August marked seven decades since Guest House founder Austin Ripley introduced his “Guest House concept’’ to the first gathering of Catholic clergy and religious involved with Alcoholics Anonymous. 

“All authorities agree that if the alcoholic is to recover permanently, the whole man must be treated,’’ Ripley told that first meeting of 47 clergy who formed what became the National Catholic Council on Alcoholism. “He must be treated in body, mind, and soul. If any of these areas is neglected, there will be no recovery, barring an extraordinary grace.’’

Founders of Recovery movement: Austin Ripley (left) the founder and first director of Guest House with Bill Wilson aka Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

That “concept’’ grew into the world’s first and most successful treatment and recovery program for Catholic clergy and religious, serving people from every part of the earth. 

Ripley felt called to begin working with alcoholic priests in 1943, just eight years after the founding of AA. Some of the people he worked with included bishops, AA founder Bill Wilson and  Father Edward Flanagan, the founder of Boystown. He developed the Guest House principals in 1948, opening his first Guest House in 1951 and found a permanent home base after reopening Guest House in Lake Orion Michigan, on Pentecost 1956.

The vast recovery movement, including Guest House, the 12 Steps, AA and NCCA are all children of Ignatian Spirituality, flowing directly from the teachings of the Catholic Church. Parent teaches child, who teaches the parent and the love of the Holy Spirit makes both grow. Today, the seeds of these concepts are being shared across the Church. 

Deacon Chris Stark, Guest House’s outreach director, and Father Mark Stelzer, Guest House education director, recently met with the priests of the Diocese of Grand Rapids to speak on how they can better implement 12-steps methods.  They offer similar education programs for all bishops and dioceses.

“The steps are not an event,,, they represent a process,’’ Father Stelzer explained in a talk called ‘Wounded Ministers in a Wounded Church,’ which detailed the spirituality of the 12-step process.

The process teaches:

  • Rigorous honesty with self and others.
  • Reflection on what happened before and where we go from here. 
  • Addressing the desire to change and willingness to act.
  • Being fearless and thorough from start to finish.
  • Remembering the process is Spiritual Warfare, calling on a higher power (God) who is far more powerful than the cunning, baffling and powerful enemy you face.
  • Total trust in God. 

Modern Catholic programs firmly embracing these recovery principles include: 

– Exodus 90, a 90-day spiritual exercise developed by Father Brian Doerr and seminarians at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Maryland that has spread to more than 15,000 participants since 2013. Guest House founder Austin Ripley piloted the notion of 90-day transformative programs for U.S.troops  during World War II and then took those lessons as he transformed spiritual warriors, focused on spiritual, physical and mental renewal and recovery at Guest House.

– Celebrate Recovery, calling itself a Christ-centered 12-steps program, began at Saddleback Church in 1991 then spread from Protestant to Catholic churches, enrolling more than 5 million participants with programs at more than 35,000 churches across the United States. 

“I’m a witness,’’ Monsignor Charles Pope told 1,300 at the Defending the Faith conference July 26. “It took me years going to Al-Anon  meetings to let go of some of the hurts.. It is possible to feel powerful forgiveness in your life and it’s not your work, it’s God’s gift to you. It’s God saying ‘Look, I saw everything they did and I promise you, if they die unrepentant, they’ll answer to me for it.’ Let’s hope they don’t. But you give it to me now and be free’ and I’m a witness.’’

Sharing your testimony around a table with either a three to five minute testimony or a longer 20 minute version is part of the healing process, he said, sharing with others how you were lost and how you found your way home through Christ, Monsignor Pope added.

Some of the most popular nationally known Catholic speakers  tell stories related to addictions and recovery including: 

– Sister Miriam James Heidland, who tells audiences how she overcame alcoholism, abuse, depression, isolation and self-hatred and how finding our true identity as children of God allows us to know we are children of God who are chosen, known and desired. 

– Father Sean Kilcawley tells an amazing story of growing up in an alcoholic family full of addictions, dysfunction, divorce and remarriage and speaks of the way “weeds and wheat’’ grow together. He adds, “We can’t just pull the weed. We have to build up the good.’’

– Father Donald Calloway, now a widely read Catholic author who overcame drugs, porn and was even deported from Japan when he was 15 for his misbehavior, notes that secular rehabilitation centers have relapse rates as high as 90 percent and calls the Catholic Church “God’s Rehabilitation Center.’’

“People have come out of addictions, pornography, to alcohol, to other drugs,’’ Pope said. “They’ve got testimonies. They stand in rooms in Church basements all over this country talking about how they’ve been set free. Why don’t we talk more like that? The Lord’s doing something in your life and it’s important for you to get in touch with that…Anyone in Christ is a new creation, the old things have passed away – all things are made new…That’s my story but you’ve got your story… The Word of God performs, informs and transforms.”