Cardinal Joseph Tobin, C.Ss.R., Archbishop of Newark, at the podium, was one of the keynote speakers at the Sept. 29 "Breaking the Chains of Addiction: The Role of Catholic Parishes in Supporting Recovery" symposium hosted by the diocesan Department of Pastoral Care in St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold. Mike Ehrmann photos
Cardinal Joseph Tobin, C.Ss.R., Archbishop of Newark, at the podium, was one of the keynote speakers at the Sept. 29 "Breaking the Chains of Addiction: The Role of Catholic Parishes in Supporting Recovery" symposium hosted by the diocesan Department of Pastoral Care in St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold. Mike Ehrmann photos

By Mary Morrell, Contributing Editor

“We recover together.”

Rob Fasoli addressed a crowd of more than 200 with words that encapsulated the recurring themes of relationship and community running through “Breaking the Chains of Addiction: The Role of Catholic Parishes in Supporting Recovery.”

Photo Gallery: Addiction Symposium held in Freehold

Fasoli, director of community outreach for City of Angels, Hamilton, who shared his personal struggles of addiction with attendees, was one of several presenters for a day that ran the gamut of emotions – from pain and challenge to inspiration and hope.

The Sept. 29 addiction symposium drew participants from across New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania to St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold.

Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., welcomed keynote speaker Cardinal Joseph Tobin, C.Ss.R., Archbishop of Newark, emphasizing the importance of the symposium and sharing his deep concern over two youth in the Diocese who died from drug use last year.

“It struck us, at the time, that we weren’t having this kind of conversation, so we gathered together some people in the Chancery and started talking about the idea of how we can help those who help others in our parishes and schools,” said Bishop O’Connell.

In her welcome, Deanna Sass, director of the diocesan Pastoral Care Department, which sponsored the event, explained that the symposium had been more than a year in the planning. It signified the “launching of our commitment to this struggle with addiction and alcoholism,” helping to eliminate the prejudices, biases and judgments that accompany addiction and “equip the troops out there in our parishes to make a difference,” she said.

“We pray the fruit of the day will be lives saved and families healed,” Sass said.

Msgr. Sam Sirianni, Co-cathedral rector, also welcomed those present, noting the event was particularly meaningful for him. “Recently, I would say 75 percent of young adults I have buried were from drug addiction and overdose,” he acknowledged, applauding the initiative to help “eliminate the scourge that takes too many people too soon.”

Cardinal Tobin, an outspoken advocate on the issue, being 30 years sober and open about his addiction struggles, offered his reply to the question, “Why does the Church need to respond to the addiction crisis now?”

“I think the question is not why, but when?” he said. “How do we decide where to put our energy? How do we convince a parish that already has a lot on its plate, that this is where we belong?”

One of the most exacting challenges coming from the Second Vatican Council, said Cardinal Tobin, “is the summons to read the signs of the times … to reflect deeply on what’s in front of us and respond to that out of a mature faith.”

Noting addiction as a spiritual disease and a sign of today’s time and place, Cardinal Tobin shared Pope Francis’ teaching that the Church needs to look outward, to focus her energies on the peripheries and to heal wounds. “Mercy is never a theory. Mercy is always a concrete action. … Our mission is to help people reconnect with self, loved ones and with God,” Cardinal Tobin said.

Gift of Self

In a second keynote, Father John Stabeno, Diocese of Camden Catholic Charities coordinator of Recovery Ministries, emphasized the importance of “helping yourself first,” in order to work successfully with recovery programs.

“Programs look nice on paper, but it’s not programs that are successful; it’s people who are successful. We need to remove anything that gets in the way of heart-to-heart communication between the persons gathered,” said Father Sabeno, who has worked in the field of addiction and recovery for more than 30 years.

One of the things that sometimes gets in the way, Father Sabeno said, “is us … If we do not deal with our own issues, struggles, emotions and relationships, there is a possibility that we will not be as effective as we can be in assisting others in dealing with their issues. ”

Father Stabeno shared that it was his own journey to healing that taught him, particularly through Scripture, that “God loved people who others thought were a waste. … What heals us can be shared with others and offer hope.”

Shared Stories

In a very personal series of presentations, Fasoli, along with Kevin Meara, City of Angels founder, and Nancy McCann Vericker, co-author of “Unchained: Our Family’s Addiction Mess is Our Message,” shared their unique stories of addiction, the struggle for recovery and the role of faith in their differing circumstances.

For Meara, the pivotal moment came when he and his wife found their son dead on his bedroom floor from an overdose of heroin. “Their pain dies with them,” said Meara, but it is seemingly endless in the lives of family and friends.

Meara encouraged participants to “use this as a catalyst to do the things you need to do in your parishes, to take up the challenge offered by Cardinal Tobin, Bishop O’Connell and the Diocese of Trenton. … City of Angels didn’t exist until we started it. You can start something , too.”

Reflecting on the stigma that accompanies addiction, Meara said, “When I was growing up, we were conditioned to believe that a heroin addict was someone who lived under a bridge in Trenton or Paterson or Camden. That is not the face of addiction.”

The real face of addiction is the mother, brother, friend, co-worker, son, daughter, neighbor that one sees every day, Father Stabeno illustrated in his slide show, “Faces of Addiction.” The video, played for participants, showed faces of young men and women Father Stabeno had known over a period of years who died from drug abuse. As the smiling faces from graduations, weddings, sports events and barbecues, dressed in gowns, military uniforms, tuxedos or hospital scrubs for the birth of a baby, some viewers cried, others seemed to recognize familiar faces, all kept a hushed quiet.

For Vericker, with more than 26 years of sobriety, the face of addiction was also her son, whose addiction all but shattered her family as she and her husband struggled to keep things together. Her book, co-authored by her son, J.P., now seven years sober and a co-founder of a substance abuse treatment program, chronicles their difficult journey from desolation to healing, with an essential and strong reliance on faith.

Vericker encouraged attendees with Mother Teresa’s belief that “’the beginning of change is to pick up one body off the street.’ If everyone here could help just one person, not necessarily the addicted but a mother, grandmother, friend, it will impact the entrenched family system.”

Nuts and Bolts

Additional breakout sessions included “The Role of the Family,” facilitated by clinical psychologist Dr. Adriane Gulotta-Gsell; “Recovery 101: From Denial and Despair to Hope and Healing,” by Joseph Sass, licensed counselor and chief clinical officer in Avenues Recovery Center, Pa., and a session on “Best Practices in Parish Recovery Ministry,” facilitated by a panel of four from parish ministry teams, including Deacon Bill Wilson, St. Gregory the Great Parish, Hamilton Square; Deacon Moore Hank, Catholic Community of Hopewell, St. James Parish, Pennington; Deacon Tom Murphy, St. Joan of Arc Parish, Marlton, and Laura Campanile, St. Denis Parish, Manasquan.