Around the Archdiocese

Catholic priest, Lutheran pastor meet for mutual support

Both are recovering from alcoholism

By Eric VanSickle
Special to The Witness

Editor’s Note: The following article originally appeared in the Waverly Newspapers. It is being reprinted in The Witness with permission. Several edits have been made to the original text to more accurately explain Catholic teaching.

WAVERLY — A priest and a pastor go to the Hy-Vee Cafe for lunch.

This is a very serious conversation, though maybe the Revs. Paul McManus, the Catholic priest living in Winthrop, and Cal Fick, a Lutheran pastor from Allison, might swap a few jokes over their meal. But they get together every third Thursday in Waverly to give each other support in their recovery from alcoholism.

The duo have been getting together since 1987, at first with a third man of the cloth, Lutheran pastor the Rev. Jack Peterson, then from Decorah. They went through the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program in Fairbank and became each other’s sponsors.

McManus told Waverly Newspapers in a phone interview that he had known Fick when he was the chaplain at Mercy Medical Center in Dubuque during the early 1980s.

“He moved to Dunkerton, and I became the pastor at Fairbank,” McManus said. “I had needed a support group when I went to this 12-step meeting, and Jack was there. He said he knew of Cal, and that he was in a 12-step recovery as well.”

At first, the trio met at the Country Cottage in Oelwein and designated the third Friday of each month there and then later changed to the third Thursday. McManus said Peterson had moved away and other ministers have entered and exited the group over the years.

“Cal and I have really started up that way,” McManus said. “That’s the way we would meet all of the time.”

After a while in Oelwein, McManus and Fick moved their meet-ups to Dunkerton and then to the Center Inn in Readlyn. Fick was later called to a church in central Iowa, so they changed to a more central location.

When Fick moved to Allison, he and McManus settled on the Waverly Hy-Vee for the last four to five years, McManus recalled.

“We kind of go where the prices go,” he said. “When the prices change, we find a place that’s cheaper to eat.”

Fick considers McManus a true friend.

“We don’t agree on everything theological and so on,” Fick said. “We do agree on recovery and good will and support, and it’s an opportunity for complete honesty with one-another.”

McManus agrees.

“I have a lot of people who know of me or about me,” he said, “but not many people know me. And Cal is one that knows me.”

The duo have supported each other both in good times and in bad. They have been there when one had health issues, but they also have helped celebrate each other’s 25th and 50th ordination anniversaries as well as Fick’s 50th anniversary of being married to his wife, Donna.

The Ficks will be married for 56 years in December.

Both men are working on 36 years of sobriety in 2017, Fick two months longer than McManus.

McManus was a hard drinker while ministering for 14 years before he was sent to Mercy for treatment.

“My basic alcoholic drink was Johnny Walker scotch,” he said. “Some guys drink beer, some guys drink vodka. Vodka is a popular drink — they think it doesn’t have any odor, but it does. Alcohol does have an odor, some don’t think it does.”

Meanwhile, beer was Fick’s drink of choice.

“For me, it seemed to fuel my depression,” he said. “It became incompatible with having a workable outlook on life.

“I never drank great quantities — never had a blackout or anything like that — but it was related to my inclinations toward depression.”

He admitted depression is something he deals with to this day along with his continued alcoholic recovery.

“I do the best I can,” he said. “I consult with a physician and take medication for it. It affects me from time to time quite a bit, and it makes life kind of difficult.”

At one point, Fick was a counselor in a program at the Hazelden Betty Ford center in Center City, Minnesota, at the time when McManus went for recovery. Later, McManus was part of the spirituality program at the Horizons Treatment Program at the Kimball Ridge Center.

Both are no longer practicing as alcoholism counselors, though they are both certified and can help if called upon.

The pair also have to alter their routines when they celebrate communion in their respective congregations. McManus uses a sacramental grape juice called mustum, while Fick usually takes ordinary grape juice when it’s available but sometimes takes a snip of wine.

McManus said the ritual of consuming wine at Mass, which for Catholics is converted into the blood of Jesus through the sacrament, can be a temptation for some in the ministry who are recovering from alcoholism.

He said that priests who have gone through treatment would have special permission from the Vatican to use the mustum.

“When I went to treatment in ’81, I had to sign a commitment that I would not use wine in liturgy, but only in the involt of the mustum,” he said. “I have done that for those years.”

He added that some other priests can handle themselves with the small amount of communal wine used in the ceremony on a spiritual basis.

“I personally know of a few priests that once they took a nip of it, they were off to the races; they couldn’t stop, because that’s the nature of the illness,” McManus said.

Otherwise, both McManus and Fick treat their sobriety day-by-day.

“There is no guarantee that I will die sober,” McManus said. “But, I know today, I’m sober, and I hope that my goal is that I can die sober. Some days are good, some days are not so good, but there are certain things I believe in, and one of these is that in order to stay sober, I need support.”

Fick said when he and McManus get together, it’s an opportunity for them to talk honestly about their feelings, shortcomings and failures of their daily lives.

“Probably the things that we would keep secret otherwise,” he said.

“I’m getting old. I’ll be 80 in a few weeks, so my energy level isn’t so great, but I lead worship every once in a while, but I’m doing alright.”

When McManus started down the road to sobriety, he said he had to change his “playmates” and his “play pen” and tries to stay away from regular drinkers.

“I can [hang around with them], but it’s a slippery slope for me,” he said. “I have to make some tough choices sometimes.

“There’s no such thing as non-alcoholic wine, there’s no such thing as non-­alcoholic beer, because there’s a half of a percentile of alcohol in non-alcoholic drinks. It gets you into that attitude, ‘You know, I can handle that. I know I can handle a regular beer.’ You could be off to the races.”

McManus said his strong relationship with God has also helped him make it this far with his sobriety.

“It’s also the fact of how great my life has been with sobriety,” he said. “The greatest gift that God has given me outside of my faith has been my sobriety.”

Father Paul McManus (left) and Pastor Cal Fick meet once a month for a meal in Waverly. (Photo by Anelia Dimitrova/Waverly Newspapers)