As the opioid addiction crisis rises to the threshold of a national emergency, the story of a little-known Catholic saint from the early 20th century is offering hope to those devastated by it.

Saint Mark Ji Tianxiang, who suffered from an addiction to opium until the end of his life, was martyred in July of 1900, during the Boxer Rebellion – a violent anti-colonial and anti-Christian uprising that took place in Northern China around 1900.
"He gives hope in the most important way for addicts – even though you are struggling with some addictive behavior, your dignity as a human person is still intact and you are destined for greatness," Dr. Gregory Bottaro, executive director of the Catholic Psych Institute, told CNA.

According to the New York Times, over 52,000 people died in 2015 from drug overdoses. While the official statistics have yet to be available, that number is expected to rise to 59-65,000 deaths for the following year. In a study that ranged from 2000 to 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that six out of ten drug overdoses involve opioids, and that an estimated 91 people die every day from opioid abuse.

Ji used opium to treat a severe stomach ailment, and he soon became addicted to the drug.

At the time, addiction was not understood as a disease, and there were few resources available to effectively help Ji. After repeated failure to give up the drug, Ji abstained from receiving the Eucharist for 30 years, while continuing to practice the faith, even amidst persecution.

During the Boxer Rebellion at the beginning of the 20th century, Ji and his family were martyred. Chinese nationalists known as the Boxers, or the Militia United in Righteousness, expelled missionaries and persecuted Christians across China. Thirty-two thousand Chinese Christians and 200 foreign missionaries were killed.

Ji requested to be beheaded last in his family so as not to leave any of his loved ones alone during their death.

"I think the story is a beautiful testimony to the goodness and complexity of the human heart. His struggles can give great hope to people who are suffering," Dr. Bottaro said.

"The interesting paradox here is that he did not recover from his addiction, but he did recover from separation from God."

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He noted that those who struggle from addiction "[do] not have the same kind of freedom to avoid the addictive behavior," and therefore their actions cannot be judged in the same way.

"However, there is a point at which the faculty of freedom is active," he said, adding that this freedom could manifest itself in someone reaching out for help from friends, family, or a 12-step program such as Narcotics Anonymous.

"This is where we need to support and educate people who are suffering this way. Judging the actions of an addict as a personal moral failing does not support the addict when they are superficially directed only at the addictive behavior."

According to the CDC, in 2014 nearly two million U.S. residents abused or were dependent on opiods in the form of painkillers prescribed by medical professionals.

An HIV specialist at Brown University Medical School, Deacon Timothy Flanigan said the growing abuse of opioids is connected to controversial medical guidelines, which have called for a more aggressive plan in treating chronic and acute pain.

Deacon Flanigan said that, while poorer urban neighborhoods have encountered drug abuse issues for decades, abuse has increased among the middle class because of more frequent opioid prescriptions. Since opioids have a high addiction rate, he speculated that a patient may switch to cheaper and easily accessible street versions of the drug, like heroin or meth.

The president's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, chaired by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, released a report on drug overdoses and proposed reform on Aug. 1.

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"The opioid epidemic we are facing is unparalleled," Gov. Christie said. "The average American would likely be shocked to know that drug overdoses now kill more people than gun homicides and car crashes combined."

The report asked President Trump to declare the opioid addiction epidemic in the U.S. a national emergency, to spur increased federal funding for prevention and recovery programs.