Developing a ministry of hope to counter addiction

In September 2013, Pope Francis compared the church to a “field hospital” near to war zones, where the wounded are first provided with emergency, life-saving care before long-term recovery efforts can begin.

This analogy resonated well during a recent gathering at Christ our Light Parish in Cherry Hill where the last of eight workshops, held across the Camden Diocese over the past two months, was being led by Father John Stabeno of Catholic Charities’ Addiction Healing Ministry.

The goal of these sessions was to promote the concept of a diocesan-wide ministry, with a parish level focus, to help those struggling with addiction, and their families.

The workshops were open to all: clergy, pastoral ministers, parish staff, educators, law enforcement, health care workers, those living with addictions and their families, as well as community members at large who were interested in gaining a better understanding of addiction and how to address the rapidly growing opioid crisis in South Jersey.

According to Father Stabeno, the wounds of addiction are multidimensional and need acute care. They are as much the result of a spiritual disease as a physical one. Thus through these sessions, Father Stabeno hoped to lay the groundwork for recruiting committed ministry volunteers at the grass roots level who could work within their parishes to provide individuals and their families the opportunity to connect to God, to self and to others.

“It’s critical that we build a diocesan-wide ministry, but with a local capacity within individual parishes,” noted Father Stabeno.

The presentations featured testimonies by those who live with addiction, family members and those who have lost a loved one from this disease, as well as a panel of various professionals who are on the front lines of fighting the epidemic.

Father Stabeno, who has worked in the field of addiction for over 30 years, is no stranger to the devastating effects that opioids and heroin have had on individuals, families and the community.

During his workshop in Cherry Hill, he showed a slide presentation featuring photographs of some of the individuals he’s known personally who have lost their lives to addiction.

“We hear statistics about those who have died, but it’s different when we show their faces,” he reminded the audience. “Here are some of them that I’ve known — dating back from 1997 until two weeks ago.”

The video showed pictures of young men and women of all races and walks of life. Many of the photos depicted them during various milestones and life events — proms, graduations, marriage, the birth of a child. Some were dressed in military uniforms, others in sports uniforms. They all had different hobbies and occupations. And all experienced untimely deaths because of drugs.

The sense of urgency in addressing the addiction problem was evident in the many questions that attendees directed to Father Stabeno: What makes this drug problem an epidemic? What are the contributing factors to this epidemic? Who is affected by it and how? Most importantly, and perhaps the most difficult question, what can we do to effectively battle the threat?

According to Father Stabeno, this blossoming diocesan-wide ministry has the potential, and the duty, to assist in the recovery process by facilitating connections. “The heart of this ministry is to connect people seeking help with those capable of providing it. For those who need help, this ministry can be a starting point in providing those who suffer with spiritual and emotional support, as well as making appropriate referrals to professional care.

“Those who desire to get involved in such a ministry need not ‘fix, manage and control’ the problem. They just need to help people make the right connections,” he added.

To do this effectively, Father Stabeno noted that it is important for those involved in this ministry to maintain relationships with treatment and recovery centers, the police, local task forces, state agencies, and municipal alliances, among others.

He further explained that the church is called to respond to this crisis as part of its fundamental mission to help preserve the dignity of human beings, support and heal families, help those in “spiritual poverty,” and evangelize.

Reflecting on the strong interest currently to mobilize for this ministry, Father Stabeno said, “It’s difficult to find someone whose life hasn’t been visited by addiction in one way or another, and many have expressed their desire to do something in their parish or community. Most believe that this is something the church has an obligation to do, stating that it is the type of evangelization and support that can reach the hearts and lives of those in the pews as well as those who haven’t been a part of the church recently.”

Father Stabeno reminded the audience of words spoken by Pope Francis during his visit to prisoners at CFCF Prison while he was in Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families in 2015: “The church, in fidelity to Jesus’ command to go out to all those places where people suffer, thirst, hunger and are imprisoned, does not abandon those who have fallen into the trap of drug addiction, but goes out to meet them with creative love. … She takes them by the hand, thanks to the efforts of countless workers and volunteers, and helps them to rediscover their dignity and to revive those inner strengths, those personal talents, which drug use had buried but can never obliterate, since every man and woman is created in the image and likeness of God.”

Those interested in learning more about Catholic Charities’ Addiction Healing ministry or getting involved with developing a strategy for promoting parish participation in this ministry should contact Father John Stabeno at 215-901-1690 or