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FURROW, NOVEMBER, 1953
(Details amended to 1972)
CATHOLIC MEMBERS APPRECIATION
HEAR the A.A. want to start a group here. Do you know anything
about these fellows?" I was shown this part of a letter
from one country priest to another not so long ago. I am
an alcoholic myself and a member of A.A. for twenty-four
years. My own success in the adventure of sobriety is bound
up with the success of A.A. in Ireland. The object of this
article is to tell something about "these fellows":
what we are, what we try to do and what we have so far achieved.
For we have found a knowledge and understanding of A.A.
has made us friends and gained us helpers.
to comparatively recently, Society has placed all drunks
in the same category - weak-willed, callous, helpless and
unhelpable, intentional sinners, skeletons whose greatest
offence is that they will not remain snugly in their family
cupboards. Yet nearly everyone knows at least one person
whose drinking has apparently almost without warning become
incomprehensible. Men with good homes, money, good business
or jobs, good reputations, healthy, in no way unhappy, suddenly
go off the rails. Normal, seemingly, when not drinking,
their characters undergo a complete change once they start
on alcohol. Their former occasional "night-outs"
develop swiftly into bouts, the bouts come closer and closer
together. In many cases they are seldom completely sober.
Their drinking is followed by periods of intense remorse,
by sincere though short lived attempts to stay off liquor.
Their relatives are in turn startled, puzzled, anxious to
help, resentful, contemptuous, enraged. They themselves
are at first sure they can find a way of retaining control
"next time," then frightened when they fail repeatedly,
then hopeless. Their complete ignorance of what has happened
to them, what is still happened to them, what is still happening
to them, makes it impossible for them to explain to, and
gain the understanding sympathy of, those they love and
respect. Little by little they cut themselves off from their
world; they live in a state of desperate loneliness and
finally become outcasts. These are the persons sometimes
called the Problem Drinkers. They are, in fact, alcoholics
or compulsive drinkers, suffering from a physical allergy
to alcohol combined with a mental obsession to take more
once they start to drink: drinkers whose compulsion to drink
is a sign of disease. There are few alcoholics who have
recovered who would deny that this disease is really spiritual.
is a loose knit society of men and women alcoholics who
have banded together in groups all over the world to share
their experience, strength and hope with each other, that
they may solve their common problem and help others to recover
from alcoholism. There are at the time of writing over 14,000
such groups, with a total membership of about 500,000 spread
all over the world. The only requirement for membership
is a sincere desire to stop drinking. A.A. is not allied
with any particular religion, creed or denomination. It
has nothing to do with politics, other organizations or
any institution. A.A. simply minds its own business…to
stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.
Alcoholism is not a purely Catholic, Protestant or Jewish
disease; it is not the exclusive illness of either the millionaire
or the down-and-out. Alcoholism strikes at all creeds, class
and income—grades impartially. A.A.’s success
has largely derived from its refusal to recognize any difference
between one alcoholic and another. They are all sick persons,
requiring A.A. ‘s help. A.A. does not usurp the place
of Church or Medicine. The alcoholic who joins in poor physical
condition is strongly advised to consult his doctor. The
alcoholic’s religion, or lack of it, is his own affair.
In general, it has been our experience that a good A.A.
member becomes a better member of his Church. But our primary
object is to achieve sobriety. From that sobriety the other
things will stem; without it, they are impossible. A.A.
is not concerned with money. It has nothing to sell and
none of its members are paid for A.A. work. There are no
positions of authority to be obtained ;each member is on
exactly the same footing. Its policy of anonymity does away
with the danger of membership being used as a means of obtaining
personal kudos. Thus the three most ordinary occasions of
disunity and disruption are guarded against. Each group
is autonomous. Its own members care for the necessary money
to meet expenses of rent, printing and incidentals. Donations
from outside sources are politely refused. Its officers
are elected in rotation. Its policy of anonymity was first
chosen as a worldly safeguard for its members; the spiritual
value of anonymity has become more apparent since. But while
personal anonymity is required, A.A. is only too glad of
any publicity to its aims and being.
came into existence thirty six years ago in America through
a chance meeting between a New York stockbroker named Bill
(in A.A. all members go by their first names), and an Akron
doctor, Bob. Bill had already managed to keep sober for
six months as the result of following out a few principles
of living largely based on the Oxford Groups "Absolutes."
