An Irish family who met the Pope in Croke Park are a testimony to God’s transforming power, writes Greg Daly
If few images caught Ireland’s imagination as much during the papal visit as much as Alison Nevin’s selfie with Pope Francis at the Festival of Families, few stories will have caught hearts as much as that of Damien and Mary Richardson that evening.
Drug addicts in their teens, the couple are now long-settled and parents to a lively family of 10 children, a living example, they told the Pope, of how with God’s help they had travelled from “the darkness of addiction to the joy of family”.
Brought up in north Dublin and the inner city, Damien left school at 15.
“I’d a lot going on in my head at that time, you know that way,” he says. “I’d a few small jobs and nothing really serious, and I just started dabbling in drugs – in drinking a bit and smoking cannabis. This escalated over the years.”
Ecstasy tablets were the norm in the rave culture of the early 90s, but Damien went further. “I was doing that for a few months and then I went back to a party and there was a lad smoking heroin out of tin foil. I said ‘what’s that?’ and he said ‘this is heroin, do you want a go?’ and I said ‘yeah, go on, give us a go of that’. And I started smoking heroin then.”
Within a few months he was a serious abuser. “I came from a good family, and my life had totally changed,” he says, adding that as he “got into crime” he ended up in prison several times.
Drugs just seemed the ‘in thing’ to do, he says: “I thought that was what life was about, to have this feeling, this stimulation, this drug inside you.”
He was 23, in 1996, when he first turned a corner.
“My father was a holy man, he was always praying for me,” he says, describing how whenever his father would meet a priest he would ask him to say a Mass for Damien. “He was in a prayer group, and someone showed him a video cassette, and on the video was two American girls speaking about how they’d been to Medjugorje on a pilgrimage, and had stopped taking drugs – it completely changed their lives,” he says. “My Da said ‘right, I have to get Damien to Medjugorje’.”
Damien wasn’t living at home at the time, but used to arrange to meet his father for tea. Though he would regularly let him down by not showing up, he did meet him when his father asked him to come to Medjugorje with him. “I’d let him down so many times, so I really felt I owed it to him to go to this place,” he says, adding that brochures his father showed him, filled with pictures of beaches, waterfalls and beautiful women, may well have swayed him more than the prospect of a week or more at a Marian shrine.
Even on his way to the flight he was wavering, but ultimately felt that after his father had booked and paid for the trip, he couldn’t let him down again. “It’s only a week – it won’t kill me,” he thought.
“I remember waking up on the bus to the sound of all these people praying the rosary, and I thought to myself ‘Jeany Mack, what am I after getting myself into?’” he says.
“So I got to Medjugorge, it was August 1996, the sun was shining, it was nice, and I hated the place for the first three days, I hated myself, I hated me Da, and for three days and nights I couldn’t sleep for the effects of the drugs and the heat,” he says, describing how despite this he felt God in his heart one morning when he fell asleep briefly on a bench by a statue of Mary.
In the end he spent two weeks there, with something happening to him that he describes now as “like an illumination of conscience”.
“I came home and still struggled with addiction, but I never stole after that. Something happened to me inside,” he says.
He and Mary started going out, initially in an off-and-on way, shortly after he returned to Ireland.
“We met through a mutual friend,” he says. “She also was a heroin addict – she’s from the north inner city. There was seven siblings in her family, including herself, and six of them went on the heroin. The whole family was destroyed.”
Growing up in the inner city, Mary had been raised in a world where drugs were the norm.
“You just imagine being in flats, there’s guys outside the door selling drugs, there’s the conversation of the day,” Damien explains. “If you’re immersed in that, if you grew up in that environment 24-7, where police are chasing lads through the streets and police kicking doors in looking for drugs, it’s all people talk about how to get drugs, how to be ruthless, how to be deceitful…”
During that time the two had their first child, Tammie, and went on a methadone programme until 2002, when things reached a tipping point for Damien.
“I had a breakdown, I was sick of the drugs and very suicidal – I just wanted to end my life, I just couldn’t keep taking drugs and something had to give,” he says. “So in 2002, a sister of mine once again brought me to Medjugorje, and after being there about three days I kind of recuperated and got my strength back.”
He’d been there several times since 1996 with Mary and Tammie, and though he was familiar with the Cenacolo community there, a community of young men, all recovering addicts of one sort or another, he had never taken it seriously. This time would be different.
“I went up to one of the lads and told him that I was from Dublin, I’d been on drugs for 14 years, I was very suicidal, and lost the will to live,” he says. “So he looked me in the eye and said a sentence I’ll never forget. He said ‘Damien, the drugs will always be there – you have to change your life and come back to God’.”
Did Damien know, the man asked, that a Cenacolo house had recently opened in Knock? No, he hadn’t known that. “He gave me the number of Knock, and I came back then to Ireland,” Damien says. “I had to detox off the methadone and drugs, and I went to about four assessment meetings, and I entered the community shortly after that in 2002.”
Community life at Cenacolo was to transform Damien. Cenacolo, named after the Upper Room or Cenacle of the Gospels, was founded in 1993 by an Italian nun, Mother Elvira Petrozzi.
Based around the idea of recovery through prayer, work and friendship, there are now about 70 Cenacolo houses around the world, each with the same template: days starting around 6am with adoration, communal prayer, scripture reading, communal meals and work ranging from cutting firewood and preparing food to tending animals and cleaning.
