A No-Nonsense Mission of Saving Drug Addicts
By Chris Hedges
New York Times [Mendham NJ]
March 23, 2004
SOME people become priests because they are called by God. The Rev. Joseph H. Hennen wanted to get off the farm. "I wish I had a more pious reason," he says, "but I hated farming." It soon becomes clear, however, that Father Hennen's distaste for farming is outdone only by his distaste for religious piety, or what he calls "the churchy life." He is a man at war with convention, with religious self-indulgence and blind obedience to the Catholic hierarchy; a man at war, finally, with himself. He wrestles, Job-like, with it all. And he says that it is in the questions, not the answers, that he finds meaning; that he is defined not by what he knows but by what he seeks. And what he seeks is the moral life.
On a recent morning, Father Hennen, 63, sits in a small office, almost barren, on a small hill in Mendham. He runs Daytop New Jersey, a drug treatment center for teenagers. Most of his 70 patients are heroin addicts, and he has a four-month waiting list.
A teenage girl, who was not a patient, died in Morristown recently of a heroin overdose. Her mother, in what the priest calls "a rare and courageous decision," made the cause of her daughter's death public.
"These drug-related deaths," he says, "are almost always hidden. The families do not want to speak out, do not want to acknowledge that heroin use by wealthy suburban teenagers is epidemic." Drug abuse, he says, feeds off the sickness of a society suffocating under overindulgence and narcissism. It feeds off the "spiritual emptiness" of the privileged and the spoiled, the "obsession with image over substance." And it is, in the end, a barometer of our society, he says, where the chief goal is not making sacrifices for others, "but the belief that we should never feel any pain." "When the end result is more important than the journey, more important than how we got there, it kills our soul," he says, his accent betraying his Minnesota roots. "The fiber of a human being is not made up of what you achieve, what looks good. The soul is strengthened by struggle. When there is no effort, no sacrifice, no struggle, the soul withers." He knows something of struggle. He entered the seminary when he finished high school in Marshall, Minn. He grew up on a farm, where for the first eight years of his life his family did not have electricity or indoor plumbing. "The only educated man in our town was the priest," he says, "and it was the priest I wanted to become." He was ordained in 1967 soon after the turmoil over Vatican II, when the church decided to drop the Latin Mass and address issues of social justice and church reform. It was, he says, "an exciting time to be a priest." But as the years rolled on, he says, the church veered away from social activism. By 1982, every one of his friends from the seminary had left the priesthood. When asked why, he answers with one word: celibacy.
"I became disillusioned with the church," he says. "It seemed we no longer looked beyond the church doors to help those really in need. The church had often become a haven for insecurity." Father Hennen, who is also a certified school psychologist, then took a leave of absence. He went to work for the New York State Office of Mental Health, taking care of young schizophrenics in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and later worked with troubled youths at La Salle School in Albany.
"I was looking, as many of them were, for my identity as a spiritual person," he says. "It was in this work I rediscovered my spiritual journey." He returned to the priesthood, but told his order, the Crosiers, that he would not go back to parish ministry. "I can't do it," he says. "I can't hand out pat answers and look good in church." HE worked with Daytop Village in Millbrook, N.Y., a sister drug treatment center, before coming to the New Jersey center in 1991. But along the way, he had another lesson to learn.
The struggles of many of those he treated had become his struggle. "I took the problems home with me," he says, "until I ended up in 1987 in a hospital with a bleeding ulcer. I realized I had to back away." He leaves the center each night for the rows of flowerbeds surrounding his small house in Hopatcong.
"In the back of the garden there is rock and shade, so I have a lot of ferns," he says. "In the front, where there is more sun, I have petunias and pansies, spring lilies, tulips and daffodils. This is my little part of earth. I want to leave it more beautiful than when I arrived." The sexual abuse of youths by priests angers him, "but I am even angrier with the bishops for covering it up," he says. But he says he believes that the scandal, along with the steep decline in religious vocations and the financial woes of the Catholic Church, is part of a process.
"All this may not be a bad thing," he says. "The old is dying. The church will one day not look like this, but it will still be here, maybe with married priests, maybe even with women priests. I do not know. I only know that out of death comes new life."
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