A local branch of a global Catholic recovery group returned to in-person meetings this week, after months of COVID restrictions prevented support gatherings.

Some 25 attendees were on hand as the Calix Society, an international association of Catholics in recovery, resumed its weekly Mass and discussion at St. Gabriel Parish in Philadelphia.

The Sept. 15 liturgy coincided with the memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows, a fitting occasion, said celebrant and Calix national chaplain Father Douglas McKay.

“Mary suffered so intensely at the foot of the cross,” he said in his homily. “It’s like her fiat again, and she’s there offering her Son to the Father that we might become divine.”

Despite the pandemic, economic distress and political contention, said Father McKay, “this time (on earth) is like the blink of an eye.”

“In the end, there are two things: heaven and hell,” he said. “A great price was paid for our salvation and our union with God: the cross. … All of our sins are a drop in the ocean of his mercy; he loves us so much.”

The sacraments are essential to grasping that love, he said, which is why the Calix Society particularly emphasizes the Eucharist and reconciliation in its ministry.

Currently based in Glenside, the ministry “started over an alcoholic priest back in 1947,” said Father McKay, noting that five concerned laymen from the Minneapolis area petitioned to have a 5 a.m. daily Mass offered for an addicted priest’s recovery.

After several weeks, the priest was able to remain sober, and the Calix Society — named after the Latin word for “cup” — formed shortly thereafter.

With members often attending 12-step groups as well, Calix works to ensure sobriety by promoting sanctification. Meetings generally begin with a celebration of Mass, followed by reflection and fellowship. Devotions such as eucharistic adoration and the rosary figure prominently in Calix’s programming, which was commended by Pope Paul VI in a 1974 address to the group.

And while the society emerged in response to alcoholism, Calix changed its mission statement in 2019 to officially welcome all who struggle with addiction, both substance-related and behavioral.

Treasurer Ken Johnston estimated there are currently some 35 Calix chapters, or “units,” worldwide, with more than 200 official members plus scores of unregistered participants. Local groups must obtain permission to form from their diocesan bishop, and priests are asked to serve as chaplains whenever possible.

In the greater Philadelphia area, Calix units formerly met at St. Patrick’s in Norristown and Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Media. Currently, groups are meeting at Queen of the Universe in Levittown and St. Gabriel’s in Philadelphia, where Our House Ministries, a recovery outreach founded by Father McKay, is based.

A unit has also been active in recent years in Wilmington, Delaware at St. Matthew Catholic Church.

Long before the coronavirus, Calix regularly hosted virtual meetings, but many in recovery are “not computer connected,” said Johnston.

Lack of digital access has compounded a number of COVID-related challenges for those struggling with addiction. Substance abuse, which compromises heart and respiratory health, increases the risk of contracting the virus. At the same time, lockdown policies have intensified the isolation and anxiety that often trigger addiction, while limiting access to in-person treatment options.

“There’s nothing like meeting people face to face,” said Father McKay, adding that he continued to hear confessions throughout the various phases of COVID restrictions, with many in recovery simply showing up on his doorstep.

One Calix member said that during the suspension of public Masses, he took to reciting his daily rosary while sitting in a lawn chair outside of his parish church simply to be near the tabernacle.

“They know there’s something in that sacrament,” said Father McKay. “That’s what we promote in Calix: a personal encounter with Jesus. It’s what our hearts are hungry for.”

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For more information on the Calix Society, visit the organization’s local or global websites.