Pope Francis’ Prayer Intention for April: Freedom from Addiction – We pray that those suffering from addiction may be helped and accompanied.
When we hear of addicts we usually think of other people, not of ourselves. We also think first of young unemployed street people addicted to cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines and other narcotic drugs. Only afterwards might we call to mind executives and family people addicted to alcohol, opioids, pornography or work. And when we think of responding to addiction, we normally think first of restricting supply, punishing dealers and medical intervention. Only occasionally might we think of befriending people who are addicted.
Those first thoughts betray a lack of empathy with people who suffer from addiction. We see them as strangers, not people like us. That lack of empathy may arise in part from reluctance to acknowledge our own addictive behaviour, so breeding scorn and intolerance of people who remind us of our weakness.
When we reflect on ourselves, we may discover that our minor forms of addictive behaviour are a symptom of something deeper in us. If we ask, for example, why we can’t pass by chocolate or cake without indulging ourselves, we might notice a missing but longed-for sweetness in our lives. If we want to be overcome our addictions, we need to attend also to their cause by accepting the dryness of our lives, for example, or by attending to the quality of our relationships.
In the case of more destructive addictions, their roots often lie in depression and other forms of mental illness. These in turn may be related to traumatic childhood experience and inability to connect with society. The pain caused by mental illness and past experience can be so severe that alcohol and other drugs become a necessary, if deceiving, escape from it.
For that reason Pope Francis’ intention for April invites us to go beyond stereotypes and to reflect on the common humanity that links us with people with obvious addictions. Recognition of their dignity and of our own weakness shape the empathy that is the beginning of help and accompaniment.
If we are addicted, our path to freedom must begin by accepting that we are addicted and by acknowledging the deeper pain from which addiction is an escape. Blame and punishment are counterproductive. They confirm the sense of worthlessness that often accompanies addiction and deepens despair of finding a better way.
It is reasonable, of course, to regulate the sale of alcohol and other addictive substances and to penalise those who profit from their sale. But jailing people for possessing and using drugs simply fills prisons and takes away any help and accompaniment people may find in family and friends.
Pope Francis insists on the need of people with addictions for help and accompaniment. These are gifts that only a community can give. It underlies the work of Jesuit Social Services with vulnerable young people for whom skilled accompaniment by people with a lasting commitment to them is a condition of their connecting with society.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.