Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Venerable Matt Talbot

By Fr. Gabriel Burke
Saturday, January 15, 2011
The Venerable Matt Talbot was born on May 2nd 1856. His parents were Charles and Elizabeth Talbot. His family at that time lived in the North Strand. He was the second eldest of 12 ,of which 6 survived into adulthood. They were a poor family. He father was a heavy drinker, so it is no surprise that Matt like his brothers became an alcoholic. Matt's formal education was about one year. Beside his name in the school role book is the word, Mitcher.

Matt started work at the age of 12. His first employment was for E & J Burke Wine Merchants.They bottled beer and stout. His first taste of alcohol was here; he used to drink the dregs from returned bottles.He then worked for the Port and Docks board and this involved barrels of whiskey. By the age of 16 he often returned home drunk.

Cusack's Bar North Strand. In Matt's Day it was O Meara's.

By the time he reached 20 Matt was a chronic alcoholic. His second home became O' Meara's Bar on North Strand. Drink became the be all and end all of his life. When he spent all his wages he would beg, borrow and steal in order to get money .He pawned his clothes and boots. He would look after horses outside pubs and the tips he got he would spend on drink. He himself recalls how he stole from a blind fiddler and pawned the violin. Then one Saturday morning in 1884 his life changed.

As usual Matt was waiting outside O' Meara's for his friends. He wanted to drink but had no money. As different men came to the Pub Matt started to scrounge from them, hoping one of them would lend him the price of a pint. Not one of them gave him money or asked him to tag along with them. Matt was devastated. He had helped many of these men in the past lending them money for drink or buying drink for them. Now it was his turn to get a helping hand and nothing.He decided to go home. His mother was preparing Dinner (Mid-day meal). Matt had resolved to take the pledge. He told his mother " Ma, I am going to take the pledge." His mother told him to take it only if he meant it. Matt was 28 and he went to Clonliffe made his confession to Rev. Dr Hickey. As is the custom he took the pledge for 3 months. Dr Hickey became his spiritual director and remained so for 25 years.

Nowadays, we have all sorts of services for those that want to give up any addiction. Matt did not have that benefit.There was no nice clinic to go to, no fraternity like the AA where one could get support. No tablets to help one through the DT's. Matt went cold turkey He had been drinking for 16 years and now nothing. What sheer hell he must of gone through.. But not a drop passed his lips. In order to fill up the time he used to spend in O'Meara's, he took to walking. One day while out walking he could smell beer and walked into Bush's Public House. However the barman was busy and did not serve the stranger. Matt felt humiliated and left. He went to Gardiner St Church and prayed. He made the resolution never to carry money with him.

During his daily walks he got into the habit of visiting a church. He did so more out of a need to rest than to pray but gradually he started to pray. In order to remain sober he went to Gardiner St Church for 5.30am mass and unusually for those times he received Holy Communion every day.Then having made his thanksgiving he went to work. When the three months of his pledge was finished, he renewed it for six more and then for life.

Matt was a member of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. This organisation was founded by Fr Cullen S.J. in Gardiner St. Members pledge to abstain from all alcoholic beverages in reparation for those who drink excessively.

Matt got full time employment in T&C Martins Lumberyard. With the aid of his Spiritual Director Matt took as a rule the life the lives of the Irish saints. Work, penance, pray and study everyday. He lived an ascetical life in tune with those early Saints. He slept on a plank of wood and had a wooden block for his pillow. He slept for no more than five hours. He rose at 5am, went to mass at 5.30am, returned home for breakfast and then to work. He put in a full days work as a labourer in the lumberyard. His food consisted of potatoes and not much more. Instead of tea he drank a mixture of cold tea and cocoa.

He became a member of various confraternities and went to all their meeting. After the various confraternity meetings he returned home where he had a plan for study and spiritual reading. He learned to read by using the Bible.

Matt lived an ascetical life but he also lived in the world. Matt was a member of the newly formed
Irish Transport and General Workers Union founded by Jim Larkin. When the Lock Out occurred in 1913, other workers came out in sympathy. Matt was no different to the others. He too down tools. At first he did not take his strike pay, he then decided to take it and divided it among families that needed it. He never took part in picket duty. He was a trade unionist all his working life and never crossed a picket. Having learned to read and write he was familiar with the Church's social teaching and often spoke to his co-workers about their rights and obligations

Matt lived all his life in a small area of Dublin; the furthest he ever went was to Adam and Eve
Church on Merchants Quay. He was charitable and gave money to many organisations including the missions. He was a hard worker, both his employers and his co workers testify to this. He lived an obscure life and would have died unknown except for the fact he dropped dead in the street. He was either on his way to or from the Dominican Church and collapsed in Granby Lane. When they tried to revive him and open his clothes, they discovered chains on his body.That one act threw him from a life of obscurity into to a worldwide figure.

