By Mary Morrell | Correspondent

A spiritual disease. A crisis of the soul. Those are some ways Father John Stabeno describes how addiction is an epidemic requiring a swift, holistic and comprehensive response.

“Pope Francis has said the Church needs to be a field hospital, and if addiction is a spiritual disease then the Church must be the triage unit,” he said. “Those with addictions need to know God as the solution.”

Father Stabeno is one of several experts in addiction and recovery scheduled to speak at “Breaking the Chains of Addiction: The Role of the Catholic Parishes in Supporting Recovery,” being held from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sept. 29 in St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold.

Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., will welcome participants and introduce keynote speaker Cardinal Joseph Tobin, C.Ss.R., Archbishop of Newark, who will be joined by Father Stabeno, Diocese of Camden Catholic Charities coordinator of Recovery Ministries, and Nancy McCann Vericker, co-author of “Unchained: Our Family’s Addiction Mess is Our Message.”

Deanna Sass, diocesan director of Pastoral Care, which is sponsoring the event, explained the rationale for the statewide symposium saying, “Among the many afflictions of modern man and woman is the undeniable epidemic of opioid abuse, addiction and ultimately the many deaths, particularly of our youth and young adults, due to overdoses.

“In recognizing this sign of our times, the Church, as it has been commanded, must respond to these particular signs that plague the people of God in our day and age.”

Keynote Speakers

The speakers all know too well the crisis of addiction.

Cardinal Tobin, who often speaks of addiction and recovery within the framework of God’s mercy, and with an appreciation for the efficacy of pastoral care, is an outspoken advocate on the subject, being 30 years sober and open about his addiction struggles.

Vericker holds a master’s degree in spiritual direction from Fordham University, N.Y., and co-authored the “Unchained” book with her son, J.P., co-founder of Northeast Addictions Treatment Center in Massachusetts. Their story chronicles the family’s journey through opioid and alcohol addiction.

Father Stabeno’s passion for helping those struggling with addiction led him to earn two master’s degrees, one in health care education from St. Joseph University, Philadelphia, and another in theology and pastoral counseling from The Catholic University of America, Washington.

“My 32 years of experience in the field of addiction and recovery have taught me that … what drives people to use, whether it is conscious, subconscious or unconscious, is to fill a hole in the soul – a spiritual vacuum. Additionally, I have learned … that this is a family disease and … that it must be treated holistically, i.e. biological, psychological, sociological, existential, cognitive and behavioral. These factors combined are part of the recovery foundation of which the spiritual is greater than the sum of the parts. We cannot just treat one aspect and expect to see authentic growth that does not treat the other aspects,” he added.

‘We Have Lost Far Too Many’

In addition to speakers, the event will also include breakout sessions: The Role of Faith in Three Real-Life Addiction Journeys; The Family in Recovery:  What Every Parish Needs to Know; Best Practices in Parish-Based Recovery Ministries: The Nuts and Bolts, and Recovery 101: From Denial and Despair to Hope and Healing.

In the first breakout sessions for all participants, Vericker, along with Rob Fasoli, recovery coach, City of Angels, Hamilton, and Kevin Meara, founder, City of Angels, will share their unique personal and family stories of addiction, the struggle for recovery and the role of faith in their differing circumstances.

Facilitating additional break-out sessions will be clinical psychologist Dr. Adriane Gulotta-Gsell, and Joseph Sass, licensed counselor and chief clinical officer in Avenues Recovery Center, Pa.  The last breakout session will consist of a panel who lead parish ministries to discuss the various models of parish recovery ministries in the Diocese.

Also on hand will be several persons in recovery who work with families of addicts and alcoholics as volunteers, and others who have been through a rehab experience and are in recovery today.

“We have lost far too many people in this epidemic,” Father Stabeno said. “As a result, much of my ministry has shifted to working with bereaved parents and family members. Oftentimes, rather than quote statistics when I speak to groups, I present a video of the ‘Faces of Addiction’ of the young people that I have lost to this disease. Its impact is greater than that of presenting numbers because in the faces we see our own children and loved ones.” 

All Catholic clergy, ministry leaders, and others seeking to support parish-based recovery ministries are encouraged to attend the event. The registration fee is $25 and includes symposium handouts, lunch and a free copy of Vericker’s book. To register online, go to

For mail-in registration, print the registration flier at and return it with a check for $25 payable to Diocese of Trenton. Mail to Diocese of Trenton, Department of Pastoral Care, 701 Lawrenceville Road, Trenton, NJ 08648.

The St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral is located at 61 Georgia Road, Freehold.

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