Franciscan Sister of Christian Charity Sister Kathleen Murphy tells the story of St. Mark Ji Tianxiang as we pray Pope Francis’ intention for those suffering from addiction and those who help them.
For years, he was a respectable Christian, raised in a Christian family in 19th-century China. He was a leader in the Christian community, a well-off doctor who served the poor for free. But he became ill with a stomach ailment and treated himself with opium. It was a perfectly reasonable thing to do, but he soon became addicted to the drug, an addiction that was considered shameful and gravely scandalous.
As his circumstances deteriorated, he continued to fight his addiction. He went frequently to confession. Unfortunately, no one understood addiction as a disease.
With seemingly no resolve to repent and sin no more, confession is invalid. After a few years, the confessor told him to stop coming back until he could show repentance. He couldn’t stay drug-free, but he could keep showing up.
And show up he did, for 30 years. For 30 years, he was unable to receive the sacraments. And for 30 years he prayed that he would die a martyr.
In 1900, when the Boxer Rebels began to turn against Christians, he got his chance. He was rounded up with dozens of other Christians, including his own extended family. Many of those with him were likely disgusted by his presence there among them, this man who couldn’t go a day without a hit. Surely he would be the first to deny the Lord.
But while he was never able to beat his addiction, he was, in the end, flooded with the grace of final perseverance.
He begged his captors to kill him last so that none of his family would have to die alone. He stood beside all nine of them as they were beheaded. In the end, he went to his death singing the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And though he had been away from the sacraments for decades, he is a canonized saint.
This is the story of St. Mark Ji Tianxiang, intercessor for all addicts. His story helps us to appreciate Pope Francis’ call to prayer this month. Our petition reads: We pray that those suffering from addiction may be helped and accompanied.
Pope Francis himself, tells us, “Drugs are a wound in our society. A wound that traps many people in the networks. They are victims who have lost their freedom only to fall into slavery; slavery of a dependency we can call ‘chemistry’”. He goes on to say, “It’s certain that drugs consist of a new form of slavery, like many others that plague man today and society in general.”
Interestingly we don’t blame the slave for his or her slavery. Despite all the medical, psychological and social advancements in our understanding of addictions of all types, many still place moral blame on the addict for their suffering. Dr. John Pagana, Board of Directors for Catholic Charities in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, states, “Treatment starts with the understanding that addiction is a disease, not a disgrace.” He cautions against blaming people for their addiction. “So many people say, ‘They’ve caused it themselves. They deserve everything they get.’ First, that’s not a Christ-like attitude, and it doesn’t help the person. Second, it doesn’t change the fact that addiction is a chronic, progressive and terminal disease. It takes a lifetime to treat—just like diabetes and heart disease. There is no cure for addiction, and it can strike anyone. We can’t blame people for having the disease, but we must hold them responsible for getting treatment.”
Most of us are not in a position to be of professional help in aiding an addict. So we pray earnestly for those who have the knowledge and expertise that they will also have the compassion and generosity needed to truly heal those with addictions. Along with our praying we can take on a role in the second part of Pope Francis’ intention. We can accompany those who suffer from various dependencies. We can be a loving listener, a stable presence, a reminder of Jesus’ unconditional love for them, no matter what their weakness or lack. In the spirit and according to the words of our United States Bishops, “Let us together extend the healing hand of Christ to one another and to all those suffering from substance abuse in our midst.”