A priest (who’s been there) responds to the pain of addiction
As the nation continues to battle an opioid crisis, Father M.J. Groark, O.F.M.Cap. shares his story in hopes of showing others a path to recovery.
WHEN MICHAEL JOSEPH (M.J.) GROARK found the Capuchin Friars, he knew he was home. He felt called to pursue a vocation to the priesthood, but he worried they might not let him enter. Covered in tattoos, he had a “hell of a backstory,” as he puts it, centered around his addiction to opioids, heroin, and other substances.
But after hearing Groak’s story of addiction and recovery, sin and redemption, a friar told him, “You’re going to help so many people.”
Groark was vested in the habit in 2009 and ordained a Capuchin priest in 2019. Currently based in Chicago, he is vocation director for the Capuchin Franciscan Province of St. Joseph. In addition, he gives talks to parish groups and others about his backstory. He says he receives many requests to speak about his lengthy period of addiction, given the opioid crisis in the United States today. “You name it. I’ve done it. I’ve been to the gates of hell,” Groark says.
Through those dark days, his parents’ newfound Catholic faith sustained them and would provide a lifeline to Groark. Today he testifies to the transformation that took root the day he tagged along with his parents for Mass and experienced the presence of Jesus in a palpable way.
A reckless existence
Raised Lutheran in Sacramento, California, Groark grew up in a “poor, rough neighborhood.” His parents, however, worked hard to shield him and his brothers from negative influences and give them a happy childhood. They raised them to know the Bible and Jesus.
Groark’s introduction to drugs came in high school in Portland, Oregon. He thought he would convert the school for Jesus but quickly learned that wasn’t the way to be popular with his classmates. “That was the first time in my life where I realized how easy it is to compartmentalize God, morality, my value system, in order to feel accepted,” he recalls.
He got into sports and cliques, and his interest in God waned. “Then I got into my experimental phase. About the 10th grade, I found out what marijuana was like and drinking and chasing girls,” Groark recalls.
For many young people, these phases are temporary, but for others they can be the start of a dark trajectory. “That sort of harmless, experimental phase for me went from zero to 100 real quick,” says Groark. By his sophomore and junior years, he was “experimenting with every substance out there”—hallucinogens, amphetamines, alcohol. Before long he was making more money than his teachers as a drug dealer.
A dangerous descent
The day after graduation, he was promoted to manager of one of his father’s camera stores in Portland, Oregon, one that grossed $5 million annually. He oversaw a staff of a dozen.
At the same time, he continued dealing and taking more dangerous drugs. He worked at the store during the day and spent the nights partying
He quickly became hooked on OxyContin, taking multiple pills a day, unable to stop. Soon, he mixed the pills with other drugs in order to get the same high. Friends overdosed and died during this time, but Groark thought he was invincible. Then the drugs started to become more expensive and harder to get. At this point Groark started calling in sick to work, and the image he was so careful to maintain was slipping. Then, another friend approached him with street-level heroin.
“I immediately found relief. Those were much easier to get. I was doing up to 10 balloons of heroin a day. I was able to kind of maintain this for a while, maybe a few more months,” still calling in sick and making excuses.
It all came to a head when his dad confronted him at work. It turned out his father was investigating him and had proof that his son was embezzling from the company.
“My dad is a strong man, a strong businessman, and he began to weep. That was a shocking moment for me, seeing my dad just cry,” Groark says.
His father called him out and asked if he was on drugs. Instead of admitting what he had done and asking for help, he turned his back on his father and his promising future. “I’m standing there high on heroin, full of ego, and I remember being just like, ‘I don’t have time to listen to you, old man. I don’t need this crap.’”
His father fired him, and within 90 days the bank took everything he owned. Groark ended up living on the streets of Portland.
“The last conversation that I had with either of my parents was when my dad fired me. I was so embarrassed and so addicted to heroin that I spent the next two years just eating out of trash cans, robbing people, and engaging in terrible behavior,” he says.
Moment of clarity
Around this same time Groark’s parents had converted to Catholicism. After living on the streets of rainy Portland for two years, Groark was finally ready for change.
“I just had this moment of clarity that this was enough. So I hustled up enough change to make a phone call because we had pay phones back then. I got 35 cents and I knew my dad’s cell phone number by heart.” It is a day he will never forget.
“My dad picks up the phone and that’s the first time we had heard each other’s voices in two years. It was 3 p.m. in Milwaukee, and they were on their knees praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet for my deliverance.” Aware their son was seriously addicted, they had been praying constantly for him.
His parents asked him where he was and sent his brothers who still lived in Portland to pick him up. They took him to the airport and got him on a plane bound for Milwaukee. All the while, he was detoxing from the drugs. He remembers getting off the plane wearing the clothes he had been in for months. He had a thick beard and no laces on his duct-taped shoes. At first, his mom walked right past him because she didn’t recognize him. His parents had prayed hard for their son to come back to them, and when their prayers were answered, they were overwhelmed.
“We knew M.J. was in trouble, but we did not know that the trouble was heroin until the evening before he arrived,” Anna recalls. “I spent the night trying to figure out what to do with a heroin addict. It’s not something that you would ever think you need to know.”
They took him to their apartment and started calling rehabs until they found a place called Genesis in Milwaukee. Genesis was run by the city of Milwaukee and didn’t charge for treatment. “It was hell on earth, and it saved my life,” recalls Groark. “It was just the most amazing gift God could give me to be in this place.”
He spent about two months there. When he was released, his parents thought he was going to disappear again or seek out drugs. But he surprised them by saying he was tired of being miserable and asked that they take him to their church.
“Jesus is here”
“I’m sitting in the very last pew, just totally broken and ashamed,” he remembers. “For some reason when I saw the priest with the Eucharist in his hand, it was the most real thing I’ve ever experienced. I thought, ‘Jesus is truly here. Christ is present on this altar fully and substantially.’ I didn’t know that intellectually, but I knew it in my gut.”
He remembers feeling an invitation to ask Jesus for forgiveness.
“Every fiber and molecule in my body just said, ‘Run to him as fast as you can,’” Groark recalls. “I didn’t know what that meant, or I didn’t even know what Catholics were, but I was 100 percent convinced that God was calling me to something.” He held that in his heart and cried.
Next, Groark started getting his life together. He got a job and paid rent to his parents. He attended therapy and 12-step meetings. Eventually he told his parents he wanted to become Catholic.
Over time he sensed God calling him to the priesthood, and he began a discernment period during which he explored becoming a priest for the archdiocese. In addition, he visited some religious orders. Nothing felt right. But one day he saw Franciscan Father Benedict Groeschel talking about Father Solanus Casey. He spent that night searching online for everything he could find about Solanus, the Capuchins, and Saint Francis of Assisi. “I started reading about Francis and I was just enthralled. I fell madly in love with this man.”
He emailed the Capuchin vocation director and met with him the next day. “He brought me to the friary in Chicago, and immediately I knew this was where I was supposed to be.”
Groark says he is one of the lucky ones to come out on the other side of opioid addiction. His is a story of hope at this time when nearly 50,000 U.S. lives are lost to opioid-related overdoses each year. He feels called to share his story with others: “It’s a story about metanoia [spiritual transformation] and it’s a story about God’s mercy and grace and patience, his commitment to me.”
Reprinted with permission in condensed form from the October 2021 St. Anthony Messenger.
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