He had, however, just had the bad end of a business deal
and came to realize that to preserve his own sobriety he
must make contact with another alcoholic and help him to
achieve sobriety as well. Both of these men had long and
dreadful histories of drink; but from that first meeting,
they both remained sober. Bob died twenty-two years ago,
but Bill lived till 1971, a total abstainer for over 36
years, after he had been given up as a hopeless and unhelpable
drunk. The society they started that day grew slowly and
shakily; it took over four years to muster the first hundred
members. Since then it has grown in increasing tempo to
its present size. In numbers it is still mainly American,
United States and Canada. Twenty-nine years ago it was carried
to Australia by a travelling American. Three years later,
it came indirectly from Australia to Ireland, this time
by a priest.
priest was on holiday in Dublin in September 1946 and was
interviewed by an evening paper on the subject of a Boy’s
Town with which he was connected in Australia. In the course
of his talk he commented at length on the success that A.A.
was having in Sydney and expressed the hope that Dublin
would do well to take it up. This interview was read by
a member of the Philadelphia group, an Irishman who had
gone to live in the States, who was over here on holiday.
Spurred on by his wife, he determined to start a group in
Dublin, with the help of a doctor and by advertising, he
managed to scrape together a small number of men willing
to make the experiment. Their first public meeting was held
in The Country Shop on November25th.; and here on that night
the first A.A. group in Europe was formed. As in America,
the start was slow and uphill. Today it is firmly established
in Dublin ( 35 Groups ); there are many large groups in
Belfast; there are several groups in Limerick, Cork and
Galway, and smaller ones elsewhere. Public meetings are
held every Monday night, still in The Country Shop, where
attendance’s range from 50 upwards to 100. The maximum
attendance was at a meeting held in the Mansion House when
over 400 came along to listen to the Co-Founder of the Society,
Bill. At a conservative estimate, there are at least 2000
members in Ireland and an estimated 8,000 in England, Scotland
and Wales. A good many others, though partially convinced,
are not yet ready to make, and act on, the necessary admission
that they are beaten by drink. A world estimate is that
about 70% of those who join and give the A.A. program a
fair trial recover, though a great many of these suffer
one or more relapses before they finally settle down. A
short time ago, I was asked at a clerical meeting to explain
to them why an alcoholic went on drinking long after it
was evident that he was incapable of exercising control.
I find it almost impossible to do so. I can only say that
for a very long period of my own thirty years drinking I
honestly believed I could, someday and somehow, find a way
of drinking all I wanted without losing control. Life without
drink seemed to me to be an unnatural and quite impossible
way of existence. Later I became drearily hopeless and fatalistic
about it. Though I still continued to make attempts to pull
up, I felt even at the time that they were quite useless.
I felt it would start again sometime, so what was the use
of trying too hard? The truth is that we don’t know
why we drink; but when we tell the truth, we are not believed.
Strength of will and sincerity of purpose do not enter into
it. I have entered my name for a Retreat to find help in
Quitting drink, yet gone to that retreat with a bottle of
gin in my bag, which I drank between the first exercise
and going to sleep. After a month’s voluntary treatment
in a private home, I felt convinced I had mastered drink;
and been drinking again within a few hours. Drink makes
us mentally unbalanced and we cannot be honest even with
ourselves for long at a time.
own case history may be cited as typical of an A.A. member,
though space will mercifully prelude any but the minimum
necessary details. I am seventy-five years of age, single
and come from a good class Catholic family. My home life
was happy and I went to a Catholic College in England. Later
I entered the profession I wanted to join; I was very happy
in it, I got on well. I was good at games; I was considered
good at work, above the average of my rank in the British
Army. I had a promising future to look forward to, I had
nothing from which to escape. There was no previous history
of drink in my family. I can see no reason why I should
have become an alcoholic, yet almost from the start I drank
like an alcoholic. At first I had some sort of control over
myself as to when I drank. If circumstances seemed to indicate
the need for it, I cut out drinking without much effort
and with no feeling of self sacrifice. But even in those
first years if I drank at all I went on for the rest of
the night. Soon I was losing even that control. I began
to drink at the wrong times, in the wrong places and before
the wrong people. Good luck and good friends covered up
for me for many years, but finally life caught up on me
and I was retired on retired pay, branded as not to be re-employed.