Matt was originally buried in Glasnevin, but his body was interned in Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Seán Mc Dermot St. Archbishop Byrnes opened the Diocesan Enquiry in 1931. The process went to the Holy See in 1947. Pope Paul VI declared him Venerable in 1975.

Note: We appreciate Fr. Burke publishing this article on Matt Talbot, which we have slightly edited, including photographs. Click the link above for the complete posting.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A 1949 reflection about Matt Talbot

Fr. Michael Sweetman, S.J. published this five-page reflection on Matt Talbot in The Irish Monthly (1949), twenty-four years after Matt's death and six years before Matt was declared "Venerable" by Pope Paul VI.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Book of Hours for Those Affected by Addiction

Harriet Roberts has published Praying Throughout the Day: A Book of Hours for Those with Addictions (2007) by Liguori Publications. This is a very fine resource for anyone who is affected by addictions and chooses to pray within the format of The Liturgy of the Hours.  The book's contents and a review are available at

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The 12 Steps and Catholicism

Earlier this week we posted a letter by Fr. John Bonavitacola about a statue of Matt Talbot as an image of liberty placed on the grounds of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Tempe, Arizona, ( In the letter that follows, Fr. John notes that there need not be a conflict between the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and Catholicism. (We have previously noted on this resource center site that Fr. Morgan Costelloe, former Vice-Postulator for the Cause of Matt Talbot, has discussed in his book, Matt Talbot: Hope for Addicts (2001, Veritas Publications), Matt's recovery journey in light of the twelve steps, decades before AA was founded. (JB)

Letters from the Pastor
Fr. John Bonavitacola
January 2, 2011
Dear Friends,

Our Annual Mass of Gratitude for the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous takes place Saturday, January 8 at 9am followed by a Pancake Breakfast in the Hall. Come join with those who have been blessed with recovery from addiction with the help of the 12 Steps and their families and friends. Addiction and compulsive behaviors have made the life of many a person and their loved ones unmanageable to varying degrees. Gratefully we live at a moment when recovery is possible in ways that weren't prior to the program that was started by Alcoholics Anonymous.

One of my purposes in making this an annual celebration is to make clear the connection between religion and spirituality that is often severed because of a faulty understanding of 12 Step Programs. I also want to show that you can be in recovery and still be a very good Catholic. In other words there is no conflict between the 12 Steps and Catholicism.

The founders of AA knew that they would fail if they tried to promote their new found success with traditional marketing or advertising. The reason for this was that they understood that anything that would pump up the ego of the alcoholic was extremely dangerous to his sobriety as alcoholics find sobriety only through a process of deflating their overly swollen egos. Humility is essential to recovery. But the problem they faced was how could they manage to have AA accepted as a legitimate moral program and not be seen as some fringe or cult-like group if they refused to promote it?

After publishing the book Alcoholics Anonymous, a Jesuit priest named Fr. Ed Dowling happened to get a copy and he marveled at the similarity between the 12 Steps and the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Fr. Dowling managed to track down Bill W, the cofounder of AA, which was not so easy since AA at that time was very strict about the anonymity of its members. He knocked on Bill W’s door on a very windy New York evening and Bill’s first thought after seeing the disheveled priest was that this was another drunk looking for help! Fr. Dowling wanted to know where Bill had gotten these 12 Steps and if he used any of St. Ignatius works. Bill, a bit confused by the question admitted he had no idea what the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius were. At that point both men began to realize that God was doing something big in the history of spirituality. All AA did was arrange the spiritual principles that the ages had handed on down in a new way that enabled alcoholics to recover. Fr. Dowling, and many other clergymen endorsed the program of AA giving it the needed nod from organized religion.

Bill W continued a friendship with Fr. Ed and often consulted many other clergymen so as to make sure the new program of AA was on solid spiritual grounds. Bill also would frequently stress that AA was not a substitute for religion and that AA would be forever in debt to the religious men and women who nurtured AA at its beginning. And in the book, "Alcoholics Anonymous,"  members are encouraged to return to their places of worship where they will find “new avenues of usefulness and pleasure” and where they and their families can be “bright spots” in their congregations. In other words the recovered person and their recovered family can offer much to those who sit in the pews with them and still suffer because of alcoholism or addiction. Thank you to the many, many recovered members of our parish and their families who have so generously shared their “experience, strength and hope” of pain and healing with those who still suffer in our parish. Remember you never know when you will be needed to help another, but you can’t help another if you are not there to pass it on!

And to the families whose loved ones have died as a direct result of alcoholism or addiction or who are still wounded by the scars of this disease please come and pray with us for your loved ones. Together let us continue to “trudge the road of happy destiny”. Until January 8 may God bless you and keep you!

