Catholic addiction recovery: INTERVIEW with Sober Catholic
Paul Sofranko is a prolific writer, editor, blogger, and self-published author in the recovery movement. His blend of Catholic spirituality and addiction recovery is compelling in its humility and positivity. Today, we feature Paul on Addiction Blog because I am personally interested in the blend of recovery principles with “old time” religion. And it is my hope that his work can inspire those of you who find grace, faith, and foundation in the Catholic Church.
You can learn more about how to contact Paul at the end, or you can ask him your own questions in the comments section. Without further ado, onto the interview!
ADDICTION BLOG: Where did you get the idea to link Catholicism with addiction recovery?
PAUL SOFRANKO: After I sobered up in 2002, I decided that A.A. didn’t have the spiritual depth that I needed to sustain my sobriety. Not to diminish the value of any Twelve Step Movement, but I felt that I required something much bigger than the Steps. Working the Steps may be sufficient for many people, but I think it may have been some residual effect of my Catholic upbringing to assume that any inclusion of God into my life needed something much more than what they offered.
I had been away from the Church for about 15 years, having left it because I came to believe that organized religion was just a “means of control” that the elites used over the masses, and that God can be accessed individually. I had become a spiritual wanderer, but never discovered anything that filled my soul until I started drinking. And we all know how false the belief is that alcohol (or drugs) can fill the soul.
Anyway, I got over my facile and shallow opinion about religion by being exposed to religious programming on Catholic television (the EWTN cable channel). To me, the programming differed greatly from other religious programming in its depth, level of information, diversity and dedication to Scripture. Nothing about it seemed to recall my earlier convictions of religion, which were arrived at anyway due to a broad, but shallow upbringing in the Church. And so it had been easy to be detached from the Church by arguments that its all fakery.
I knew basic theological truths that the Church taught, but never really connected them to the art of daily living. What I learned from EWTN was the Church’s great intellectual and historical depth, as well as that it is something to be lived, daily, and not just for an hour at Mass on Sundays.
ADDICTION BLOG: How were the devotional books “The Recovery Rosary: Reflections for Alcoholics and Addicts” and “The Stations of the Cross for Alcoholics” designed to be used? What is the take away lesson or experience one can expect from using such devotionals?
PAUL SOFRANKO: As any combination of prayer or meditation styles. You can use them to pray and meditate with, either alone at home or in Church. I know some people who find them useful to take with them to Eucharistic Adoration (Holy Hour.) But one can take them and use them for what I consider to be fairly good meditation exercises.
ADDICTION BLOG: How open do you recommend that Catholics “be” in their home diocese or parish about problems with addiction? Are there any cautions to consider? Are there ways that have worked for you in seeking support?
PAUL SOFRANKO: How open? Be aware that the problem exists and that there is a good chance that someone they know is in recovery or is still suffering with an addiction. Not all addictions are obvious, such as sex and porn addictions. With regard to cautions, I’m not sure what you mean. Perhaps being considerate of others in that you don’t know where “they’re at.” We are all broken and wounded in some manner.
Otherwise, that depends upon the person. They can perhaps let their pastor know that they are a recovering alcoholic or addict and are willing to assist anyone else with such problems. Chances are the priest knows a few people with addictions and he can direct such persons accordingly. Maybe ask the pastor for permission to start a Twelve Step Group in the parish if they have such a desire. At the diocesan level, I don’t know offhand. Some diocese do have programs for people in recovery. Look around the diocesan website for outreach programs and check out volunteer opportunities in them.
One thing I do see is that too often people dress immodestly at Mass. The Mass, in Catholic teaching, is the presenting again of the Last Supper and the continuation of Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary. People shouldn’t dress as if they are going on a date or to the beach. The exposure of the flesh at Mass with revealing clothing is a scandal, and has an effect on people struggling with sex and porn issues. It is almost as if no one is safe anymore, anywhere, from the overt sexualization of society and culture. To attend Mass wearing scanty clothing (men or women) is a gross disrespect for what happens there. It’s an affront to God and also insulting to others. People dress appropriately elsewhere, and the Mass should be one of those places. You don’t go to Mass seeking skin, you go there to give the Lord the worship and reverence that he is due. Dressing like a prostitute or beach bum isn’t proper. I think it is an indication of ignorance of what the Mass is, and selfishness. Why selfishness? Because there is a lack of consideration of the effect on others of what you are wearing. We worship in community, not in isolation. The parish is a community, and the Mass is a communal celebration of thanksgiving (“Eucharist” means “thanksgiving”) and as such we ought to be considerate of others in how we approach the Mass.
Concerning “ways that have worked” for me in “seeking support,” I’ve never worked any formal programs at either the parish or diocesan level.
ADDICTION BLOG: OK, let’s speak little bit about theology. In your experience, what is the role of fear? Does fear stand between addicts and recovery or is it present in the lack of faith?
PAUL SOFRANKO: Fear is natural. We are all afraid at some point about many things. Courage can be built up to overcome fear but that takes faith. But essentially, to me, fear is the gap that exists between our needs and wants on one side, and on the other side, our ability to have those needs and wants satisfied. The lesser we think our ability is to have our needs and wants satisfied, the wider the gap. And so the more fear.