This virtual dismissal made very little impression on me.
I still had enough money for drink and I had a home to live
in. Six more years were to pass before the climax came.
I had been inflicting every kind of unhappiness not only
on myself but on my parents, not the least for the latter
being my complete indifference to my religious duties. In
April 1947 they ordered me out of the house and the family
and their lives. By now I had added drugs to alcohol. My
routine had become one of the drugs in the morning to revive
me, drink all day and another drug at night to give me sleep.
My parents’ "revolt" opened my eyes for
the first time to where I had descended. It proved to be
my own gutter. Fear for my security and at the prospect
of becoming one of the legion of the homeless lost ( with
the next stop almost certainly a Night Shelter ), at last
made me genuinely willing in my own interest to do anything
I could to stop drinking ("Give me back my Legions".).
The trouble was that I could think of nothing useful. Doctors,
homes, hospitals, promises, all had proved in vain. Then
my memory went back to that interview I had read nine months
before, about A.A. The Grace of God must have put it into
my heart to go to a meeting that night, and I managed to
strike a one-sided bargain with my parents that if A.A.
could do some good I might stay at my parents on probation.
I arrived at that meeting, more than half-drunk, shaking
from drugs and nerves; not too good a prospect, even for
A.A. By the goodness of God and the help He has sent me
through A.A. I have not had another drink since then.
is no set blueprint of recovery in A.A. Each member succeeds
in his own way and time and at his own pace. So what I write
must be taken as my own experience only. For me, recovery
came from Knowledge, Decision, Group or social therapy,
a return to Realism and the program of the Twelve Steps.
All of these together for me make up the A.A. way of life.
And I attacked my recovery problem in just that order, which
seems to me to be entirely logical. Without Knowledge, I
could not come to any decision that would stand up for long.
Without Decision to recover, group therapy would be a waste
of time. Without Realism I should have been continuing my
old pattern of running away into dreamland from the inescapable
facts of life. And while all these things were essential
to me to stop drinking, I had to bring another factor into
play, the Twelve Steps, to learn not only how to remain
abstinent but to be happy in remaining so.
Knowledge was elementary, though new to me. Alcoholism is
a sort of disease acquired by two or three percent of the
world’s drinkers. The disease in simplifying language
is the disease of not being able to drink in moderation.
It is the first drink the alcoholic takes that sets his
disease in active virulence, not the total quantity consumed.
Alcoholism cannot be completely eliminated once it gains
a footing. No matter how long I might remain abstinent at
a time, I would never be able to control my drinking if
I started again. But if I could find a way of not taking
a first drink, I could stay sober and normal.
decision I had to take was to give up drinking for good.
I had to face the unpalatable fact that I must make abstinence
my own first and most vital aim. As for the group therapy,
I was prepared to accept that the older members had had
to make themselves essential to their groups and the groups
essential to themselves. If I was going to avail myself
of the same means that they had found necessary and successful,
it followed that I must attempt what they did. Group therapy
to me does not merely mean coming together at stated times
for formal meetings. These meetings are important for many
reasons and as the visible sign of coherence. The equally
valuable, though invisible, sign is keeping the closest
possible touch with the members of the group even when they
are not in actual physical contact. That can be done by
constantly thinking about the group, working for it, praying
for it; keeping it in mind as much as possible.
consisted in recognizing that my alcoholic life must be
cut down to a size I could hope to deal with. My disposition
was such that if I continued to think of abstinence in terms
of months or years, I would be pretty certain that nothing
would be done. So I adopted the A.A. suggestion of living
my life in periods of twenty-four hours at a time. Today,
the only day in reality that I ever have at my disposal.
From the beginning, I slowly advanced to being content to
accomplish only what of the rest of my life I could fit
into Today. That again required further realism to determine
which things were of the most immediate importance to be
done Today. But my primary reality will always remain concentrated
on not taking one single drink Today.
the program of recovery, contained in the following Twelve
We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives
had become unmanageable.
Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could
restore us to sanity.
Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the
care of God as we understood Him.
Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being
the exact nature of our wrongs.
Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects
Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing
to make amends to them all.
Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except
when to do so would injure them or others.
Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong
promptly admitted it.
Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious
contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for
knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that
Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these
steps we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and practice
these principles in all our affairs.
steps seem strong meat for reforming alcoholics. It helped
me greatly to remember that this program was not some optimistic
chart for super-saints. It was based on the actual experience
of human beings, alcoholics like myself. They were not impossibly
idealistic steps; they had all been attempted by others
successfully. It is sometimes said that all the steps are
spiritual except the first. For me, the first step is also
essentially spiritual. I could admit in words to myself
that I was powerless over alcohol, but where would that
take me unless that admission embraced not only the actual
wording but also what was implicit in it? No, taking that
step was a declaration to myself that because I sincerely
wanted to recover, I was fully resolved to try to live out
the way of life suggested in the following eleven steps.
second step, too, called for determination. Here I could
no longer avoid my spiritual life. I had to subdue my pride
and acknowledge that a greater Power, God, was in complete
control of my life. I had to strive to make God a daily
living reality in my life, not a pious Sunday morning superstition.
The third step was perhaps the hardest, relinquishing control
and guidance of my life to God. But in the measure of the
success I attained here would lie the measure of success
I would meet with in continued sobriety, happiness and peace
of mind. The fourth step was akin to our general confession.
For me, that moral inventory was not a moral mudrake but
a serious effort to find out about myself, to find what
things stood in the way of my carrying out the third step.
The fourth step taught me self-knowledge. We take an inventory
of ourselves; we do not attempt to beat our neighbor’s
fifth was only a practical application of the truism that
confession is good for the soul. This and the next few following
steps contain no great difficulty for the alcoholic who
is sincere in his acceptance of the third. The tenth was
our nightly examination of conscience with the added obligation
of owing up to human beings when we were frankly wrong.
The eleventh was a guide to our carrying out the third.
The sting of the steps is contained in the tail of the Twelfth,
that part which suggests we carry out the foregoing principles
in all our affairs. Many may be willing enough to practice
them in their alcoholic affairs. The older members had found
out that this would not be enough to ensure happiness and
a good conscience. This part of the steps is that which
binds ‘them all together. It cannot be ignored with
always remains important that we remember why we joined
A.A. It was to recover our own sobriety for our own sakes;
not to preach to the unconverted. That must remain our primary
goal. We cannot afford to forget our previously helplessness
when friends talk prettily of our apostolic mission. Charity
begins at home.
A.A. has been operating there for longer and on a very much
greater scale, the Church in America has had more opportunity
to assess its work and direction. An extract from a letter
received here from the Chancellor of a very large archdiocese
will give some idea of the impression made. "The Bishops
of our country up to now have not taken any official stand
on A.A. The movement has not been condemned; the movement
has not been officially approved. Personally I am convinced
that the A.A. movement is the most sound and the most successful
approach that has ever been made in our country to the problem
of the alcoholic. In my archdiocese, I am under the impression
that about one-half of its members at one time were Catholics.
The Twelve Steps appeal to me as being entirely in harmony
with the Catholic faith and morals, as being clearly stated
religious and moral principles in language which is simple
and easily understood. Honesty to oneself, humility, contrition,
purpose of amendment, unburdening one’s soul and accusing
one’s self of failing to another person, placing one’s
hope and confidence in God, making restitution, relying
upon prayer and meditation, spiritual reading, seem to me
to be sound and solid principles necessary for rehabilitation.
The apostolic step to carry the message to alcoholics and
to help others to rehabilitate themselves ‘is also
in conformity with Christian teaching and seems to be psychologically
of utmost importance. Cases have come to my attention of
priests who were victims of alcoholism being re-instated
through A.A. A large number of lukewarm and indifferent
Catholics have returned to an active practice of their faith;
and strange as it may seem, several instances are known
of non-Catholics who have been brought to the Catholic faith
through the A.A. movement.. .The Chancery has been very
solicitous to avoid giving the impression that the archdiocese
was trying to take over the A.A. movement or trying to take
over the A.A. movement, or trying to interfere in either
the organization or activities of the Group."
may sound ungracious to stress the importance of that last
sentence, considering that A.A. is looking for all the help
the Church can give. But one of the biggest attractions
to the prospective member is that he is joining a society
of alcoholics run and controlled in every way by alcoholics.
Any suggestion that the group was in someway controlled
or unduly influenced by an outside "partisan"
body, however benevolently disposed, would be bad news for
the unity of the members. We seem to be forced into the
ungenerous position of having to say to our outside helpers:
do all you can for us; but stay in your corner until we
want you." In truth, we are only guided by our experience,
which is that one alcoholic is the best ambassador to another.
We speak the same language, a language that cannot be entirely
understood by even the most sympathetic of our friends who
is not himself an alcoholic.
we ask from priests who have a will to help us is that they
will be content with steering alcoholics towards us and
that they will be willing to stand aside when they have
done so; that they will, even though perhaps with every
conscious effort, try to understand that the alcoholic is
not, in his present condition at least, a deliberate sinner
but a very sick person requiring experienced treatment;
and that they will examine our successes rather than our
failures, for our successes are being gained in a field
considered hopeless until recently. And we ask them, too,
not to look on us as rivals to any temperance movement already
sponsored by them. We are not in competition with anyone
is not a charitable society in the sense that it engages
to supply its members with loans of money, employment or
even clothes for which it has no further personal use. It
is a charitable society in the meaning of Christ’s
teaching. We ask for nothing material for ourselves personally
or as groups. We do ask for charity for the sick alcoholic;
sympathy for his problem; understanding of his condition
and a willingness to advise him to seek recovery where so
many thousands have already found it. A.A. is in no way
a substitute for the Sacraments"; it has proved to
be in most cases of Catholic alcoholics a positive urge
towards them. It is with confidence then that we ask for
the good will of the readers of The Furrow and for their
prayers - that those of us who have recovered may maintain
our sobriety and that the Grace of God may bring our members
and their families that happiness which is the end of man.
The Country Shop, 23 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin.
The Vatican and
Alcoholics Anonymous. A Dublin
member of Alcoholics Anonymous, 23 St. Stephens Green, Dublin
Archbishop Enrici, Apostolic
Nuncio to Great Britain, came to, and spoke at the recent
European Convention of A.A. held at Bristol at the end of
September last. Afterwards he made the suggestion that,
as he believed little was known at the Vatican about A.A.
and its suggested way of recovery, a visit from a couple
of its members might be of great value to both parties.
Accordingly, in January
of this year, an English Catholic member and I departed
for Rome and remained for a fortnight. Our only contact,
up to the time of our arrival there, was through the Bishop
of Clifton, the very recently appointed rector of the English
College. But through his generous guidance we obtained a
list of those he thought we should try to contact. And through
the kindness of the Irish mother superior of the Poor Servants
of the Mother of God at Mater Dei Convent (they have a sister
house in Raheny, Dublin), we were lent the services of an
Italian-speaking nun to help us to effect the necessary
approaches by telephone. We acknowledge with deep gratitude
that all of them, very willingly and at very short notice,
agreed to make the appointments which enabled us to carry
out the program given briefly as follows:
Talks given to the students
and staff of the English, Irish, Beda, Scottish and North
Reception by Mgr. Uylenbroek,
Secretary of the Council of the Laity.
Reception by Cardinal John
Joseph Wright, Prefect of the Sacred
Congregation for the Clergy.
Reception by the Superior
General of the Society of Jesus, Very
Rev. Father Arrupe, S.J.
Reception by the Servants
of the Paraclete.
On January 19, we had the
supreme honour of being received by His Holiness Pope Paul
in private audience. The Pope graciously greeted us not
only for our own sakes, but for the work we were engaged
on (i.e. Alcoholics Anonymous ), which he described as fine
work, a real apostolate. He urged us to press on with our
work, gave it his blessing and told us that he would keep
it and us in his prayers.
The granting of this private
audience went far beyond our dearest dreams and was a most
wonderful experience for us both. It was, too, a historic
event in the thirty-six—year history of our fellowship,
being the first and so far the only occasion on which a
reigning pontiff has received individuals in private audience
as members of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The editor of The Furrow,
who has always been so generous in his encouragement and
active aid to A.A., has placed me more deeply in his debt
than ever by inviting this short account of our embassy
to Rome. It is a pleasure to inform him that reprints of
an article ‘A Catholic Member’s Appreciation
of Alcoholics Anonymous,’ which appeared in The Furrow
of November 1953, have found a good home and an enthusiastic
reception in all the departments of the Secretariat and
in all the colleges we had the good fortune to visit.