“Lord, help us do and say the right things,” prayed Cindy Welling and her husband, Chuck, as they drove to meet their grown daughter, Angela, at her home. The forty-five minute trip from Dunbar, Pennsylvania, to Peters Township felt painfully long. Angela’s phone call from moments earlier replayed in Cindy’s mind: “Mom, my primary care doctor won’t give me any more painkillers. I can’t stop! I’m going through withdrawal.”
A Crisis for the Whole Church. Stories like Angela’s abound. The abuse of opioids has created the worst drug addiction epidemic in the history of the United States. Overdose deaths have quadrupled in the past two decades and increased by 30 percent between July 2016 and September 2017 alone. What was formerly an inner-city or income-based issue is now affecting Americans of all stripes: very likely a neighbor, family member, or somebody sitting in church with you.
The genesis of the stories that make up the crisis can be as innocent as a pain patch. Physicians treating pain relief write some 240 million opioid prescriptions each year for familiar drugs like fentanyl, oxycodone, and vicodin. Addiction to these painkillers becomes the swift and deadly gateway to the less expensive, more powerful, and more accessible heroin.
It’s a tragic progression that catches many families off guard. Cindy and Chuck never imagined the course that Angela’s life would take. She had beaten thyroid cancer in 2014 and started taking doctor-prescribed painkillers to treat a possible immune disorder. In doing so, she inadvertently became addicted. Fortunately, not only did her parents respond with compassionate care, but so did her local Catholic community and the Church at large.
At the US bishops’ annual spring meeting in June 2017, several bishops spoke about the crisis and the Church’s response. They encouraged their brother bishops to reach out to those in recovery and their families with the mercy and hope of Jesus Christ. Catholic Charities USA agencies in all of the nation’s dioceses have also been treating addictions and lobbying for states to pass laws reining in opioid prescriptions.
“We Will Beat This.” The Church’s first responders are often the people nearest to the eye of the storm. For Angela, it was her parents and siblings, members of the Greensburg, Pennsylvania, diocese. Angela’s husband had left her in July of 2015. So while Angela continued working from home as a seamstress, Cindy would help babysit her granddaughters, ages six and four. Gradually, she started noticing strange lapses in her once reliable daughter’s home: mounds of dirty laundry and dishes piling up. Now, in February 2016, after Angela’s troubling phone call, it suddenly all made sense.
The very next day, Cindy and Chuck arranged for Angela to enter a thirty-day treatment program. Although they were still working full-time, they made arrangements to care for their granddaughters themselves. “Hold your head high,” Cindy told her daughter. “We will beat this!”
But this was a formidable enemy. An opiate addiction creates a chemical and emotional dependency so strong that the person often abandons everything they once cared about in order to maintain the chemical high. Angela’s younger sister, Mary Sampey, said her pastor had already been talking about the crisis in his homilies. “He explained that it’s a disease people don’t need to be ashamed of and that we all need to be there as support for our families.”
Angela’s family was there for her. It was hard for Cindy and Chuck to go from being empty nesters, with four adult children and six grandchildren, to being “parents” all over again. But they kept telling themselves: It’s just for thirty days. We just need to get Angela well.
Cindy also turned to her parish, St. John the Evangelist, for support. She told her pastor and some parishioners what they were going through. The outpouring of love and help was overwhelming: meals, toys for the children, prayers, offers to babysit, and even people sharing their own stories of addiction.
“There Are No Words.” Angela sailed through treatment and successfully started rehab, but a couple of months into the rehab program, someone introduced her to heroin. It was the beginning of a downward spiral. She disappeared for two-and-a-half terrifying months. During that time, anonymous donors made it possible for Cindy and Chuck to enroll their granddaughters in the local Catholic school. But every day they carried the weight of Angela’s—and their own—uncertain future.
They could finally breathe again when Angela resurfaced in August of 2016. This time, it seemed their daughter was determined to stay off drugs. She was able to get into treatment again and get a job. She also turned back to her faith, putting her struggles and her recovery efforts into the hands of Jesus. As an outward sign of her renewed reliance on the Lord, she wore a crucifix and a miraculous medal. By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, Angela had been clean for ninety-five days, and everyone thought she had beaten heroin just as she had overcome cancer. The Wellings’ large Italian family gathered to celebrate a joyful holiday, and Angela was thrilled to be reunited with her daughters for the day.
A week later, the unthinkable happened. Angela was found dead in a hotel room at the age of thirty-four, still wearing her medal and crucifix. The cause of death: a heroin overdose. It was the Wellings’ darkest time, and it’s still hard for Cindy and Chuck. But knowing that Angela turned back to Jesus before she died gives them comfort.
“There are no words that describe the loss,” Cindy said. “But whenever I start to feel abandoned, I look back and see how God has taken care of us through his people.”
The Fight for Healing. As Bishop Edward Malesic of the Greensburg, Pennsylvania, diocese visited parishes, he kept hearing heartbreaking stories like Angela’s. People tearfully asked for prayers, and pastors told of yet another funeral for an overdose victim. In the four counties of his rural diocese, there were 319 opioid-related deaths in 2016.
He became determined to do something. “Fighting for the healing and health of those who suffer from addiction flows from our respect for all human life,” Bishop Malesic explained.
In the fall of 2017, seven “Diocesan Drug Education Evenings” were held in churches. They included testimonies, education for prevention, information about services, and a prayer service led by the bishop. The meetings were open to all denominations and attended by more than 1,500 people representing every type of participant in the crisis.
“Prayer and the presence of Christ have already changed the lives of so many hurting people and helped those who love them,” Bishop Malesic said. “The Church offers what the world cannot give. We profess faith in the man, Jesus, who can lift up those who are bowed down. I am reminded of Peter, who said to the man begging for help, ‘I have neither silver nor gold, but what I do have I give you: in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean, rise and walk’” (Acts 3:6).
This past spring, 1,000 diocesan staff and volunteers were trained on how to respond to people seeking help. Now that they have learned more about the crisis, these responders feel a deep sense of urgency to help. Given all the suffering and shame associated with addiction, they emphasized that it is important for Catholics not to condemn but to show understanding and compassion.
Angela’s sister Mary agrees. “Angela was a phenomenal mother and aunt who died from a disease that changed who she was,” she said.
Suffer Well and Witness. A mother of three herself, Mary is helping to raise awareness about both the suffering caused by the opioid epidemic and the potential for the Church to respond with hope and love. She has spoken to politicians and news reporters and has shared her story as part of school programs to prevent drug use.
From the moment of Angela’s death, Mary says she has felt a profound peace that can only be from God. She still experiences joy, thanks to her relationship with Christ, and finds purpose in her pain by using it to bless other people who have—or have not yet—experienced this crisis firsthand. The Lord gives her the strength to keep giving instead of getting mired in sadness. A quote from St. Thérèse of Lisieux resonates with her: “It is true I suffer a great deal. But do I suffer well? That is the question.”
Cindy too finds light amid the darkness. “Raising Angela’s girls is a way to continue to have her close to our hearts,” she says.
On a typical evening after a long day—and the grandkids’ nightly bedtime story—the family prays together in the girls’ shared queen-size bed. The girls take turns leading decades of the Rosary and praying for their mother. They have learned to say the “Oh My Jesus” prayer, ending with “lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of thy mercy.”
Consciously or not, Catholic families like the Wellings are following Jesus into the heart of the battle, bringing the light of compassion and love to everyone wounded by opioid addiction.
Patti Armstrong is a Catholic freelance writer based in North Dakota.