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& PASTORAL REVIEW, Vol. 81: 28-32, APRIL, 1981
A PRACTICAL APPROACH
by Paul J. Murdock
Jones, a married woman in her thirties with a worried
look about her, stands ringing the Rectory doorbell. She
accompanied by her husband who gives the distinct impression
he would rather be somewhere else at the moment. When the
opens and they step inside, Mrs. Jones asks to see Fr. Smith,
young curate. Fr. Smith is very friendly with the kids,
rather easy-going, and is beginning to get some reputation
successful mediator of marital disputes. Therefore reasons
Jones, perhaps he would be able to talk with her husband
getting him all riled up and making matters worse. When
Smith sits down with the couple in the parlor, he learns
Jones is not home as he used to be. He enjoys stopping into
downtown lounge after work, just to relax with colleagues
a few" before coming home for supper. He also likes
to have an
occasional beer in the evening with friends from the K.
of C. The
problem is that Mr. Jones is more and more often late for
and his evening excursions occur with increasing frequency.
Jones is getting tired of spending so much time alone, and
worries that their three children are not getting enough
attention from their father. To make matters worse, Mr.
get rather short tempered with his wife's criticism, and
hostilities are beginning to reach the point where the children
Smith listens sympathetically to the woman's compliant.
He puts Mr. Jones a bit more at ease by directing his remarks
him as he praises the maturity of people who come looking
outside help with personal problems. He then helps Mr. Jones
little less defensive by pointing out to Mrs. Jones that
one of God's gifts, and that relaxing with friends is a
healthy thing to do. But he also tells Mr. Jones that moderation
quite necessary and that family obligations must always
Actually, Mr. Jones knew this all along and was beginning
difficulty understanding his own behavior. So he readily
Fr. Smith's suggestion that he confine his socializing to
two occasions a week and that he limit his drinking to one
dinner, and maybe a beer while watching TV with his wife
the kids with their homework. The Jones' thank Fr. Smith
time, and leave the Rectory in a much better state of mind.
Jones is relieved because she has had the opportunity to
frustration. Mr. Jones is happy because the session is over,
also because Fr. Smith has given him some hope that maybe
pull himself back into line.
Jones exceeds the limits
Smith feels pleased with himself some weeks later when
he sees the couple after Sunday Mass. Things are much better
Mr. Jones spending a lot more time with his family and drinking
lot less. However, Father Smith is soon transferred to a
another city, and loses touch with the Jones family and
continuing story. Mr. Jones slowly but surely begins to
limits he agreed upon with Father Smith. His wife's protests
met with more hostility. The children begin to expect major
eruptions from their father over minor infractions of family
discipline. The children's performance in school becomes
and the oldest boy becomes something of a discipline problem.
Jones is in a car accident ("It was the other guy's
the blood alcohol tests showed that he was well beyond the
limit. No one is more baffled by this unhappy series of
Mr. Jones himself. He feels his wife no longer understands
fact, the only understanding he feels he gets is from a
his office whom he often meets in the lounge after work.
Unfortunately this comforting companionship develops into
indiscretion, and Mrs. Jones finds out. And so, five years
the talk with Fr. Smith, Mr. and Mrs. Jones find themselves
involved in a divorce.
solution lay in abstinence
of the present writing, the Jones story is not yet over.
Mr. Jones' drinking became even more excessive after the
His sense of loss and loneliness became more acute with
passing day. Poor judgment at work, tardiness, and frequent
absences placed his job in jeopardy. Eventually his doctor
suggested that he admit himself to the local Catholic Hospital
his "nerves." On his third afternoon there, a
nurse came in to tell
him that there was a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous in
hospital auditorium that night. Two members of the A.A.
always visited the psychiatric floor before the meeting
to see if
any patients would like to accompany them to the meeting.
Mr. Jones would enjoy going for a change of scenery. Mr.
didn't especially want to go, but he would welcome any opportunity
to escape from that floor, if only for a couple of hours.
saw when he got there completely surprised him; not a room
seedy looking drunks, but a group of well-dressed, seemingly
people. Several members stood up before the audience to
stories - what alcohol had done to them, and how A.A. had
them. What surprised him even more was the uncanny similarities
between what the speakers narrated and his own unhappy experiences
of the past few years. Mr. Jones was one of the lucky people
catch on quickly and he learned two very important lessons
meeting. He had always felt that he drank because of his
difficulties in life, but he came to realize that his difficulties,
like those in the stories of the speakers, were caused by
drinking. He also learned that the only solution to his
in abstinence, and that attempts to limit or control his
were doomed to failure.
didn't Father Smith....?
it is almost a year since Mr. Jones attended that
meeting. He has not had a drink since then and he continues
A.A. to insure that this state of affairs will continue.
regained the confidence of his employers and his job is
again secure. He still lives alone, but visits his family
frequently. There seems to be a good chance of a reconciliation
with Mrs. Jones, but he doesn't want to set up false hopes
himself or count his chickens before they're hatched. But,
Jones reviews his past, he feels a certain resentment toward
Smith. True, his alcoholism was in its early stages when
escorted him to the Rectory that day, but some of the early
signs were present. Why didn't Father Smith pick them up?
Father Smith had asked a few pointed questions, he certainly
have uncovered a few more warning signs that even Mrs. Jones
not yet noticed. Although he knows that it is pointless
the past with a long series of "what-ifs," he
still can't help
thinking that Father Smith could have spared him, his wife,
children a lot of misery if only he knew a little more about
disease of alcoholism.
assumptions were made
story we have just read is, of course, fiction, or maybe
semi-fiction. The characters come from the present writer's
imagination, but unfortunately the plot is all too real.
varies each time in detail, this plot occurs again and again
lives of our parishioners and in the counsel they seek from
priests. Perhaps I should take us priests off the hook a
by observing that there are also many recovered alcoholics
who are grateful to their clergy for guiding them there.
also be noted that we priests are not alone in our lack
expertise: there are plenty of doctors and psychiatrists
happily seconded Father Smith's advice to Mr. Jones.
that we've mentioned Father Smith again, why don't we ask
ourselves why he did what he did? Why did he fail to see
Jones' problem for what it truly was ? The first part of
to this is that Father Smith enjoys taking a drink himself.
a drink with the Pastor several nights a week before dinner,
a beer while watching the ball game on TV, and will take
in a parishioner's home on special occasions. If Father
offered a drink, he decides whether or not to take it and
his decision. Sometimes at informal gatherings with seminary
classmates Father Smith will have several drinks, start
to feel the
effects of the alcohol, but then decide that he has had
act on that decision. When Mr. Jones showed up at the Rectory
his wife, Father Smith proceeded to assume somewhat naively
Mr. Jones' experience with alcohol was basically like his
Father Smith then gave Mr. Jones some pastoral encouragement
setting limits - in other words, making more appropriate
in his use of alcohol. What Father Smith failed to realize
Mr. Jones suffered from what, in the minds of many researchers,
basically a biochemical disease: alcoholism. Mr. Jones does
experience alcohol the same way that Father Smith does.
Smith, to take a drink or abstain is basically a matter
decision. For Mr. Jones, the ability to decide in the matter
alcohol is considerably diminished. In fact, once there
in his system, the ability to decide can easily become totally
absent. Hence, when Father Smith suggest that Mr. Jones
drinking, he was able, probably with an extraordinary exertion
sheer will power, to do so for a while. But the continued
consumption of alcohol eventually erroded whatever decision
ability Mr. Jones had left at his disposal, and the situation
turned from bad to worse.
Smith had another difficulty as well. He liked and
respected Mr. Jones as a "solid citizen" of the
community and as an
active parishioner. How could he suggest the rather drastic
of total abstinence? Besides, Mr. Jones was no alcoholic.
seen too many alcoholics at the Rectory door when he was
in a run-down inner-city parish, and he knew that Mr, Jones
of them. Had he stopped to think, however, Father Smith
realized that his friends from skid row weren't born that
he had of investigated, he would have d some fine doctors,
and even priests living on skid row. They weren't always
At one point they were upstanding citizens of society or
church. No one would have noticed anything different about
except that they perhaps liked a drink a little bit more
confreres. But they were victims of a disease that is progressive,
a disease that tends to get worse. Unfortunately for them,
progression of their disease was not arrested as it was
in the case
of Mr. Jones.
to help the alcoholic?
our friend Father Smith tried to help Mr. Jones he had
two basic tools at his disposal: his own experience of alcohol
a man-in-the-street notion of what an alcoholic is. The
didn't work because Father Smith is a normal drinker. He
is not an
alcoholic, and therefore incapable of understanding Mr.
all he has at his disposal is his own personal experience.
second tool didn't work simply because it is basically false:
row bums" represent about 5% of the total alcoholic
other 95% are composed of people like Mr. Jones, the prefect
Parish Sodality, the local grocer, the priest in the next
the great-grandmother who faithfully attends daily Mass,
Mailman. Alcoholism has been recognized as a disease by
American Medical Association for almost thirty years. Like
common cold, it is no respecter of social class, profession,
gender, race, color, or creed. Like cancer early detection
treatment is a definite advantage. Unlike cancer or the
cold, however, the victim of alcoholism is usually the last
recognize the existence of the problem.
does have two characteristics, however, that make
it somewhat different as far as diseases go. It can frequently
disguise itself itself as a "moral problem," at
least until one
realizes that the sufferer is afflicted with a seriously
or even totally absent ability to make a moral decision
to alcohol. Alcoholism also afflicts, not only the sufferer,
also the lives of those around him. Both of these characteristics
make alcoholism a pastoral problem. The parish priest (together
with the family doctor) is probably the first professional
to be in a position to help. We encounter it when people
and Mrs. Jones come to the Rectory to discuss problems connected
with drinking. We also encounter it in the confessional
penitents who confess to intoxication, not just on the Saturday
following New Year's Day, but quite frequently throughout
More frightening still, we encounter it where the word "alcohol"
not even mentioned. Perhaps Mr. Jones' oldest boy is in
school and the roller-coaster quality of his academic performance
is a good barometer of his father's success or lack of it
controlling his drinking.
Father Smith, many of us are ill-equipped to deal with
this very real pastoral problem. Alcohol is misused by one
because he has made a poor moral choice. Alcohol is misused
another because he is an alcoholic and has no choice at
all. How do
we distinguish one from the other? How do we help the victim
alcoholism to appreciate this distinction? How do we effectively
help an alcoholic parishioner along the road to recovery?
seminary is certainly a lot different from yesterday's,
thing they have in common is that they have ill prepared
Smith for dealing with Mr. Jones. (Seminaries are in good
though, as Medical Schools don't seem to do much better.)
simple fact of the matter is that many, though by no means
all, priests suffer from some degree of ignorance on the
alcoholism. It seems good sense to label this ignorance
"inculpable." This way we don't have to bother
blaming anyone for
it, but instead can get on with the more constructive business
doing something about it.
are many ways of learning about the disease of
alcoholism and its pastoral implications. One can go to
institute specializing in the subject. One can read countless
and periodicals dealing with the conflicting theories of
origins and nature of the disease. All of these approaches,
number of others besides, are certainly beneficial. But
average parish priest, they are certainly impractical. What
needed is something is something close to home, inexpensive,
practical. When I say practical, I mean practical, not just
immediate business of learning about alcoholism, but also
ongoing process of helping those we serve.
are many different theories of alcoholism, and varying
approaches to its treatment. Almost all would agree, however,
what works most effectively for the greatest number of persons
the Recovery Program of Alcoholics Anonymous. The primary
of A.A. is to help its members stay sober and to help other
alcoholics to achieve sobriety. In addition to this Alcoholics
Anonymous is a valuable tool for the non-alcoholic who wishes
learn more about recovery from alcoholism. In a University
where the writer presently lives, one frequently sees medical
students, nursing students, and interns at A.A. meetings.
regrettable that the pastoral departments in many of our
don't require the same. My suggestion to the priest who
learn about alcoholism is that he attend a number of open
of Alcoholics Anonymous.
is an "open meeting"? It is a meeting similar
to the one
which Mr. Jones attended in the hospital. It is open to
public, in distinction to a "closed meeting" which
alcoholics only. The format for such an open meeting would
simple: several speakers will get up before the audience
their stories: what life was like drinking, and what things
like leading the A.A. way of life.
you would feel uncomfortable going to an A.A. meeting.
Why not? It is a new experience! But you must remember that
parishioner you send to A.A. is going to feel far more
uncomfortable than you. He will be much more consoled by
knowledge that you, a priest and a non-alcoholic, have gone
these meetings yourself and enjoyed them! If it helps you
wearing your collar. If it helps, you can dress informally.
priests who are members of A.A. seem to dress informally,
this is by no means a universal rule.
suggestion was that one attend "a number" of open
meetings. The "number" was deliberately left rather
"How many" is going to vary with the individual
priest, with how
much he already knows, and how much he wishes to learn.
will do is simply list a series of "goals" or
"results" that the
individual priest can look forward to. As he senses himself
attaining these he will know that he has gone to the proper
of meetings for his own purposes.
A Familiarity with A.A. Itself. What is it like to be
present at one of these meetings? Where are they held? As
above; personal experience of these things is very valuable
referring someone to A.A. Indeed, the priest who is comfortable
attending A.A. meetings himself may find it helpful, not
refer someone to A.A., but to accompany the person himself
A Working Knowledge of the Basic Dynamics of Alcoholism.
Listening to a number of stories from A.A. people will help
see what alcoholism looks like from inside the sufferer.
deepen your appreciation of what A.A. means when it says
alcoholism is a disease and not a moral issue. Literature
form of easy-to-read pamphlets is available at most meetings,
contains a wealth of practical information.
A Perception of Patterns. Every member of A.A. has his or
her own story and that story is unique, but there are certain
basic similarities in them all. After you have heard a good
of stories, you will begin to perceive patterns that will
helpful to you in recognizing a possible alcohol problem
who come to you for help. You will also gain a good familiarity
with the "warning signs" of alcoholism.
Personal Contacts. Perhaps this area would help you to
hesitate before even going to a meeting. What if one of
from my school belongs to the A.A. group and is thoroughly
embarrassed when I walk in? You know that A.A. is "anonymous"
any member present knows that you know this. And if you
chairman will certainly remind the audience to "remember
heard, but forget whom you have seen." More importantly,
member who perceives your purpose in coming (and that should
fairly obvious), will not only make you feel welcome, but
more than happy to help you achieve your goal. And getting
some of these people is one of your purposes in going to
One of the most effective things for a priest to say to
alcoholic looking for help is: "I have a few friends
your problem, but who are dealing with it successfully.
could arrange for you to meet."
Spiritual is Emphasized
An Acquaintance with A.A. Spirituality. A.A.'s definition
includes the fact that it is "not a religious program."
But it is
a very spiritual one. A.A. encourages members to seek help
"Power Greater Than Themselves" which is frequently
referred to as
"God as you understand Him." In a number of places
literature, the member who belongs to a religious tradition
urged to make use of that tradition in working on the spiritual
aspect of the A.A. program. A.A. spirituality is enshrined
"Twelve Steps of Recovery," which in more than
one way remind one
of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. A priest who
than a casual familiarity with these Twelve Steps can give
deal of support to a parishioner who is seeking to take
spiritual aspect of his recovery seriously. Indeed, if his
interest in the A.A. program becomes known, the priest may
that he is sought out by non-parishioners or even non-Catholics
they work the Fifth Step of Recovery. "....admitting
to God, to
themselves, and to another human being the exact nature
wrongs." The priest who familiarizes himself with the
aspect of A.A. will also experience a fringe benefit: enrichment
of his own spiritual life and his Sunday homilies!
A Familiarity with Community Facilities. A.A. maintains
formal connections with outside enterprises such as detox
half-way houses, hospitals, etc., but many A.A. members
use of these facilities. Many alcoholics achieve sobriety
introduced directly into A.A. Others may even need hospitalization
in the initial stages of their recovery. Listening to the
stories of A.A. members and the personal contacts he has
A.A. will provide the priest with a working knowledge of
facilities that are available to the parishioner who needs
professional or medical help in the early stages of getting
presence is witnessed
A.A. groups decorate their meeting places with banners
or signs proclaiming A.A. slogans. The largest banner is
inevitably the one that says "But for the Grace of
God." Many A.A.
members describe themselves as "miracles" - perhaps
only a person
who has shared their addiction to alcohol can fully understand
even one day without drink can seem so miraculous. Sobriety
A.A. is often called an "unmerited Gift from God,"
which is a
fairly good description of what grace is all about. The
follows my suggestion will find that he has learned a lot
will help him minister to his people. He will even learn
things that will help him to minister to himself. But he
find his own priesthood made richer since he himself will
be a man
more deeply convinced of the active presence of God's love
final practical note. Finding A.A. is a very simple
procedure. In almost any city and town in the U.S. or Canada,
Alcoholics Anonymous is listed in the phone book. Call and
location of the nearest open meeting of A.A. When you attend
first meeting, you can obtain a list of other meetings in
A.A. is not listed in your phone book, you can write to
A.A. World Services, Box 459, Grand Central Station, New
N.Y. 10017. They will inform you of your closest A.A. meeting,
give you valuable information about A.A.'s "Loners"
those who live in isolated areas.
priests, however, probably know someone who is a member
of A.A., so the easiest thing to do would be to go along
of them to a meeting.