“Father, I’ve buried two brothers, my stepson and my husband,” I wept openly that Friday night in 2010 when I showed up for services at Blessed Seelos Church in New Orleans. “I can’t bury my son. I just can’t do it,” I cried, distraught with worry that my son Christian might die of a drug overdose. “Stop!” Fr. Benson ordered gently but forcefully in his Irish brogue. “Give the boy to me and I will take him to the Lord,” he continued. “You go home and grieve your husband’s death.”
The moment the gifted priest and healer spoke those words to me, I felt my burden lift, instantly, completely. It was nothing less than a miraculous shift, and I was transformed in one second from a worried-sick mother to a confident daughter of God, suddenly experiencing “the peace that surpasses all understanding” standing guard over my heart and mind (Phil. 4:6). I walked out of the church with light shoulders and an inexplicable anticipation that something was about to change.
Five days later, I got a call from Christian. “Mom, guess who I just hung up with!” he started in excitedly.
“Who?” I asked, not sure if I wanted to hear the answer. My phone conversations with Christian had been dismal and alarming for months. The last few calls had come at three in the morning, with Christian on the other end telling me he feared he would die if he continued down the path he was on.
“I just spoke to Albino from Communita Cenacolo!” my son said with the first glimmer of hope I’d heard in his voice for a long time. “I called and made an appointment to go to orientation at the Community next week. Will you take me, Mom?”
Stunned by what I was hearing, I muttered, “Of course I’ll take you!” I had been asking Christian to enter Cenacolo—a Catholic community for recovering drug addicts—for several years. I had even called two years earlier and added his name to the waiting list, hoping and praying that God would work a miracle that would make him willing to go. “I’m not going to some Jesus camp, Mom, so you can forget it!” had been his insistent reply. As time passed, my fear grew that his addiction would win. I never imagined that Christian would call Cenacolo himself to inquire about entering. But miracles do happen.
A week after that phone call, Christian, my friend Mary Lou and I were on the road to Cenacolo. We were headed to Our Lady of Hope in St. Augustine, Florida; one of 65 houses that have sprung up around the world in the thirty years since a nun named Mother Elvira founded the Community in Italy. Mary Lou’s son John had entered the same house a year earlier, and my daughter Kara had followed shortly thereafter to do “an experience” at the St. Maria Goretti girls house. Though Kara had no idea what had transpired on our end, she and the entire house of girls had been praying a novena to St. Rita of Cascia--the patron saint of impossible causes--for Christian to enter the Community.
We drove a miserable ten hours through pouring rain with a kid in the back seat having major second thoughts about going to “Jesus camp.” But by the grace of God we got him there for what Community calls his “working days.” On the third day, Christian decided to stay. That was four years ago this month, and I am still amazed that he stayed. And stayed and stayed and stayed.
Community is no easy place to live, and everyone who comes through those doors will tell you that point blank. First of all, you live dormitory-style in a house full of addicts, many of whom have come to Community as a last resort after multiple rehab failures and brushes with the law. But that’s just the beginning of the story. Community life is rigorous, with six a.m. wake up calls, hard physical work and many hours of prayer down on the knees every single day. There are no TVs, radios, computers or cell phones, and there is very little contact with the outside world. Yet Christian and thousands of others who have entered the doors of Cenacolo over the years have chosen to stay. Why?
They stay because of what they find in the Community, not because of what they don’t have there. What they find is the of love God and their own personal dignity, communicated daily through their “brothers” who walk beside them through the healing process, loving them, speaking the truth to them and encouraging them to look honestly at their “poverties” and brokenness. They stay because they hear the ever-present message of God’s unconditional love and mercy—and they experience it concretely through the love of the Community, through the Sacraments and through numerous hours spent in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. They stay because they find the value and dignity of hard work, and they learn that they can do many things well, including gardening, construction, cooking and woodworking, along with befriending and helping others. They stay because they learn to sing, to dance, and to worship God, and to celebrate life as a gift to which they are called to be present. They can leave whenever they want to; and yet they stay.
I believe that Communita Cenacolo is a cenacle of God’s presence on this earth; a cell of the new evangelization in a dark world that is increasingly lost, numb and addicted. It is a place that calls forth new life, a beacon of light that speaks of the power of God to heal and transform what have been called “the poorest of the poor” in the Western world—drug addicts and their families.
My son was six feet under, and the Lord raised him up. His sickness was not unto death, but unto life for him and for all of us who have been privileged to walk with him on his journey through Community. Our sojourn has led us from darkness to light, from death to life. I thank God he chose to stay.