always been faithful to her Church, and had been raised in a good Catholic family. You can imagine what happened to her self-respect when she began to believe she was a sinful drunkard.
As I continued to talk with the woman, I helped her realize that she was not a sinful person. She, like me, suffered from a disease that traces its roots to our genes, much like the disease of diabetes. Fortunately, age was in her favor: she could remember when diabetes was considered a shameful condition. The diabetic was sick, people thought, because he or she lacked willpower and ate too many sweets. My parishioner drank too much, I explained, for the same reason the diabetic eats too much sugar: a biochemical abnormality brings about an almost irresistible craving. Lack of willpower or lack of moral fiber has nothing to do with the problem.
I left the A.A. meeting that night feeling very much like a priest. And my friend went home feeling much better. She was beginning to understand that she was a sick person trying to get well, not a bad person trying to get good.
Many people from other parishes, even other faiths, have been sent to me because of my reputation for having a magic touch with alcoholics. And I do have the magic touch. But it's the same touch that any recovering alcoholic has when he or she reaches out to the alcoholic who is still actively suffering from the disease. When a suffering alcoholic encounters one who is sober, a wonderful transmission line is opened. What goes through that transmission line is nothing other than the grace of God. Transmitting God's grace is a very priestly thing to do. But in this instance, I am able to do it not because of my ordination, but because I suffer from a disease.
Alcoholics Anonymous promises members that they will reach a point where they will not regret their pasts. Do I have any regrets? I do indeed, but they are not regrets about myself. I regret, for example, the way people treat actively alcoholic priests. About 10% of the general population is susceptible to alcoholism, and priests are no exception. But what happens to the priest who drinks too much? Unfortunately, people try to be kind. When Father misses morning Mass because he was drinking, people say that he has the flu. When Father is stopped for drunk driving, the officer sees the collar and lets him go with a warning.
True kindness makes the alcoholic face the consequences of drinking. False kindness covers for the alcoholic's mistakes, and prevents the alcoholic from doing something about the disease. Many alcoholics, both clerical and lay, have reached early graves because people tried to be kind.
What should you do if your priest suffers from alcoholism? For one thing, seriously consider telling the priest of your concern. Will you hurt his feelings or make him angry? No doubt. But hurt feelings just might be his incentive to seek help. Should you write a confidential letter to the bishop? Absolutely. Most, if not all, bishops are enlightened enough to know that alcoholism is a disease to be treated and not a fault to be punished. Many dioceses have excellent programs to help the alcoholic priest, but a bishop cannot help if he does not know the problem exists.
I also regret the attitude many people have toward alcoholism in general. The American Medical Association declared alcoholism a disease more than years ago. Yet the average person still thinks very much like the woman I met at the A.A. meeting, that alcoholism is a shameful condition. This prevents many alcoholics from going for help. About 10% of the readers of this magazine suffer from alcoholism, and many more readers know someone who has a problem with drinking. Perhaps feelings of guilt or shame keep people from asking for help or urging someone they know to see help. I hope this story has taken that shame away. Alcoholics Anonymous is listed in every phone book. My prayer is that learning about me will give people the courage to call that number - and help someone begin a beautiful new life.