Story by Mary Morrell | Correspondent

“Substance use disorders represent one of the most pressing public health crises of our time.”

This statement is from the preface of the first U. S. Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs and Health, a report revealing that, in 2015, more than 27.1 million people were current users of illicit drugs or misused prescription drugs.

The most devastating results, notes the 2016 report, are the tens of thousands of lives lost each year due to substance misuse. In 2014, there were 47,055 drug overdose deaths, including 28,647 people who died from a drug overdose involving some form of opioid, including prescription pain relievers and heroin – “more than in any previous year on record.”

The trend continues, as more recent numbers compiled by the National Center for Health Statistics show reported drug overdose deaths increased by more than 17 percent from May 2016, to May 2017, rising from 56,188 to 66,324. In New Jersey, the percent of increase in reported drug overdose deaths is almost double the national number at 31.4 percent.

The surgeon general’s report underscores the crucial consequence of the epidemic: “Substance misuse remains a national public health crisis that continues to rob the United States of its most valuable asset: its people.”

In addition to devising strategies for improving diagnosis, prevention and treatment of substance use disorders, writes then-surgeon general Vivek H. Murthy, “We also need a cultural shift in how we think about addiction. For far too long, too many in our country have viewed addiction as a moral failing. This unfortunate stigma has created an added burden of shame that has made people with substance use disorders less likely to come forward and seek help.

“It has also made it more challenging to marshal the necessary investments in prevention and treatment. We must help everyone see that addiction is not a character flaw – it is a chronic illness that we must approach with the same skill and compassion with which we approach heart disease, diabetes and cancer.”

So, what does all this have to do with the Body of Christ?

Everything, said Nina Marie Corona, a sought-after retreat director and presenter with a certification in alcohol and drug counseling from Villanova University, Villanova, Pa.

‘Lessons in Mercy’

Corona, who was born and raised in New Jersey, and is a member of St. Jane de Chantal Parish, Easton, Pa., was studying theology when she was thrust into the world of addiction and the overdose epidemic due to her daughter’s addiction after being exposed to pills in high school.

Since then, Corona’s journey has been fueled by a focus on the “endless possibilities that exist if we, as the Body of Christ, put his army of love into action to fight the war of addiction, a war that is destroying individuals, families and societies.”

“I have met too many people who are afraid to discuss the topic with members of their congregation, including their clergy, and I’ve also met many clergy who suffer in silence,” she said. “It’s incongruous in any humane scenario to watch people suffer and die in silence and shame, but it is especially so in the Church, where we exist exactly for ‘the least of these.’”

Putting her faith and education into action, Corona developed “We Thirst: Lessons in Mercy,” an inspirational and informational four-evening series on addiction within the context of the Christian community, designed to educate participants to each of the biological, psychological, social and spiritual aspects of addiction, to offer hope and encourage transformative community action.

She will present the “We Thirst” series Feb. 12-13 and 15-16 in St. Aloysius Parish, Jackson.

Papal Influences

Corona acknowledged she was encouraged by Pope Francis’ address at the Pontifical Academies of Sciences’ 2016 two-day Workshop on Narcotics: Problems and Solutions of this Global Issue, in which he stressed, “Every drug addict has a unique personal story and must be listened to, understood, loved, and, insofar as possible, healed and purified. We cannot stoop to the injustice of categorizing drug addicts as if they were mere objects or broken machines; each person must be valued and appreciated in his or her dignity in order to enable them to be healed. The dignity of the person is what we are called to seek out. They continue to possess, more than ever, a dignity as children of God.”

The Pope also stressed that education is fundamental in fighting drug addiction, said Corona, noting, “The lack of solid information exacerbates fear, induces shame, and produces an unwarranted stigma – all of which hinder the healing process.”

Truly, said Corona, “the heart of my work is compassion, which is the heart of Christ. I seek to put my heart into action out of a zealous desire to heal. In this instance, I believe healing involves education, first and foremost. People are often afraid to even consider the topic of addiction because they do not understand it, or they have false assumptions. 

“The funny thing is, people who come to the workshops think they are coming to learn about addiction, but what they discover by the end of the series is that there is no need to put people into boxes with labels,” she continued. “We are all the same, and that becomes very apparent to people once they are educated. Education also empowers, so we are more inclined to get up and do something, rather than sit back and think we are powerless and remain hopeless.”

Taking Action

As a next step, Corona offers “A People Afire.” Designed as a sequel to “We Thirst,” this educational and contemplative evening encourages and develops community action plans, where participants recall their Christian identity as “a people” with a mission to serve and consider tangible ways to put that into action in the midst of the addiction epidemic.

“We are in a war,” said Corona, and too often, “we have an inactive army, an army of God’s people with many gifts and talents. We have buildings filled with these people in every town. Imagine the endless possibilities of hearts ignited and hands in action.”

Corona, who is studying for a doctorate in ministry, Fordham University, N.Y.C., holds a master of arts degree in spirituality from Loyola University, Chicago, and is an adjunct instructor in Villanova University, where she teachers theology and spirituality.