There is time for recreation like football, but television, newspapers, radio, internet or mobile phones are all forbidden.
Describing it as “tough going”, Damien says he was nonetheless willing to try anything. “I’d tried it my way and it didn’t work, so whatever these people suggested I would do.”
He’d been struck, after all, by the young men he’d met in the Medjugorje community.
“When I went to Medjugorje, I’d look into the lads eyes and could see peace, and I was jealous and envious of what they had,” he says. “They didn’t look like drug addicts – they looked like lads who were confident, hard-working men, and I wanted that. That’s all I ever wanted.”
Lamenting how destructive addiction can be, not least to confidence, Damien is effusive with praise for Cenacolo.
“The way it works is it’s residential – you can’t leave. I was down in Knock for a year, then I was transferred to the Cenacolo house in Medjugorje, and I was over there for five months,” he says.
“There’s a big emphasis on friendship, and friendship is not just about tapping you on the back and saying you’re a great fella. It may be about saying stuff to you that you find uncomfortable,” he says. “It’s quite challenging, Cenacolo is.”
While Damien was in Knock and Medjugorje, he says, Mary had been staying with his father and was taking methadone, but did a detox course at a HSE centre just before he came out of Cenacolo.
“When I came out, I was after living a lifestyle of prayer and we started praying together, and during that time I started my own little business,” he says.
“The first thing I wanted to do was get good with God and get married to Mary. We had a wonderful wedding, and got married in 2005,” he continues, adding that they went to Medjugorje on their honeymoon to thank Our Lady for her help.
The couple’s Faith has been central to their lives together for years, Damien says.
“Adoration is huge, and prayer for me is a big part of my life. The holy rosary – I’ve prayed the rosary the last 16 years, and I’m off heroin the last 16 years. That would be a big part of our prayer life,” he says, wryly adding that with 10 children they hardly ever manage to all go to Mass at the same time. “Confession is a big thing for me: the healing I feel when I go to a priest,” he adds.
A knee injury five years ago prevented him from driving or working for a year, and at a local employment agency he was advised to upskill, so he has done certificate and diploma courses in counselling and addiction.
“For the last year I’ve been doing voluntary work up in Newry, up in Cuan Mhuire. I did my placement there, and am hoping to start back in the classroom in a few weeks time and finish off the degree,” he says.
Meantime, as those present during the Festival of Families in Croke Park or who watched it online will have realised, Mary and he have had a series of children – aside from the 20-year-old Tammie, who now volunteers with NET Ministries, they have nine children under 14 years of age.
“We’re open to life,” Damien says. “We came back to the Faith, and me and Mary have a lot of lived experience that most people haven’t got. We’ve been in the darkness of addiction that not many people experience, and when we did get a second chance we grabbed it with both hands.”
With their links to Knock kept up over the years, they were invited there in 2017 to speak and help launch the World Meeting of Families, sharing their testimony and meeting other families.
Fr Timothy Bartlett, Secretary General of WMOF2018, was present when they spoke telling them afterwards how impressed he’d been by their story, and a few months later iCatholic came to film the family for part of series on Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’ exhortation on marriage and family life.
About three months ago, he continues, Fr Bartlett rang him up and asked whether the Richardsons would be going to the World Meeting. “I wonder would you do me a favour,” he began, and Damien said of course, thinking they would be perhaps asked to give a brief testimony at the Pastoral Congress in the RDS.
“The favour I want you to do is I want you to meet the Holy Father,” Fr Bartlett had continued – Damien says that he almost fainted with shock.
“He said we’d like you to represent the people of Europe – it wasn’t even Ireland. He said have a chat with Mary and ring me back, tonight or tomorrow or whenever. I think we rang him back in about 60 seconds,” he says.
A camera crew came out from Tyrone Productions not long afterwards, making their video over two days, all in preparation for the Festival of Families on Saturday, August 25.
“It was a beautiful day, and we’ll never forget that night,” Damien says. “It was an unreal night, to be sitting there and watching all the stars perform and then for the Holy Father to come in and to be sitting with him for an hour.”
“When we got up there and were talking to the Holy Father, it was like as if the whole crowd was gone,” Mary interjects, having joined us during the interview, “and then after he addressed us we looked around and they were all still there.”
“83,000 of them,” Damien adds.
“There’s something Pope Francis said to us that was very profound,” he continues. “He said: ‘Thank you Mary and Damien. Thank you for your openness to life. It’s great to have 10 children. Thank you for your testimony of love and Faith. You experienced the power of God’s love to change your life completely and to bless you with the joy of a beautiful family.’
“And he came off script, and the interpreter was sitting beside him, and Pope Francis said: ‘Do they make you angry?’”
Mary laughs: “Sure they do!”
“And I said ‘There’s moments when they do, if we’re being honest,’” continues Damien. “And he said ‘This is la vita, this is normal’. And he laughed.
“That moment when he said it, he looked us in the eye, and that was just unreal. That was a real special moment.”
For information on Cenacolo Community, which provides free residential treatment for alcohol, drug, and other addictions, visit communitycenacolo.ie or call the community at 094 938 8286 or Jean on 087 268 7040.