The Road To Recovery

Fr Bartholomew Heo Keun recalls Fr Mortimer Kelly’s ministry with alcoholics in Korea and how it influenced his own journey out of addiction to founding the Catholic Alcohol Ministry Centre.

I first met Columban Fr Mortimer Kelly when I was appointed parish priest of Sangaedong at the beginning of 1989. He was very kind and a warm-hearted person. We often had meals together as he helped me with masses and hearing confessions. From time to time I would offer him a drink as we ate but he would respond that he was not drinking these days as he had already drunk enough to last a lifetime. At that time, I was totally unaware of why he said that. Every Thursday night he used to hold a meeting in one of the parish meeting halls. One night I brought a bottle of Soju [Korean clear distilled spirits] and some snacks for him and his friends to have at the end of their meeting. It was much later that I discovered that he was holding meetings for alcoholics who were trying to quit drinking. Fr Kelly had suffered as an alcoholic and was now devoting his life to assisting alcoholics and their families. At that time, I had no idea how important my meeting him would prove for my own life.

It was when I was a chaplain to the Marine Corps that alcohol became a problem for me personally. It gradually became more serious after I left the army and started parish apostolate. I celebrated mass while still drunk and there were times when I could not say mass as I had not sobered up in time. Then there was the occasion when I went to bed drunk only to be awakened the next morning by a Catholic I had been drinking with the night before. He explained that there was a big problem because in my drunken state the night before I had fought with and struck another Catholic who had to be hospitalised. While I began to worry about what I had done the previous night I began to drink some more in order to forget about what I had done. With tears in his eyes Bishop Kim Ook-kyun, who had always cared for me, advised me to seek treatment in hospital. I found that the sincere words of the bishop gave me the necessary courage to enter the St John of God hospital in Kwangju city. They ran a special programme for those addicted to alcohol and determined that I was a serious alcoholic. While the temptation to quit the priesthood was strong, I realised that I needed to concentrate all my energies on my treatment. I knew that all I could do was to attempt to be born anew and so I endured a year in the hospital in order to recover from my disease.

When I was in Sangaedong parish, Fr Kelly told me that he was going to America for a short stay. Within a few weeks of his return from the US he died of cancer. I have a clear memory of him dying at the start of winter some 30 years ago. While celebrating his funeral mass Cardinal Kim Soo-hwan paid tribute to the priest who had dedicated his life to helping those that were addicted to alcohol. He wondered who would help those addicted to alcohol in the future. He explained that his dearest wish was that some Korean priest would help alcoholics to recover and assist them in living happy lives of faith with their families. At the time I did not think those sincere wishes of the Cardinal had any significance for me. However, some ten years later, as I was nearing the end of my treatment in the hospital, I suddenly recalled Fr Kelly’s face and the words of the Cardinal.

One day while praying I opened the bible and read the words “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see I am doing something new” [Isaiah 43:18-19]. I was suddenly struck by those words and the words spoken by the Cardinal somehow would not leave my mind. I wrote a letter to Bishop Kim explaining that when I had completely recovered I would like to serve those that suffered from this addiction.

When I had completed my hospital programme, I met the Bishop and he spoke to me about how he had met Fr Kelly. Before he became a bishop, he had got some experience of social ministries in the diocese, and he had spent some time in the house where Fr Kelly was living with alcoholics. While there he had learned about the disease of alcoholism and the lives of those suffering from that disease. He explained that was why he did not kick me out of the diocese but rather took care of me by sending me to hospital for treatment. He then granted me permission to take on this ministry to alcoholics.

This ministry began in Korea some forty years ago when the Columban Fr Arthur McMahon began AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] in the parish of Kangnung in 1979. Starting from there he organised AA meetings mainly in Seoul parishes and began Al-Anon meetings for the families of alcoholics. As a result, the science of psychiatry in Korea became interested in the subject of alcoholism and the treatment of alcoholics. Regretfully Fr McMahon passed away at the beginning of 1990 and unfortunately the Catholic Church did not have a special ministry for alcoholics for another ten years. I started the Catholic Alcohol Ministry Centre in October of 1999. I knew from personal experience the torture that those addicted to alcohol endure as well as their joy when they are relieved from that suffering. I devoted the new life I experienced to those suffering from the disease of alcoholism. I can now just fall on my knees and say “here I am Lord” when I reflect on how it was God’s will to call this staggering sinner to this ministry.

Fr Bartholomew Heo Keun is a priest of Archdiocese of Seoul in Korea. The article was translated by Noel Mackey.