PITTSBURGH — He paused for a moment, then looked out at the congregation in St. Paul Cathedral.
“Hi, my name is Mike and I’m an alcoholic,” he said. “Hi Mike,” many in the audience responded.
For the next few minutes Mike — known to many as Father Michael Decewicz, pastor of St. Juan Diego Parish in Sharpsburg — delivered a stirring homily in which he described his fight against addiction. Since his “terrifying” experience of expressing it publicly for the first time 13 years ago, he noted, he has witnessed the highs and lows that come with recovery.
He spoke during a Mass of remembrance and healing in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood. Several hundred joined Pittsburgh Bishop David A. Zubik for the liturgy that prayed for people currently battling drug addiction and remembered those who have died from it.
The Feb. 11 Mass also sought healing for families who have lost a loved one to the epidemic.
“We the church really want to embrace you,” the bishop said, noting that the congregation also included those struggling with addiction, those recovering from it, those who have relapsed, are in denial or those who just don’t know where to turn.
“You are not alone,” he said. “We love you and want to support you as you get better.” But he added that they can’t make the journey by themselves. They need God’s help. As the bishop spoke, some family members put their arms around one another.
In referencing the Gospel of the day, in which Jesus was compassionate toward the leper, Decewicz likened an addict to a leper. We’re often afraid of them. We ostracize them and we judge them. But just as Jesus met them, not with a sense of condemnation but with love, we must do the same.
“Our mission as a church is to love, not to condemn,” he said.
Decewicz described addiction as an epidemic that affects all segments of society. It is a disease that can be treated, but not cured. It is why, he noted, addicts are perpetually in recovery, and not recovered. It is something that must be addressed or it will eventually kill.
An addict is “stuck in the mud,” he continued. They want to give up, but something inside makes them keep trying. “You can’t make it to the top,” he said. “That’s the addict’s world. Stuck in the muck.”
But with God’s help and the support of others, Decewicz noted, they can begin to find their way out of the well of hopeless agony and desperation. The church is challenged to embrace addicts in their brokenness and walk with them on the long journey of recovery. But, he pointed out, those offering support must be prepared to offer it, not in a beautiful setting but “in the muck.”
He closed by reciting the Serenity Prayer.
In his remarks at the close of the liturgy, Zubik said that the emotional impact of the day was evident in the eyes of the people as they came up to receive the Eucharist. Many were filled with tears, and yet they also reflected a sense of hope and consolation.
To Decewicz, he said: “It takes an awful lot of courage to open your story up.”
He recognized the public officials in attendance. They included Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich, Police Chief Cameron McLay, two City Council members and the Allegheny County district attorney.
Zubik told them that the addiction crisis is one that demands that all facets of the community work together against it. He pledged the support of the diocese in addressing the issue.
Franko is a staff writer at the Pittsburgh Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Pittsburgh.