My life as a gambling priest

When Columban Fr Tim Mulroy was the Regional Director in the USA he used to drive a retired Columban to his regular Gamblers Anonymous meetings in Omaha (USA). Fr Paul White spent 50 years on mission in Korea where he continued to struggle with his gambling compulsion until Gamblers Anonymous helped him to stop. He later wrote the book: 'My Life, Born Gambler, Catholic Priest' which can be read online at fatherpaulbio.com.

Photo: SeventyFour/Bigstock.com

SeventyFour/Bigstock.com

Every Saturday afternoon, Fr Paul drove off faithfully in the car by himself. For several years, all I knew was that he was heading to a Gamblers Anonymous meeting somewhere in the local town. There was nothing more that he said, or that I said, about this weekly outing.

However, after Fr Paul suffered a fall that necessitated a prolonged period of hospitalisation, followed by an even longer period of rehabilitation, he was no longer able to drive. This loss of independence resulted in a changed lifestyle, including an inability to attend his weekly Gamblers Anonymous meeting.

When I inquired of Fr Paul about this, he acknowledged that, since he had not gambled for more than thirty years, it didn’t trouble him not to be able to go to those Saturday meetings. Besides, he continued to stay in contact by phone with a few companions who were also recovering from the same addiction.

However, after a brief pause, he added, “For many years I have seen my participation in those Saturday afternoon meetings not just as a benefit to myself, but also as a way to encourage others to begin or continue their recovery journey. I participate just like every other person, but I make no secret of the fact that I’m a Catholic priest. When some of the participants hear that for the first time, they are greatly surprised, but then they begin to realise that if this addiction can trap a Catholic priest then they ought not be ashamed to admit that it has also trapped them – and that can be the beginning of their journey towards recovery.” 

After hearing this, I ventured to say, “I’m not available most Saturday afternoons, but whenever I am, I can drive you there.” The result of that conversation was that once every six weeks, I drove Fr Paul to the Gamblers Anonymous meeting.

The first time I drove him there, Fr Paul had to direct me, as the entrance to the meeting room was through the back-door of a large, old building, and there was no sign to indicate what was taking place inside. Upon our arrival, I asked him, “How would a newcomer know that there was a Gamblers Anonymous meeting taking place here today?” His response was simple, “If someone wants to know, they’ll find it out!”

I had planned to take a nap in the car while Fr Paul attended the meeting, and was surprised, therefore, when he invited me to join him. “I’ll introduce you. You will be an observer - don’t say anything”, was the complete orientation that he provided me. The meeting began with self-introductions, followed by a reading of a chapter from a booklet that describes aspects of the 12-step recovery program. Afterwards, the participants were invited to share whatever they wished about their life. Later, words of mutual encouragement and support were freely offered. A few of the participants mentioned that they had been in contact by phone with another member who was unable to attend that day. The meeting concluded with refreshments.

During the following years, from time to time, I accompanied Fr Paul to his Saturday afternoon meeting. As I came to a deeper understanding of the importance of those meetings for Fr Paul and the other participants, I also came to a greater appreciation of the gifts that the 12-step program could offer our wider society.

Those weekly meetings of Gamblers Anonymous faithfully follow a simple format that provides the participants with a restful space where they can experience self-acceptance and mutual support. In a world that has become weary from novelty and sensationalism, so many people are left yearning for such an oasis.

Moreover, in contrast to the emphasis on personal accomplishment and self-promotion in our society, those meetings place importance on sharing one’s vulnerability and fragility. Besides, for the participants, helping others along the journey of life is seen as an important means of helping oneself. 

Furthermore, in this era of mass advertising, the highly discreet approach of the 12-step program is refreshing and effective - in many towns and cities, weekly miracles take place in basement rooms without any large banner hanging over the front door of the building.

One Saturday afternoon as we were returning from a meeting, Fr Paul broke the silence, “I have become a better person and a much better missionary priest thanks to my addiction. It has taught me a lot.”

In some small way I was able to grasp what he said, thanks to the privilege of having accompanied him as an observer to several meetings. And how I wished that the world around us could also catch a glimpse of that blessing which Fr Paul and his companions in Gamblers Anonymous had shared with one another and with me!

Columban Fr Tim Mulroy is the Society Leader of St Columbans Mission Society and resides in Hong Kong. 

Listen to "My life as a gambling priest"

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