Jim Wahlberg, 56, is executive director of the Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation and has worked in the field of addiction recovery for nearly 30 years. He grew up in a culturally Catholic family with an alcoholic father in Boston, the middle of nine children (his siblings include actors Mark and Donnie Wahlberg). At age 8, he had his first alcoholic drink, encouraged by a feeling of acceptance he gained from the older children of the neighborhood. At age 11, he stole a wallet containing $50, and gave the money to “some hippies” who lived in the neighborhood in return for a quart of Budweiser and a pack of cigarettes.
He immersed himself in a life of drug and alcohol abuse and crime, and as he was kicked out of his home, homelessness. He was arrested for armed robbery at age 17, and sent to state prison. He spent five years in a maximum security prison, much of that time in isolation in the “hole,” was released, and then re-arrested and sent to prison a second time for the robbery, ironically, of the home of a policeman.
While in prison he was befriended by a priest-chaplain, Fr. Jim Fratus, who had a major impact on his life. It was also while he was in prison that Mother Teresa visited and he heard her offer some “life changing” words. He received the Sacrament of Confirmation while still an inmate, and began to learn and embrace the Catholic faith.
Walberg was paroled, married and had three children, and moved to Florida. He has created and released a number of short films on addiction, including What About the Kids and If Only, and in 2020 released a memoir, The Big Hustle: A Boston Street Kid’s Story of Addiction and Redemption, and has a podcast, The Bottom Line.
Wahlberg is a featured speaker with Spirit Filled Hearts Ministry’s Saint Joseph Summit, a virtual conference to be held September 30-October 3, 2021, and will share his testimony and discuss St. Joseph and the importance of fathers. He spoke recently with CWR about his life and work, and participation in the upcoming Summit.
CWR: Many who have struggled with addiction or who have had a past life in crime remain silent about their past. Why have you chosen to share your story publicly?
Jim Wahlberg: I have been a person in recovery, and as part of our journey we share our experiences with others in recovery groups. This can help others with similar struggles, as it can help them realize that recovery is possible for them. We’re in a setting where we’re all in the same boat.
In recent years, however, the opioid epidemic has gotten bigger and bigger. People are losing family members. This impacted me, and I felt a responsibility to reach out to a broader audience and be open with what has gone on with me. I hope I can reach others with my story of recovery, and help those struggling to realize they are not alone.
CWR: If I could put you in a time machine, and send you back to speak to a 10 or 12-year-old Jim Wahlberg, what might you say? Or put another way, what advice might you offer parents who have children with similar problems?
Jim Wahlberg:When I look back on my childhood, I see that there was not a huge amount of communication that went on in my home. When problems developed, no one sat down with me to talk things through. I was yelled at and punished, and warned that God would get me for doing wrong.
That’s not an approach parents should take. We need to tell our children that God loves them, and that they will be forgiven by God if we seek that forgiveness. God is merciful and kind, not mean, punishing and vindictive. I believed in the cruel God as a boy. I was robbed of knowing that God loved me, and for many years, was robbed of having a relationship with Him.
CWR: Based on your research, how widespread do you believe the addiction problem is today in the U.S.? And, what policies would you like to see society adopt to confront these problems?
Jim Wahlberg: I believe addiction affects every family in the U.S. in some way. Responding to it is a gigantic and complex question. I think we’re seeing a lot of generational mistakes; children are making the same mistakes their parents made.
I believe love and communication must be part of our response. I also think we need to bring God into the picture. We are living in a society that pushes God out. That is not a good plan; we need more of Him.
CWR: In your podcast The Bottom Line, you interview former addicts. What have you learned doing this program?
Jim Wahlberg: I’ve learned that no matter who you are or where you’re from, addiction can be a problem. It doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care how much money you have, what color you are or what faith you practice. We need to educate young people about the dangers of addiction, and give them a pathway to recovery if they’re already having problems.
The opioid epidemic we’ve been living through over the past 10 years has hit this country hard. When I was a boy, there was a process you’d go through to get addicted. You’d start with a sip of alcohol, then start smoking cigarettes, move on to marijuana, and then eventually get started with hard drugs. Kids today are skipping the preliminaries and getting started with the most dangerous drugs known to man. When you’re starting with the worst drugs, where can you go from there?
CWR: How important has your Catholic faith been in taking you where you were as a troubled teen to where you are today?
Jim Wahlberg: It has been critical. There have been periods of time where I was free of drugs and alcohol, yet I was not fulfilled. It was these times when I didn’t have a relationship with God. Making the journey I made would have been impossible without a relationship with God.
