Bishop Edward C. Malesic of Greensburg, Pa., in a pastoral letter called the opioid crisis in this country a scourge and urged the people of his diocese to take action against it.
In "A Pastoral Letter on the Drug Abuse Crisis: From Death and Despair to Life and Hope" issued on June 29, he addressed the epidemic that last year killed more than 300 people in the four counties that comprise the Diocese of Greensburg and outlined the Catholic Church's local response to the crisis.
Besides efforts that focus on prayer and education, he also discussed the church's cooperative efforts with government and social service agencies that are already engaged in the fight against addiction.
Noting that rarely a day goes by without news of a death from a drug overdose, he wrote, "One especially deadly expression of the crisis of addiction, which is becoming more and more prevalent in our communities, is the current opioid epidemic."
In the four counties of the diocese—Armstrong, Fayette, Indiana and Westmoreland—319 deaths in 2016 were directly related to opioid addiction, he said.
"This is a plague that has come into the homes and families of every city, town and even the rural areas of our diocese," he wrote. "It has touched the very hearts and souls of our parishioners in the pews and the people living in our communities; it has affected men and women of every age, profession and state of life. Even more tragic is the reality that every one of those 319 deaths was preventable and did not have to happen."
He said a series of seven "Summer Diocesan Drug Education Evenings" will be held around the diocese in coming weeks. Each one will include a prayer service.
Paul Niemiec, director of counseling for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Greensburg, will lead the education component, which will include a presentation about the facts of the crisis, a discussion and questions.
After the presentation, Bishop Malesic, who will attend every session, will lead the prayer service, which will include his comments. The evening will conclude with a light reception.
"Our Christian faith compels us to choose hope" in the face of a crisis, Bishop Malesic wrote.
And the Catholic Church offers hope by accompanying people who are in the grip of the crisis -- including addicts and their family, friends, co-workers and others—with "courageous faith."
"We offer them the comforting presence and power of Jesus Christ, risen from the dead," Bishop Malesic said in the pastoral. "Jesus will provide."
In addition to the education sessions and prayer services this summer, Bishop Malesic said the diocese will continue to work with the recently formed Bishop's Advisory Group on the Drug Crisis to continue developing and implementing a pastoral response to the opioid crisis and to work with existing programs rather than create new ones.
The diocese's pastoral response will include: ongoing educational opportunities for parish and school staffs; continued counseling, education and referrals by Catholic Charities for people and their families caught up in addiction; assistance in the development of family recovery groups; and helping people advocate with governmental entities to provide resources to prevent and treat drug abuse.
Bishop Malesic urged parishes to:
-- Work with existing neighborhood, nonprofit and governmental organizations to promote safe communities and drug-free neighborhoods.
-- Have priests and deacons continue to offer spiritual support and, when appropriate, speak about drug abuse in homilies and at formational opportunities.
-- Consider developing support groups and maintain a list of treatment centers and contact information for referral purposes when needed.
-- Use resources from the diocese to educate and form parishioners and community members to combat the opioid addiction epidemic in homes and families.
-- Consider holding ongoing opportunities for prayer and healing related to the addiction crisis.
"The church must be present to all who suffer in any way," he wrote. "Jesus can and wants us to use his church to move our communities from being places of death and despair to places of life and hope."