"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time; Enjoying one moment at a time; Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; That I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him forever in the next."
Amen. -- Reinhold Niebuhr

2011, Jan 2, 2011 - Annual Mass of Gratitude 

Note: The prayer at the end of this letter is known as "The Serenity Prayer" in its "long- form."

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Mini-biography of Matt Talbot included in new book

Although Matt Talbot is not yet a saint, he is frequently used as an example of recovery from alcoholism in such books with "saint" in the title. (JB)

Saints for the Sick: Heavenly Help for those who Suffer (2010, TAN Books)

by Joan Carroll Cruz


Book description: "In this intriguing new book, bestselling author Joan Carroll Cruz presents 76 mini-biographies highlighting saintly Catholics who faced intense, long-term suffering and disability with sweetness, peace and love for Jesus Christ. These stories show the triumph of God s grace where the world finds only ugliness and approaching death. They describe some lives so recent that the saint s family members are still living today, with many causes for canonization being currently active in Rome.
Included here are Bl. Zelie Martin, who died of breast cancer; 14-year-old Bl. Isidore Bakanja, the Scapular martyr from Africa; the famous leper priest, St. Damien of Molokai;  Venerable Matthew Talbot, the alcoholic; St. Germaine Cousin, rejected because of a birth defect; and little Nennolina Meo, who died from cancer of the bone, lungs and brain. Also included are persons who suffered from paralysis, amputation, deformities, breathing problems, mental illnesses, kidney ailments, intestinal disorders, and more as well as from medical treatment itself.

Particularly remarkable are the children who suffered, including young people ages 15, 13, 12, 11 and even 6 ! For these there was no grasping at the remnants of earthly life but rather an eager anticipation of Heaven. These children showed unwavering resolve to suffer for the love of God and the conversion of sinners and they endeavored to console their parents.

SAINTS FOR THE SICK is a book that reinforces our Catholic faith and gives renewed hope to those who are dealing with bodily struggles. Moreover, it puts us in touch with heavenly intercessors who will gladly help us for they know exactly what we are going through on earth."

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Breaking the bonds of addiction

In our earlier posting today titled, "Matt Talbot as an image of liberty," Fr. John Bonavitacola refers to a recent book by Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, Let the Oppressed Go Free: Breaking the Bonds of Addiction (2009, Basilica Press).
Here is part of an interview by Lou Baldwin with Cardinal Rigali about this book:

“I found it (Q & A format) quite satisfactory,” Cardinal Rigali said. “The text itself could be quite precise because the questions were precise. That way we got around excessive generalities. The formula is something like the ‘Baltimore Catechism;’ there is something to be said about that.”

His particular topic, the Cardinal said, was chosen by him in consultation with Basilica Press.

“This is something that is very relevant and useful, and I was hoping by writing it I could make a contribution that could help people in their lives. I’ll be very pleased if it will get into the hands of people it will help or those who will help them.”

Although the Cardinal’s book cites such traditional addictions as alcohol and drugs, others noted didn’t exist a decade or two ago; for example, online shopping and cyber-pornography. This leads to the question, is today’s environment more conducive to addictive behavior than in the past?

“I believe today’s environment is much more challenging,” the Cardinal said. “Technology, for its many blessings, does present special difficulties. In that sense you can say the environment is more conducive to addictive behavior.”

As addiction is acquired, he said, “freedom is wounded.” It is important to try to ward off addiction long before it takes place because once it takes hold free will is gone.”

Addiction, he said, “actually leads to slavery, and in doing so we have tremendous violence done to one of our greatest gifts, which is the gift of free will.”

In the book the Cardinal advocates the use of spiritual advisors, prayer and the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist for those fighting addictions.

“Prayer is extremely important in overcoming addiction and avoiding addiction to begin with,” he said. “For those who are in the household of our faith, penance and Eucharist are so important. Their value, their power, can never be over-estimated.” To try to overcome addiction through willpower alone is absolutely insufficient. It is not only problematic it is impossible.

Cardinal Rigali likened this approach to the heresy of Pelagianism which said man can ascend to God by his own power.

“Just as that was successfully debunked over the years we know that in addictions you cannot raise yourself up by your own power alone,” he said.

Willpower is to be absolutely cultivated but it is to be combined with natural and supernatural means.

One of the natural means prominently covered in the book is the Twelve Step Program. It was originally designed to overcome alcohol addiction but has since been adopted for many other addictions.

“A very important principal of the Twelve Steps is to speak of the power of God or at least of a Higher Power, and that’s something essential to overcome addictions,” the Cardinal said. “It is a great thing that it is so recognized now, if not universally recognized, certainly greatly recognized, the need to rely on the power of God and His help through which we receive grace and strength.”

There are natural helps and supernatural helps, and “the Church draws our attention to this and says, ‘Don’t be discouraged. God’s love abides with His people.’ For those who have slipped into addictions it is possible, with God’s help, to overcome them,” Cardinal Rigali said.