But for an addict, stopping drug use is only a beginning. I’ve found that I can be drug and alcohol-free and still be unsatisfied and unfilled by life. But with prayer and the practice of my faith, I’ve found I’m a more joyful person. That true joy comes from serving God. You don’t get it from money or possessing things, but a relationship with God.
CWR: During your incarceration, you came to know an outstanding priest-chaplain. Mother Teresa also visited your prison. What impact did these encounters have in your life?
Jim Wahlberg: Fr. Jim Fratus, who is in heaven now, was the first Catholic priest who ever approached me. He said, “I have a job opportunity for you. I need a janitor for the chapel.” I agreed, because I thought it would be a good opportunity for me to manipulate him. He smoked cigarettes, so I could take some. He had a phone, coffee and a quiet space which I would have access to. I was thinking this job would be a chance for me to benefit myself. But I found out he had a plan, too, to get me to the foot of the Cross. I didn’t notice it at the time, as I was so busy thinking about manipulating him, but all the while he was manipulating me.
When he told me Mother Teresa was coming to visit the prison, I didn’t know who she was. That was a time in my life I probably didn’t even know who the president was.
Her visit turned out to be a profound experience in my life. They had a Mass for us, and Boston’s cardinal was there. He invited her to sit in a fancy chair next to him. She politely declined, indicating that she’d rather kneel with the inmates.
She spoke to us, but it was like she was speaking to me alone. She said that God loved me, and that Jesus died on the Cross for me. I wasn’t the crimes I committed, or a prison number, but a beloved child of God. I had never heard that before. Looking at her was like looking at the face of God. It was the most powerful and impactful day of my life.
I went to Fr. Fratus the next day, and told him I wanted to learn more about this God Mother Teresa was talking about. He smiled; that was his plan the whole time. He prepared me for the Sacrament of Confirmation.
Fr. Fratus was the one who brought me to the foot of the Cross. He was my gateway to Christ. He married my wife Bennie and I, and baptized our first child. As fate would have it, he was assigned to the next parish over from where I bought my first house. He was an important part of my journey; like Mother Teresa, he was the face of Christ for me.
CWR: In the remaining productive years of your life, what do you hope to accomplish?
Jim Wahlberg: I hope to continue to be a useful and productive member of society, and to be a reflection of God’s love for others. I live a simple life, trying to be of service to others, and remain a faithful man.
CWR: Your siblings struggled with some of your issues. How are they doing today, and have any gotten excited about your Catholic faith as you have?
Jim Wahlberg: Everyone is doing great. We lost our mom recently, which although was tough on us, it has brought us closer together.
My brother Mark has been very vocal about his Catholic faith. Otherwise, I try to gently point my family in that direction, sometimes with words, sometimes without. At the end of my mother’s life, when she was sick and we’d all gather around her, I was able to introduce prayer as a tool to bring us all together.
CWR: Why did you want to participate in the Saint Joseph Summit, and what impact do you hope your testimony will have on those who hear it?
Jim Wahlberg: Fr. Donald Calloway is a keynote speaker at the Summit. My wife and I read his 2020 book, Consecration to St. Joseph, and did the consecration together. As I was going through that book, I learned a lot about St. Joseph.
As a young man, I struggled in my relationship with my father. I loved him, but didn’t have a great relationship with him. He was a good provider, feeding nine children, but was not a role model in the Catholic faith. For him, faith was a tradition, but not something you really believed in or practiced. First Communion was a reason for a party, like a birthday, and not something otherwise important.
St. Joseph has become a spiritual father for me, someone to intercede before God on my behalf. I need all the tools I can get. I can also call on the Blessed Mother and other saints for help. Joseph and the saints have the ear of Jesus; what else do you need?
CWR: As part of your participation in the Saint Joseph Summit, you did an interview with Spirit Filled Hearts Ministry’s Deacon Steve Greco in which you discuss St. Joseph and fatherhood. How do you think godly fathers can strengthen families and help children avoid many of the mistakes that you discuss in your testimony?
Jim Wahlberg: So many families in America today do not have a dad in the home. It is a huge source of our problems today. Children need a strong male role model in their lives. Moms can be incredible—my mom was a giant in my life—but kids need a strong male influence, too. They need his direction and example. Homes with a dad present and practicing the faith, going to church and praying together with the family, are much less likely to have children who get into trouble in life. Our society has to get back to realizing how important dads are.
• Jim Walhberg talks about the Saint Joseph Summit:[embedded content]
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!