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How to Help a Sober Catholic Celebrate

Joanne McPortland - published on 06/13/16

Keeping non-alcoholic beverages on hand is a kindness, but the real mercy is in offering the wine of companionship

26). “Have alternative drinks, other than water, for times when those who have been struggling with alcohol come to visit.”—56 Ways to Be Merciful During the Jubilee Year of Mercy 

Lord, have mercy on an abstemious Catholic.

I don’t mean one who abstains from eating meat or from sexual expression outside of sacramental marriage. Though of course people in both these situations could use all the mercy they can get, as the world is not going to cut their discipline much slack.

No, in this instance I am begging your mercy, and God’s, on the Catholic who, for reasons of physical or mental health or in order to steer clear of all-too-near occasions of sin, must abstain from imbibing alcohol. I am one to whom all these reasons apply, and who has been maintaining sobriety by a hair’s breadth for the last 3 and a half years.

And it ain’t easy to be Catholic sober. Think about it. We’re not Muslims or Mormons or Southern Baptists whose faith calls them to eschew the use of alcohol. Wine, remember, is sacramental for us. And we come from cultures deeply rooted in the celebratory and familial blessings of the grape, the ale, the whiskey, the brandy. We invented Champagne, for heaven’s sake!

Every Catholic school child can recite Hilaire Belloc’s charming couplet:

Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine
There’s music and laughter and good red wine
At least I’ve always heard it’s so:
Benedicamos Domino!

With this tradition (which, I hasten to say, does not in any way condone the personal and social ills of drunkenness), you can see why a sober Catholic at a party might feel even more like a fish out of, er, Chardonnay than your average non-Catholic in recovery. Perhaps it’s empathy for that condition that motivates this week’s suggestion for practicing mercy in the Jubilee Year: “Have alternative drinks, other than water, for times when those who have been struggling with alcohol come to visit.”

I approve of this suggestion (and I’ll even settle for water). But when I first read it, I thought, well, that’s nice. I certainly hope we needn’t be reminding people never to press others into drinking alcohol when they’ve demurred, because yes, for many of us, a wee drinkie will hurt. And it would certainly be a kindness to be mindful of guests’ struggles with sobriety. But an act of mercy? That’s going a bit far, right?

Then along came Pope Francis. I love him. He’s God’s gift to our Church, I fully believe that. But every once in a while he pops up with one of those old Italian guy-isms that make me want to give him the Loretta Castorini “Snap out of it!” slap. Like those “jokes” about diabolical mothers-in-law. Or calling women strawberries on the cake. Last week, at his Wednesday catechesis on marriage, the pope managed to sneak one of those not-so-helpful-Your-Holiness bits into what was otherwise a terrific unpacking of the miracle at Cana:

Within the context of the Covenant, we also understand Our Lady’s observation: “They have no wine.” How is it possible to celebrate a wedding and make merry if that which the prophets indicated was a characteristic element of the messianic banquet is missing? Water is needed to live, but wine expresses the abundance of the banquet and the joy of the celebration. It is a wedding feast lacking wine; the newlyweds are embarrassed by this. Imagine finishing a wedding feast drinking tea; it would be an embarrassment. Wine is necessary for the celebration. [Emphasis mine]

He’s right, he’s right – and yet it hit me in a sore place. There are those of us for whom, in this life anyway, the wedding must be toasted with tea, or club soda, or a virgin Mary. And that reality – the fact that some of us are called to renounce what is “necessary for the celebration” – is why sobriety is really so hard. I can face the prospect of a future without alcohol, but I cannot do without the sociability, the community, the joy with which it is linked.

Substituting water for wine is no mercy if we do not take the time also to invite the sober back into the circle, to help them make and sustain the human connections alcohol once replaced or destroyed. “Having an alternative beverage” on hand for me may be kind, but if it comes without a hug or a dance or a laugh, I will be at the party in body but alone in the outer darkness, with the weeping and the gnashing of teeth, in spirit.

So stock up on bottled waters and make some embarrassing iced tea. But do not withhold the music and the laughter and the “good red wine” of camaraderie, the love that is the real “abundance of the banquet.” Benedicamus Domino!

CatholicismJubilee Year of MercyPope FrancisPracticing Mercy
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