At the beginning of October, an international ecumenical conference on addiction and pastoral care for addicts was held in the Russian city of Saint Petersburg. The pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need supported this event both with content and financially. It was organized by the department for external church relations of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate in Moscow and various Catholic and Orthodox organizations concerned with the problem of addiction.
Under the heading “The theological understanding of addiction problems: the Orthodox and Catholic view” participants of both denominations from Russia, the USA, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Belarus, Romania, and other countries conferred. This, the second conference on the subject was chaired by the representative for addiction matters at the Moscow Patriarchate, Bishop Mefodiy (Kondratiev). There had already been a Catholic-Orthodox exchange of views on the subject of addiction and prevention in the Catholic seminary in Saint Petersburg.
“The conference was an important forum at which representatives of both Churches not only discussed the subject theoretically but also exchanged their practical experience,” the head of ACN’s Russian section, Peter Humeniuk, said. The most recent meeting was another result of the Catholic-Orthodox working group initiated by ACN. This had emerged as a consequence of the historic meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill in February 2016 in Havana, Cuba. This working group already met a number of times to discuss the protection of unborn children and the fight against drug addiction. Addiction in particular is a difficult subject which affects pastoral care in the eastern and western Churches, Humeniuk explained. “We hope that the ecumenical exchange and collaboration will help those concerned and their family members to emerge from the darkness they have fallen into because of their dependence.”
According to information from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), more than 250 million people worldwide consume illegal drugs at least once every year, Humeniuk claimed. The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued figures showing that every year 200,000 people worldwide die as a result of drugs and around 3 million people die from alcohol consumption. “The number of drug- and alcohol-related fatalities is the equivalent every year to the population of a metropolis like Madrid. Addiction is a global problem,” Humeniuk stressed. “The Catholic and Orthodox Churches can do a lot on a local level, such as providing contact points for those seeking help and hence creating an infrastructure whose effect goes beyond the merely cosmetic. This doesn’t only apply when it comes to addiction. Such concrete concerns give the Church of Christ as well as other religions an opportunity to combine their wealth of possibilities and experience, specifically on a local and practical level. State institutions alone are not able to cope with these problems and they adopt a different approach.”
The Vicar General of the Roman-Catholic archdiocese of Moscow, Father Kirill Gorbunov, presented the document “The Church: Drugs and Drug Addiction “, which was published in 2002. He said that this working instrument could also serve the Orthodox Church as a starting point, especially as regards the recommendations to priests on how to deal with addicts. “The ability to accept people and listen to them is important,” Gorbunov said. It had been his experience that people suffering from addiction often felt a strong need for a spiritual life. “The priest must respond to this need,” according to the Vicar General. The most important part of the pastoral approach is “to give help to hope”.
The Rector of the Catholic seminary “Mary – Queen of the Apostles” in St. Petersburg, Father Konstantin Perederiy, mentioned that the Catholic-Orthodox collaboration is already in progress in this field. One particularly important project was to create a programme for the seminaries of both Churches to prepare the seminarians more effectively in how to deal in their future pastoral work with the problems faced by addicts.
The participants also included the Russian-Orthodox priest Sergei Belkov, who has successfully managed a facility for drug addicts in the Saint Petersburg area for about twenty years. Many of them have found salvation here in a family atmosphere and a regular life routine permeated by prayer and spiritual life, individual care and work. ACN has supported this project from the beginning. For 25 years the pastoral charity has been committed to establishing a dialogue with the Russian-Orthodox Church. This part of ACN’s mission was originally inspired by Pope Saint John Paul II.