“Let the Oppressed Go Free” is the seventh book in The Shepherd’s Voice Series, according to Alan Napleton, President and CEO of Basilica Press and is available through its distributor, Catholic Work
(800-932-3826) or through religious bookstores.

Following upon the early positive reception of the book, there will be a conference based upon the book and its topic of addictions through the lens of Catholic teaching."

Note:  The homily and remarks by Cardinal Rigalis at this conference can be found by clicking:November 5, 2010: "Let the Oppressed Go Free: Breaking the Bonds of Addiction" Remarks to Conference Participants

November 5, 2010: "Let the Oppressed Go Free: Breaking the Bonds of Addiction" Homily During Mass for Participants ]

A review of this book by Professor Oliver Morgan of the University of Scranton can be found at:  Let the oppressed go - Page 1 of 7 Let the oppressed go free ...

We greatly appreciate all of this information being available online.

Matt Talbot as an image of liberty


Our own statues of liberty
Fr. John's (Bonavitacola) Weekly Letter
Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Tempe, Arizona
July 4, 2010

Freedom is first and foremost an inside job. What does political freedom matter if the human person is not free internally, spiritually. History is dotted with examples of men and women who despite the lack of political and physical freedom demonstrated the power of spiritual freedom: Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Nelson Mandela, Fr. Walter Ciszek are some contemporary examples that come to mind. Yet even though we unlike them have the benefits of political freedom we still find ourselves too often less than free. The freedom of the will to choose to be truly and authentically human and make decisions accordingly is what Christianity tries to teach us in regards to sin and grace. That is why things that diminish the capacity of the will to freely choose, things like force, fear and compulsion are the very things we seek to eliminate through our spiritual practices. One of the hallmarks of modern living is that it so often sets us up for addictive, compulsive behavior.

I recently received from Cardinal Rigali, my hometown Archbishop, a copy of his new booklet entitled: "Let the Oppressed Go Free: Breaking the Bonds of Addiction". In it he reminds us of the devastation that addiction causes to individuals, families and societies. And aptly he points out why the Church must offer hope and help for both those who are struggling with addiction and their families and loved ones. With our vast spiritual treasury we have plenty of tools that can help others to find recovery.

Hence the reason for the statue of Matt Talbot. Matt Talbot was an Irish Catholic drunk (some would say that is redundant!) from Dublin. Despite repeated attempts to quit drinking and taking "the Pledge" numerous times he always found himself drunk again. Periods of dryness were always followed by worse relapse. Finally Matt realized that no amount of will power could prevent him from taking the next drink. That power he realized had to come from outside himself. So he surrendered himself to God and embarked on a life of prayer, penance and service. He found that the more he was faithful to these the less temptation he had to drink. In fact he discovered the real secret to happiness was anonymous and selfless service. The statue itself reminds us that first through the Cross, Matt died to his own will and with the assistance of the Virgin Mother the chains of addiction were broken and he truly experienced a spiritual awakening. Finally his hands are not raising bottles to his lips but are rather raised in prayer.

The spiritual tools he used eventually would become incorporated into AA's Twelve Steps. Without knowing it Matt had found a solution to the "drink" problem that had eluded men for centuries and upon which would later become the model for effective sober living in the 20th century. The brilliance of AA's founders was that they took simple spiritual truths that had been around for centuries and arranged them in an order that was both acceptable and usable for the alcoholic. Today of course those same 12 Steps have been used for recovery from many addictions other than alcohol. Matt Talbot discovered the essence of the 12 Steps long before there were the 12 Steps: the admission of personal powerlessness, faith, surrender (Steps 1,2,3), confession, penance, amends (Steps 4,5,6,7.8,9), prayer/sacraments (Steps 10, 11), service (Step 12).

This image of Matt Talbot (who is at the first step of canonization hence he is called Servant of God [officially "Venerable"] because he demonstrated a life of heroic virtue) should remind us of the spiritual treasury that is at our disposal that we can use to "let the oppressed go free". It should also inspire us to reach out to those who suffer from addictions.

The other image is entitled "Charity". This beggar extending his hand for assistance reminds us that in each person we meet Christ, hence the nail wound in his hand. Also it brings to mind the words of Jesus: "whenever you did it for the least of them, you did it for me". Christ disguises himself in the needy. In serving the poor we serve Christ himself. I wanted something in our sights that honors our St. Vincent de Paul Conference and the many volunteers who each day serve the poor. Our SVDP at Mt. Carmel is not just active it is "hyper-active"! Which in this case is a good thing. I hope this little figure continues to inspire all of us to donate, contribute and assist our St. Vincent de Paul work.

Both these figures were created by Catholic artist Timothy Schmaltz of Ontario, Canada.  Let these be our own statues of liberty: proclaiming that this Church is a place to find freedom.

Note: The statue of Matt Talbot that Fr. John is referring to can be found at