By Karen Carnabucci, LCSW, TEP
A milestone – the death of William J. Hultberg, the longtime chaplain at the Caron Treatment Centers on where he was known by everyone as “Father Bill.”
He was a Vietnam veteran and the first Roman Catholic priest who I knew who wore faded blue jeans under his vestments. He helped thousands of recovering alcoholics and addicts to a better life with his sermons and encouragement.
People, including me when I worked at Caron, loved his Sunday services at the little chapel on the campus at Wernersville, Pa., which were more like free-range 12-step meetings than anything I knew growing up Catholic.
Bill grew up as a child of a chaotic alcoholic family and was personally familiar with the trauma of family pain. He served during the Vietnam War as a chaplain, becoming familiar with the trauma of battle. After he returned home from Vietnam, he was surprised as anyone that he became addicted to pills and alcohol, which eventually led him to treatment and recovery.
His ministry became the care and inspiration of those suffering alcoholism and addiction. Rather than sit quietly in his office, he roamed the halls of the treatment, wanting to be available when a newly recovering addict just learned that his wife decided to leave him or struggled with the guilt and shame of the consequences of addiction. He wasn’t always delicate or diplomatic with his language – he once bluntly told a little boy whose parents were alcoholics that the child was doomed to be an alcoholic as well! – and was known to toss the “F-bomb” out from time to time during Sunday services.
“It gets their attention,” he said, speaking of the younger people in the chapel.
He regularly spoke up about the stigma of addiction and worked mightily to reverse it. Once, a bunch of teenagers, all hulking and silent in their hoodies and long hair, arrived at the chapel for a service and slumped down into a section of a wooden pew. Someone said, pointing to one, “He’s a good kid.” Bill said, “They’re all good kids.”
That was another thing. Bill was inclusive, long before the word became popular. He embraced all addicts and alcoholics, as well as people suffering with AIDS and HIV diagnoses, and initiated special retreat for these patients.
Sometimes someone would arrive at a Sunday service, steaming with pain and shame. Sometimes the pain and shame related to AIDS, or criminal activity or the simple fact of enslavement by addiction. Bill would call the person to the altar, place his arm gently around the person’s shoulders and told the person to ask this eight-word question to the congregation:
“Will you love me just as I am?”
And the person would say, sometimes timidly and sometimes with eyes filled with tears, “Will you love me just as I am?”
The congregation would roar out a “Yes!”
As a newer psychotherapist, I carefully watched Bill’s version of ministry, not fully sure of my own. Not surprisingly, his style of ministry appealed especially to men – an obvious fact, considering his background of the Roman Catholic priesthood and then with men serving in the U.S. armed forces overseas.
By definition, ministry relates to the duties of a minister, rabbi or other clergy person. Those duties are the work that the religious leader does in serving a congregation – learning of and attending to others' needs. Yet on a larger scale, those of us who serve have our own ministries, spreading the work that we believe in, attempting to be available to people, to help, to encourage, to include.
At the official Caron service a few days after his Sept. 6 death, that mood continued in a newer and larger auditorium on campus that could accommodate more of a crowd. But even in this shiny new space, the service was just as powerful – memories, eulogies, laughter and lots of grown men crying. (And women too, like me). The room was decorated with banners with several of his favorite sayings, words that he told again and again to his flock, which sometimes people called “Father Bill-isms.”
One of his favorite sayings says it all: “We are not bad people trying to be good; we are sick people trying to get well.”
Karen Carnabucci, LCSW, TEP, is an author, trainer and psychotherapist who promotes, practices and teaches experiential methods including psychodrama, Family and Systemic Constellations, sand tray, mindfulness and Tarot imagery.