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PRIEST, Vol. 49: 19-20, March, 1993
Clergy's Role in A.A.'s Fifth Step
parish has at least one alcoholic.
priest will witness the physical, mental and spiritual devastation
of the disease of alcoholism many times during his ministry.
is incumbent, therefore, upon every priest - and every student
for the priesthood - to familiarize himself with the Twelve
Steps of the Alcoholics Anonymous program. It is likewise
important for every priest to be familiar with the Fifth
Step and that he let it be known in his parish that he has
Five of the Alcoholics Anonymous Twelve Steps is:
to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact
nature of our wrongs."
is the natural follow-up to the previous Step, "Made
a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves."
Once the spotlight of honesty has been focused on the past,
the recovering person needs to find a way to get rid of
that past. The person needs to find a mechanism that helps
to make the past a learning tool for the building of a future.
the famous 12 Steps and 12 Traditions book of A.A., it is
written in the chapter that discusses the Fifth Step: "But
of the things which really bother and burn us, we say nothing.
Certain distressing or humiliating memories, we tell ourselves,
ought not to be shared with anyone. These will remain our
secret. Not a soul must ever know. We hope they'll go to
the grave with us."
the real reason for the Fifth Step is also contained in
that same chapter:
of us (in A.A.) would declare that without a fearless admission
of our defects to another human being, WE COULD NOT STAY
SOBER (Emphasis is mine). It seems plain that the grace
of God will not enter to expel our destructive obsessions
until we are willing to try this."
other words, the Fifth Step is necessary for continuous
the recovering alcoholic, Step Five is the beginning of
true kinship with man and God.
practice of admitting one's defects to someone else is a
very ancient one. For almost 2,000 years it has been a sacramental
practice in the Catholic Church. It is an exercise in humility
and honesty that characterizes the lives of all spiritually
centered and truly religious people. Some spiritual directors
consider it the foundation for any active, profound and
meaningful spiritual life.
has also been a sound therapeutic practice for psychiatrists,
psychologists, counselors and therapists. It is a cleansing
process and the discovery, acknowledgement, admission and
discussion of one's character defects is looked upon as
an important beginning of the change process.
A.A. members do not have much of a problem admitting the
exact nature of their wrongs to God and to themselves. But
the sharing of the results of the searching and fearless
moral inventory with another human being is something else
again. It is very, very difficult.
the early stages of recovery, it can be difficult for the
alcoholic to trust anyone who is not in the A.A. program.
In the early stages of recovery, the alcoholic is still
learning to trust himself and to be trusting of others.
recovering people have been away from any organized religion
for a long time. Their relationship with their Higher Power
is changing almost every day. They have moved from the desperate
bargaining of "God, just get me out of this jam and
I'll never drink again and will give all my money to the
poor and will vote in every election and will become a cloistered
Religious" to the simple request of "God, please
help me to get through this day without taking that first
drink." As the days of sobriety add up, their level
of trust in God increases and their relationship with God
grows stronger and stronger. hey came to believe that a
power greater than themselves can restore them to sanity.
recovering alcoholics prefer to take this all important
Fifth Step with a priest. They feel more comfortable telling
the exact nature of their wrongs and their character defects
to someone who has had a lot of practice in the art of listening
without being judgmental. They feel more secure telling
it all to someone who has a track record for confidentiality
- someone they know they can trust.
is important that the distinction between the Fifth Step
of Alcoholics Anonymous and the Sacrament of Reconciliation
be stressed. There was a Jesuit priest in Boston who was
also a recovering alcoholic. He said that when he sat down
with someone he always began with, "Please understand
that this is not the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This is
the Fifth' Step of A.A. This iS not priest and penitent.
This is one drunk helping another drunk."
they had completed the formal taking of the Fifth Step,
if the person so desired, Father would slip on his purple
stole and assume the role of confessor. (much of the information
and suggestions in this article are based upon a number
of talks with this Jesuit as well as with a Franciscan and
a former diocesan priest all of whom are recovering alcoholics
and who, in keeping with the traditions of A.A., preferred
to maintain their anonymity in the press.)
priest who is helping the recovering person take the Fifth
Step should help the person to realize that his Higher Power
has forgiven him for all he has done in the past. Now, as
part of this Step, the alcoholic must forgive himself and
forgive others, regardless of how deeply those other persons
might have hurt him.
priest should remind the person that it is critical to the
maintenance of continued sobriety that forgiveness not only
be received but also given.
of the most important things the clergyman can do is to
help the alcoholic to maintain some middle-of-the-road objectivity
about his faults and failings. He should not allow the alcoholic
to self-flagellate to the point of self pity, and, by the
same token, he should not allow the individual to blame
everything on other people. He should not permit the person
to deceive himself into believing that his character defects
are any more or less than what they actually are.
lasting sobriety can be built on a foundation of negatives.
Therefore, it is essential that the alcoholic be encouraged
to identify positive strengths and assets and that they
be used as the basis for a sober, happy life.
newly sober alcoholic, especially, needs to be reminded
that no one is all bad. In the early stages of sobriety,
the self image is quite fragile. The priest who is helping
with the Fifth Step can strengthen and improve that self-image.
He can help the alcoholic to feel better about himself simply
because he had the courage and the willingness to face the
pain and the embarrassment of formally taking the Fifth
Step of the Alcoholics Anonymous Program.
TO WALLOW IN
the 12 and 12 book it says, "Until we actually sit
down and talk aloud about what we have so long hidden, our
willingness to clean house is still largely theoretical.
When we are honest with another person, it confirms that
we have been honest with ourselves and God."
the alcoholic has completed his Fifth Step and has unburdened
himself of the past, the priest should encourage the person
to get on with his life. The priest should explain that
while it is important that he learn from the past, once
the Fifth Step is finished, that it be put behind him. The
past is not something to wallow in. It is over. It is done
with. It cannot be changed. The energies used in regretting
the past can be used far more constructively in improving
the quality of today's sobriety.
the formality of taking the Fifth Step is finished, the
priest can then offer the alcoholic the opportunity to participate
in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.