Faith fills in that gap. If we have greater faith in our ability to have our needs and wants satisfied, the narrower the gap. If we think we are all alone in our attempt to recover from addiction, the harder it seems and so the greater the fear. If we join a recovery movement, as well as include God (perhaps primarily include God) then our faith takes root and closes the gap.
Easy? No. Faith takes time to develop and there are many obstacles. But at least we aren’t “closing the gap” on our own. Faith doesn’t grow in isolation, it develops in concert with other people as well as our openness to receiving God’s graces (which is God sharing His divine life with us, essentially a free gift from Him to whom He pleases to grant it. And there for the asking!)
So essentially, fear can stand between addicts and recovery and so is also present in a lack of faith.
ADDICTION BLOG: And how does addiction get in the way of a relationship with God?
PAUL SOFRANKO: I have read, and I tend to believe, that addiction is a “hole in the soul,” that we seek to fill. There are probably other reasons why people are addicts and alcoholics, but I’ve never bothered to resolve whether it’s “nature and/or nurture.” I think the general consensus is that it is a medical and/or psychological issue, and therefore should be treated as such. Regardless of the cause, I think it also involves a search for God to solve the emptiness that the cause creates in the soul. The need is initially satisfied by an inordinate attraction to actions or substances. While fulfilling at first, and perhaps even for years, eventually it is realized through suffering that the “hole in the soul” just cannot be satisfied by drugs and alcohol.
And so addiction does get in the way of a relationship with God. It redirects you away from Him by providing a false substitute for that which can truly fulfill you. St. Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” He ought to know, given the debauched and libertine life he led before his conversion!
ADDICTION BLOG: Even further, do Catholics consider pain and suffering as punishment or a pathway to growth?
PAUL SOFRANKO: Pathway to growth (of growing closer to God.). Punishment occurs only after we die; pain and suffering is a natural part of life as a consequence of the Original Sin of Adam and Eve and of our own bad choices in choosing self-will over God’s will. Jesus came to redeem us (pay the price for our sins). As we Christians are His disciples, we must “take up the Cross” and follow Him. Although “taking up the Cross” is a matter of determining Christian discipleship, it also means accepting the suffering that comes into one’s life and finding purpose in it.
Suffering has a redemptive value. We can offer up to the Lord in prayer our suffering as a part of our redemption. From St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, Chapter 1, Verse 24, we read: “For now I rejoice in my passion on your behalf, and I complete in my flesh the things that are lacking in the Passion of Christ, for the sake of his body, which is the Church.” All baptized Christians are part of the Mystical Body of Christ (the community of believers, both living and dead, with Christ as the head). When one member suffers, we all suffer, and we can “offer up” (donate spiritually) our sufferings to help the other members. And so there is value in suffering. As a form of prayer, which is essentially an offering up to God of our hearts and minds, communication with Him and listening for His response, our sufferings are offered to Him for our own sins and those of others’.
ADDICTION BLOG: Are there Catholic beliefs that you think that non-Catholics in recovery can benefit from?
PAUL SOFRANKO: The Catholic attitude towards suffering. Find purpose in it. Rather than try to avoid it (good luck with that, isn’t that one reason we often turned to our addiction?) “offer it up” in prayer for others or yourself. Intercessory prayer. I think the non-Catholic notion of that differs slightly in that they don’t believe in the Communion of Saints in the same way that Catholics do. Catholics can pray to Saints in Heaven in much the same way that people on Earth can ask each other to pray for them. The Saints are in Heaven close to God, and can receive our intercessory prayer requests. If you think that is pointless, and that people should just pray directly to God, remember that next time you ask a friend to pray for you. Same thing.
ADDICTION BLOG: Would you like to recommend any good reads to our audience?
PAUL SOFRANKO: You mean, besides my two books? LOL.
- There’s “To Slake a Thirst: The Matt Talbot Way to Sobriety,” by Phillip Maynard. Unfortunately it is no longer in print, and its publisher, Alba House, has no intention of changing that.
- Anything written by Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR (anyone familiar with the EWTN Catholic TV and radio network knows of him).
- I’m not sure about the availability of the following, but these are in my library:
- “Seeds of Grace: Reflections on the Spirituality of Alcoholics Anonymous,” by “Sister Molly Monahan” from Riverhead Books
- “Father Fred and the Twelve Steps: A Primer for Recovery,” (no author listed, but copyrighted by the Jesuit order) from Ambassador Books.
- “Sister Ignatia: Angel of Alcoholics Anonymous, 2nd ed.” by Mary C. Darrah, from Hazelden.
- “The Healing Rosary: Rosary Meditattions for Those in Recovery from Alcoholism and Addiction,” by Mike D., from Resurrection Press (an imprint of the Catholic Book Publishing Company)
- The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Many editions, many publishers.
There are also a lot of online resources in the sidebars of “Sober Catholic.” Recovery resources mostly along the right side, stuff on Catholicism on the left side.
ADDICTION BLOG: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
PAUL SOFRANKO: Nope, nothing offhand! Thanks for the interview!