SAN MATEO -- When an old buddy saw Joe Bradley ordained as a Catholic priest, he declared, "Well, now I can say I've seen a miracle."

The friend had known Bradley at his lowest: drinking and using drugs on the job at San Francisco International Airport, stealing liquor bottles from airplanes he was supposed to be cleaning. That Bradley had managed to pulled out of his tailspin seemed inconceivable.

"From a pot-smoking, beer-drinking coke head to a Catholic priest," Bradley recalls in a brutally honest memoir published this month. "Damn, that really is a miracle."

Titled "The Four Gifts," the book is Bradley's hymn of gratitude for his recovery from substance abuse, his relationship with God and fulfilling career as a priest, and a heart transplant that saved his life seven years ago. He wrote it to shine a light for those who are battling addiction or other maladies.

"My prayer is that it's a real hopeful book," said Bradley, 57, now a chaplain at San Mateo's prestigious Serra High School and priest in residence at nearby St. Gregory's Catholic Church.

Bradley is a regular presence around Serra, but his bearded face and gentle voice are especially familiar to the football team. He does a weekly service with the players during the season and is a fixture on the sideline during games.

Serra President Lars Lund calls Bradley a messenger of God, reminding those he meets of the possibility of grace and redemption.

"Mine is but one voice," Lund said in an email, "who will attest to the fact that he is one of God's most special angels in the lives of so many."

Bradley grew up in San Mateo in a devoutly Catholic family. He aspired to be a priest from a young age, but he says his faith was selfish and shallow. He thought giving himself to ministry would earn him a pass from life's hardships.

But when Bradley was 22, his father died, and his belief in God crumbled. Unable to cope with the loss, he found a new means of escape. In a binge of late 1970s debauchery, Bradley drank and smoked marijuana practically every day with fellow members of a ground crew for a major airline. He discovered cocaine, then methamphetamine.

"I lied, I stole -- those were terrible days," Bradley said of his reckless young adulthood, which reached a horrifying apex when a close friend died in a car wreck after an afternoon of partying.

Devastated by the loss, Bradley slowly rekindled his relationship with God. But a renewed pursuit of priesthood wasn't enough to quell his cravings. He spent his first year at St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park furtively drinking and smoking marijuana.

Bradley finally got sober after his spiritual adviser, the Rev. Bob Gavin, turned his world upside down. Gavin convinced Bradley his struggles with addiction were a blessing, not a curse, giving him a "unique perspective on God's love and mercy."

Heeding that advice to this day, Bradley is open with parishioners and students about his past, using his own fallibility to break down walls that might otherwise block communication. When Serra boys first hear Bradley's story, he said, they're taken aback.

"It gets quiet, and then they open up and ask questions," Bradley said, adding, "I'm in no position to judge anyone, and I think the kids sense that."

When he began to contemplate sharing his story with a wider audience, he sought the advice of other priests. Some worried that his tales of drinking and dissolution could hurt the image of the church and told him the book was a bad idea. Bradley listened but ultimately disagreed.

"I think we hurt our image when we pretend we're not real," he said.

Bradley's authenticity drew in David Taufoou, who graduated from Serra in 1999. Now the executive director of a Redwood City nonprofit that mentors at-risk children, Taufoou remembers clicking with Bradley right away.

"It was somebody I knew I could trust and just loved being around," Taufoou said. "When my mom passed away in April, the first person I called was Father Joe Bradley."

Bradley relied in turn on former students like Taufoou -- along with family, friends and parishioners -- when his heart began to fail. Regular visits buoyed his spirits while he waited for a transplant. As with his fight to get sober, he needed the support of others to attain new life.

"Really and truly," he said, "I'm incredibly blessed beyond what I deserve."

Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes.