Scott Weeman published a book, held by a member of the Our Lady of Sorrows group, that can be read on its own or as part of the 12-step Catholic in Recovery program. (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)
Scott Weeman published a book, held by a member of the Our Lady of Sorrows group, that can be read on its own or as part of the 12-step Catholic in Recovery program. (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)

They sat calmly, took turns sharing their week’s journey and passed around a can for donations. The early August gathering was orderly, far from the messy reality that brought and bound them together.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Reciting the ubiquitous prayer in unison, the participants could have been at any 12-step meeting hosted at a parish on a summer night.

But then they read Scripture from the upcoming Sunday Mass. A man named Tony spoke of his consecration to Mary and how it helped get him through a rocky week. The meeting closed with the Prayer of St. Francis and the sign of the cross.

The 12-step process draws on the healing potential of belief in a higher power. This “Catholic in Recovery” meeting, however — held each Wednesday night at Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Southeast Portland — combines the 12 steps with the sacraments and traditions of the Catholic Church. In a city wary of religious practice, it is especially welcome.

“I‘m able to talk openly about the consecration, about the Holy Spirit guiding me,” said Tony, who struggles with compulsive overeating. “I’d definitely be uncomfortable sharing that in a regular 12-step group. But here, I can look around the room at people nodding their heads. They get it. And that’s a really powerful thing.”

‘Life-saving grace’

Catholic in Recovery is a national program launched in 2016 by Scott Weeman, a California Catholic who overcame drug and alcohol addiction seven years ago. There are a number of Protestant-focused 12-step groups, but this is one of the only fully Catholic programs.

Weeman believes the Catholic Church often falls short in its potential to aid the growing ranks of people with addiction, and he hopes the organization moves the church forward into a more active role in recovery.

Studies show opioid and alcohol abuse going up over the past several years, and a 2016 report from the U.S. surgeon general estimates that more than 27 million Americans have problems with prescription drugs, illegal drugs or alcohol.

“Porn and codependency, alcohol and drugs — addiction is something sweeping across the culture,” said Weeman in a phone call from his home in San Diego.

His goal is to help Catholics with such addictions feel the transformative capacity of “two forms of life-saving grace: the 12 steps and our faith.” 

Addiction and the steps

The word “addiction” is derived from a Latin term meaning “enslaved by” or “bound to.”

“Addiction is an agony and a dominance that takes over lives,” said Jesuit Father Gary Smith, who for decades has ministered to those grappling with addiction. He’s worked everywhere from the streets of Oakland, California, to jails in Canada. He currently spends three nights a week at Blanchet House in Portland, where homeless men receive free meals, job aid and transitional housing.

“As St. Paul writes, those with addictions ‘do what they don’t want to do,’” Father Smith said, paraphrasing Romans 7:14.

Rayna Jenks is a licensed clinical social worker and manager of the outpatient substance abuse treatment program at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center. She said addiction is the result of chemical changes in the brain that lead to ongoing, self-destructive behavior.

“We all do routine behaviors all the time, such as drinking a cup of water or coffee,” said Jenks. “Certain behaviors activate a reward system in the brain, and for some people substances light up reward pathways in ways they don’t for others; they have a vulnerability for it.” The more the vulnerable person repeats a behavior or uses a substance, the more the brain will change. Jenks said substances such as opioids are especially powerful at producing an addiction, “but it can happen with anything that lights up reward pathways, including food and pornography.” 

Recovery from addiction benefits from multiple strategies, including therapy, support groups and reliance on faith, said Jenks.

For more than 80 years, Alcoholics Anonymous, with spin-offs such as Narcotics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous, has helped people break free from addictive cycles. AA, which is faith-based, claims to have approximately 2 million members worldwide. It is centered around 12 steps, which include admitting powerlessness over the addiction, turning one’s life over to a higher power, taking a moral inventory of past actions and making amends.

Father Smith believes one of the most effective components of the 12-step model is being among people who have experienced a similar pain and will walk with you through it.

“You gain a lot of consolation when another person says, ‘I understand, I’m here to hold your hand, to be with you,’” said Father Smith. “That’s the way we are built, this longing to be in communion.”

Jenks said the 12-step model lays out concrete actions to move forward, while the program’s sponsors (those with a good amount of sobriety who serve as mentors) provide support “through thick and thin, day or night.”

‘Nose-to-nose’ with God

Although spiritual language and ideas permeate the 12 steps, Weeman said he found limitations for Catholics in recovery.

Those in traditional 12-step recovery programs “often have a distorted view of what the Catholic Church is, and you don’t hear a lot of positive affirmation about the faith,” said Weeman, echoing a sentiment expressed at the Wednesday evening gathering in Portland.

There are also those who seek something more than the “higher power” of 12-step programs.

“For some people, a higher power is not enough,” said Father Smith. “They want something more personal, a personal God.”

In many ways, Catholic in Recovery, which provides resources to groups such as the one at Our Lady of Sorrows, is similar to the classic meetings. But it tends to the needs of Catholics and packs an extra grace-filled punch. Participants progress through the steps, find a sponsor and share their struggles and triumphs. Yet they also recite the full serenity prayer – the second portion has a more Christian bent — and meditate upon Scripture from the upcoming Sunday liturgy. Members know their sponsor will be Catholic and that those present understand “where they are coming from,” observed Tony from the Our Lady of Sorrows group.

Evelyn Brush, the pastoral minister at the parish who helped organize the meetings, said the group is composed of men and women from across the region, some with years of recovery behind them and others who are taking the first steps. “But all share the desire not to check their faith at the door,” she said.

Group members can pray for each other between meetings and share in redemptive suffering, or suffering “bound with Jesus on the cross,” said Brush.

Weeman last year published a book through Ave Maria Press called “The Twelve Steps and the Sacraments,” and it can be used as a supplement to the meetings.

A number of the steps have a natural correspondence with the sacraments, said Father Smith. Steps 5 and 7, for example, are “We admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs”; and “We humbly asked him to remove our shortcomings.” 

Father Smith added that the sacrament of the Eucharist is key for Catholics in addiction recovery. “It nurtures us and helps us grow,” he said. “And it brings us nose-to-nose” with God.

Entering the messiness

Weeman — who by 21 had multiple police citations around alcohol, including two DUIs — sees Catholic in Recovery as one way to help the Catholic Church do a better job serving those tormented by addiction.

He believes the church historically has been more like a dispatcher, delegating responsibility to others, “which is a radical shift from what we are called to do,” said Weeman. One example of this was when a woman called a diocesan office in California seeking help for her sister, a meth addict. “They suggested the sister call 211, a local crisis number used for a variety of civic purposes,” Weeman recalled. “It was a missed opportunity to accompany this family, to be, as Pope Francis suggests, a field hospital for the hurting.”

Jason Kidd, director of the Marriage and Family Life Office for the Archdiocese of Portland, said the “church has to be talking about addiction.”

“We have to be willing to enter into the mess that it is, we’ve got to be actively doing that,” he said. Along with Catholic in Recovery, offering a variety of 12-step groups at parishes, raising awareness and combating stigma are important, said Kidd, whose office provides a website with resources for a range of addictions.

When the Catholic Church enters the recovery process, it can evangelize those who’ve left the faith, observed Weeman. “If we invest time in people and accompanying them, walking with them through the most painful times,” that can draw them back home, he said.

Enduring love

Those who work in recovery say the faithful need to see their addiction in light of its physiological components and God’s endless compassion.

Jenks said she’s seen “those who have wounds around their faith; they’ve felt judged or stigmatized for their behaviors because they feel they’ve not followed their faith or they’ve sinned.”

“If addiction is viewed from a moral lens without the medical side, people can feel pretty badly about themselves, and think, ‘I guess I’m no good, I guess I have to keep doing this,’” she said. “Without the larger context, it takes them to a darker place.”

Father Smith said if someone did something wrong because of an addiction, he will not tiptoe around it. But he’ll tell them: “You have a lot of problems, but God doesn’t stop loving you.” He reminds them they are dealing with a disease and at times complex, abuse-filled backgrounds. “They’ve been through a lot. God knows they are a sinner. I try to help them understand that God loves them for who they are, not what they do.”

In many ways, Catholic in Recovery takes that approach. Sponsors and the meetings hold members accountable by giving them an opportunity to share successes and failures. While at the same time, the knowledge of God’s love is ever-present.

At the end of the recent Our Lady of Sorrows meeting, people lingered chatting and a few exchanged hugs before dispersing into the warm night.

“The program truly brings in Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the richness of the faith,” said Tony. “I’m so grateful.”