Bishop Malesic wants priests, parishioners to rally in fight against addiction
Responding to what he calls the “scourge of opioid addiction,” Bishop Edward C. Malesic of the Diocese of Greensburg says he wants to marshal the resources of the Catholic Church to address the crisis in a more deliberate way.
In a pastoral letter issued on Thursday, Malesic called on priests, parishioners and parishes in the four-county diocese to step up their efforts to bring “life and hope” to people suffering from addiction to heroin and opioid painkillers.
“Ultimately, hope gives us the strength to choose life over death and work for the day when the crisis is behind us,” he said. “We must not be afraid to offer the healing power of prayer and the support of our community of faith as we confront this challenging evil of our time and place.”
Malesic, who addressed the issue at a news conference Thursday morning, said in the letter that deaths caused by the “opioid epidemic” have reached a “staggering” level – 319 in 2016 in Armstrong, Fayette, Indiana and Westmoreland counties – and cannot be ignored.
“This is a monumental task, and we don't have a lot of time. People's lives are at stake,” he told reporters at the Diocesan Pastoral Center. “We need to keep that drug-free person away from making that one first fatal choice to start using drugs, especially the highly addictive opiates like heroin.”
Malesic implored the people of the diocese to take his letter to heart and implement it at the parish level. He said the letter is meant to be a call to action.
“We cannot simply give up and let this evil win when we have the God-given ability to fight it,” he said.
The diocese's response comes in the same month that the Drug Enforcement Administration reported that deaths from opioid overdose increased 37 percent in Pennsylvania in 2016, to 4,642. Deaths in Westmoreland County alone rose by 38 percent from 2015 (126) to 2016 (174).
“The drug crisis and its effects are now no longer confined to the large cities of our land. This is a plague that has come into the homes and families of every city, town and even the rural areas of our diocese,” he said. “Even more tragic is the reality that every one of those 319 deaths was preventable and did not need to happen.”
Malesic announced a six-pronged approach, in addition to the Bishop's Advisory Group on the Drug Crisis formed last fall:
• A series of seven Summer Diocesan Drug Education and Prayer Service Evenings in July and August, each one hosted by Malesic;
• Educational opportunities at the parish and school level directed at individuals and families affected by opioid addiction, starting in the fall;
• Counseling, education and referrals for addicts and their families through Catholic Charities;
• The development of family recovery groups and similar support groups;
• Advocacy by the Diocesan Pro-Life and Social Ministry Office at the local, state and federal levels for the necessary resources for prevention and treatment of drug abuse; and
• Spiritual support through homilies and intercessory prayer during Mass.
Malesic said the diocese will work alongside, but not duplicate, current efforts by social service agencies, law enforcement, the judicial system and the treatment community.
“The Church must be present to all who suffer in any way,” he said in the letter. “Jesus can and wants us to use his Church to move our communities from being places of death and despair to places of life and hope.”
State Trooper Steve Limani of the Greensburg barracks commended the diocese for creating an avenue to talk about addiction.
”It's not taboo. It used to be taboo – people wouldn't talk about this stuff and they still won't talk about it to this day,” Limani said. “It's starting to come out more and be more prevalent so people understand, but we're losing lives at a record pace. Probably a lot of it is because we kept it a secret.”
In his remarks to reporters on Thursday, Malesic echoed a theme from Pope Francis on the Catholic Church as a field hospital.
“Absolutely, that's an image in my mind – that we see where the need is. Right now in the diocese, there's a huge need to address this situation. We need to adapt ourselves to this need. That's what a field hospital does. It's ready to move and go where the front lines are. Right now, the front line happens to be the opioid scourge among us,” he said.
Malesic said the church's biggest contributions will be education, prayer and human resources, as well as support for existing programs.
“I'm not naïve,” he said. “We need to use the best science we have, the best counselors and social workers out there. But when you add prayer to the mix, God helps us to do our very best. I believe God works miracles through prayer. ... Prayer changes lives.”
Malesic, who is nearing his second anniversary as Greensburg bishop, struck a personal note on Thursday when he talked about Catholic families who have reported the deaths of addicted loved ones.
“I have been out and about the last two years, and I have been hearing the cries of many people who have been affected by this opioid scourge in our midst,” he said. “It breaks my heart.”
The opioid epidemic also has been hard on priests, deacons and other parish staff, who often struggle with how to respond, Malesic said.
“I have heard from many of our priests, who tell me how sad and frustrated they are with the current situation. They've buried way too many people, and it is a difficult reality for them. They buried people that didn't need to be buried,” he said.
Malesic said drug addiction is, at root, a spiritual problem that calls for a spiritual solution.
“There is a hole inside every person that is meant to be filled by God, but if it's not filled by God, it's going to be filled by something else. We always strive to fill it with something – that's how the human heart is. If we fill it with drugs and other things, that's poison,” he said.
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @shuba_trib.