Written by Mary McCusker
It’s an epidemic that has left its calling card with virtually every family, high school, neighborhood and workplace. It doesn’t discriminate, extending its steely grip on people regardless of race, age, socioeconomic status or religious belief. That epidemic is opioid addiction.
New Jersey has a heroin death-rate that is more than three times the national average. Since 2014, there have been more than 1,500 heroin-related deaths across the six southern counties of New Jersey, which comprise the Diocese of Camden.
In response to this national disaster, Catholic Charities’ Addiction Healing Services brings its social and community services to bear, offering help along a full continuum of care — from prevention efforts to treatment referrals, family counseling, relapse prevention and support for those who have lost loved ones to the scourge.
Catholic Charities now has another valuable resource to help respond to the opioid epidemic: Father John Stabeno.
Father Stabeno is no stranger to the opioid epidemic. For the past 30 years, he has witnessed first-hand the devastating effect of heroin addiction, and has made it his life’s work to ameliorate the impact of this disease on individuals, families and communities.
Notes Father Stabeno, “Pope Francis once likened the church to a ‘field hospital,’ where the injured must be quickly triaged and treated according to their particular wounds and trauma. I believe that combatting the wounds and trauma of addiction is one of the things the pope had in mind when he made that statement.”
Kevin Hickey, director of Catholic Charities, echoed Father Stabeno’s imperative call to action. “This is a crisis that has spread broadly and penetrated deeply. We must approach the opioid epidemic with the same urgency and priority as a natural disaster: we don’t focus only on one aspect of a disaster, like housing or food or clothing — there needs to be a comprehensive and systemic approach,” he said.
“I am thrilled to have someone with the passion, dedication, and experience of Father Stabeno as a part of our team here at Catholic Charities,” added Kevin Hickey. “He will be a huge asset to our efforts here at Catholic Charities in addressing this critical problem.”
Father Stabeno’s passion for this cause began when he was in high school in South Philadelphia, where he recognized that he could easily end up going down the same path of drug addiction as a number of his friends and peers. He found himself at a “fork in the road.”
“I could have gotten caught up in the street life. But my friends started to die. I started taking on the role of a listener. And this was because of my religion teacher. He became my mentor, my counselor, and he was studying to be a priest. I wanted to be like him. I wanted to do what he did. He helped me so much. When I reached that fork in the road, he grabbed me and pointed me in the right direction.”
Since then, Father Stabeno has earned a master’s degree in psychology from Saint Joseph’s University and a second master’s degree in theology and pastoral counseling from The Catholic University of America.
Throughout his priesthood he has continuously provided education and support to those in various stages of recovery from addiction, while also offering solace for parents and families who are coping with the loss of their loved ones to addiction. Often officiating funerals for individuals who are lost to the disease, he remains close to their families long after. He receives calls from parents, some of whom he has never met, who have just lost a child and need an understanding shoulder.
As the first priest on the Catholic Charities Substance Abuse staff, “this is a unique opportunity,” he said. “The time seems ripe for true Christian spirituality and a message of hope in these days when so much can appear bleak for so many.”
Father Stabeno explained his philosophy toward addiction healing, “relationships are the key. Relationships with God, self, and others. This is important in recovery, after the fog wears off. The first three steps of recovery are about God. Especially in the beginning, the higher power may take the form of a group of people, like a group home, because grace builds on nature. So God uses the people that we have in our lives as a way to get to us. And we use the people in our life as a way to get to him.”
Read in Catholic Star Herald