The Catholic Register
September 10, 2023

Healing the healers: helping clergy cope

Healing the healers: helping clergy cope

The 12-step process has been central to Archbishop Syvain Lavoie’s life for more than 40 years — accompanying him as a missionary, a priest, an archbishop and now as a retreat director

(Photo by Michael Swan)

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    Michael Swan
    The Catholic Register

In 1975, Fr. Sylvain Lavoie was 28 years old, newly professed in the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, ordained to the priesthood for less than a year, talented, intelligent and determined to make a difference in people’s lives. He arrived that year at a parish up north — ready to learn Cree, ready to assist as a parish priest in a mission church.

Within the year, Lavoie came crashing back down to earth.

“I was burning out. I was ready to quit the priesthood. I said, ‘This is crazy.’ ”

The crisis was fuelled by the secrets Lavoie was keeping from himself — truths about his own make-up that he could not acknowledge.

“I didn’t know who I was,” Lavoie said. “I didn’t know I had a messiah complex, that I was Mr. Fix-it, that I was a workaholic, that I had anger issues with my dad. There was a lot of stuff I didn’t know, I wasn’t aware of.”

Within three weeks of his arrival, the parish pastor quit, leaving Lavoie to run the parish. The young missionary could see the problems in the community — rampant alcoholism, family breakdown, an unbridgeable generation gap, poverty, a cultural crisis of identity.

“I thought I could fix everybody in the area. So, I wore myself out after six months,” Lavoie recalled.

Meanwhile the local Alcoholics Anonymous group met weekly in the church. Lavoie had been a regular at the meetings, delivering spiritual talks before the meeting-proper got underway. He always left before the group sharing started.

But he noticed something about the A.A. regulars.

“They’re happier than I am and I’m their priest. Something’s wrong,” Lavoie said.

He asked one of the members if he could sit in on the meeting, even if he wasn’t an alcoholic. A non-alcoholic who wanted to engage a 12-step process with the group was not all that unusual, he was told.

“It took me about three weeks to work up the courage, because I was afraid of rejection,” Lavoie said. “I thought, ‘if they think I’m not perfect’ — well, you know. But the Holy Spirit was pushing me… I shared what I was going through. I trusted the group. It was kind of scary… somebody put a cup of coffee in my hand and somebody else shook my hand and then I felt — I felt belonging. I thought, ‘Wow, this is it. God is love.’ It was amazing. It was a spiritual experience.”

For more than 40 years the 12-step process has been central to Lavoie’s life as a missionary, a priest, Archbishop of Keewatin-Le Pas and now a retreat director.

“I had been through A.A., AlAnon (for family and friends of alcoholics), ACoA (Adult Children of Alcoholics), Emotions Anonymous, Co-Dependents Anonymous. I had been through them all and I didn’t belong anywhere,” he explained.

It was a long journey until he helped found an Edmonton chapter of Workaholics Anonymous six years ago. But along the way Lavoie has given hundreds of talks about 12-step spirituality, written two books based on the 12-step approach (Together We Heal, about recovering from sexual abuse, and Walk a New Path, a 12-step approach to grieving and loss), designed workshops and led retreats at Star of the North Retreat Centre north of Edmonton, in St. Albert.

The idea that recovery can ground a fruitful life in ministry is not strange.

“The most inspiring priests that I have encountered in my priesthood have been priests that have been sober and in recovery for years, and they’re talking about it,” said Southdown Institute chief psychologist and president Fr. Stephan Kappler. “They’re making it known, and they’re using it as something they don’t have to hide.”

About a third of the priests, sisters and vowed brothers from all over North America who seek treatment at Southdown suffer some form of addiction — either a substance-use issue (alcohol, drugs) or a process addiction (gambling, pornography, etc.). There are always issues behind an addiction — trauma of various kinds that undermine healthier ways to cope.

'The most inspiring priests that I have encountered in my priesthood have been priests that have been sober and in recovery for years, and they’re talking about it.'

-- Fr. Stephen Kappler

A sense of shame that drives the addict to create a false front, lead a double life and bury himself in secrets is the first barrier to recovery.

“Many times, by the time they come to us they have been completely isolated,” Kappler said. “Because it’s been secret, secret, secret — not shared — this secret, maladaptive day-to-day living. Nobody knew about it, until boom, something happened.”

At the same time as the Southdown counsellors dig into the sources of this behaviour, uncovering buried trauma, they encourage their patients to build a system of support and accountability. The goal is for the patients to live their lives as authentic, free people.

But recovery isn’t just for clergy. The repair and healing of broken lives is the mandate of the Church in the world.

At St. Augustine’s Seminary, future priests must attend an open A.A. meeting and write a paper about it. They are encouraged to seek field placements either at The Good Shepherd or CAMH (the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health). Their own formation during the propaedeutic — or spiritual year before formal seminary studies begin — encourages them to examine their encounters with trauma and the history of addiction in their own families. A second-year theology course in pastoral counselling includes a unit on addiction.

“We talk about trauma and generational trauma and how trauma is an experience that overwhelms their capacity to cope,” explained St. Augustine’s pastoral and systematic theology professor Josie Lombardi, who has students examine the effects of residential schools on Indigenous communities.

Lombardi knows the Church’s problem with addiction is too big for the clergy to tackle on its own.

“The clergy needs the collaboration of laity, as well,” she said.

Lombardi’s “human formation project” at St. Augustine’s, based on her book Experts in Humanity, prepares lay Catholics to take up the challenge of addictions in their own families, workplaces and parishes. Lombardi particularly believes teachers need to be in the know.

“Teachers need professional development in the areas of trauma-informed education, addiction,” she said. “But we need to address this issue in other sectors as well. How do we reach out to those perhaps who are not coming to church?”

Lavoie readily admits that his 40 years of preaching and promoting 12-step spirituality, encouraging people to confront addiction and trauma has not met with simple, immediate success.

“For years I’ve been going up north and doing workshops,” he said. “The people who come are not the ones who need it. They’re not the addicts. They’re those who are concerned about it for other people. They’re interested. The addicts run away from anything that’s going to stop them drinking.”

Most alcoholics want to get sober, but at the same time find it hard to imagine they could be sober, said Lavoie. There’s more to the A.A. saying “one day at a time” than most people imagine. It’s the experience of one day sober that makes the next day possible.

“In the end, you can’t beat the fellowship, the humility, person-to-person sharing and working the steps,” said Lavoie. “It’s around to stay.”

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