Pope Francis writes a letter to Michael O’Loughlin, journalist and host of a podcast on the work of some representatives of the Church during the peak of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s. The Holy Father praises the “mercy” shown by these people, including many who put their professions and reputations at risk.
Pope Francis has expressed gratitude to the many priests, nuns, and laypeople who have helped HIV and AIDS patients, even at the cost of their lives, in the 1980s and 1990s when the epidemic of the then-unknown virus had an almost 100% mortality rate.
The Pope acknowledged the service of these individuals in a letter to Michael O’Loughlin, journalist, correspondent for the U.S. magazine “America” and author of a recently released publication titled “Hidden Mercy: AIDS, Catholics and the Untold Stories of Compassion in the Face of Fear.”
In the brief letter, the Holy Father writes: “Thank you for illuminating the lives and witnessing of the many priests, women religious and laypeople who have chosen to accompany, support and help their brothers and sisters suffering from HIV and AIDS at great risk to their profession and reputation.”
“Instead of indifference, alienation and even condemnation,” the Pope continues, “these people have allowed themselves to be moved by the Father’s mercy and have allowed it to become the work of their own lives; a mercy that is discreet, silent and hidden, but still capable of sustaining and restoring life and history to each of us.”
Church’s mission of care and assistance
Care and assistance to AIDS patients, including spiritual assistance, is part of the Church’s mission today, however, it was not always the case in the past.
At the beginning of the 1980s, when scientists discovered in some patients in the United States the onset of the then-new, lethal disease – asymptomatic in its early stages and highly contagious – a social terror quickly spread which consequently led to discrimination and stigma towards those who were affected, even if only potentially.
Stigma and discrimination
In New York City, where there was a high rate of AIDS cases, the sick were sometimes even rejected by hospitals. The rejection affected homosexuals in particular, among whom there occurred the widest spread of AIDS cases. In fact, the disease itself was initially referred to as the Gay Related Immunodeficienty Syndrome, and for a long time, homosexuals were fired from jobs and removed from parishes, since there were many members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy who referred to the virus as “a punishment from God for immoral sexual behavior.”
This position was maintained for years, even after cases of non-homosexual patients, drug addicts, hemophiliacs, emerged. It was only in 1982 that the disease was named Acquired Immuno Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
Mother Teresa of Calcutta
It was in the midst of this climate of rejection and fear that Mother Teresa intervened. At Christmas in 1985, the Albanian nun, founder of the Missionaries of Charity – approached the then archbishop of New York, Cardinal Terence Cooke, with the same spirit with which for years she had served the lepers in Calcutta and the “untouchables” in India. She founded the “Gift of Love”, a structure for the reception and care of AIDS patients.
Years later, the missionary saint herself recalled the early days of that service: “We began with fifteen beds for as many sick people, and the first patients were four young men I managed to get out of prison because they did not want to die there. I had prepared a small chapel for them, so that these young men, who perhaps had never been close to Jesus or perhaps had drifted away from Him, could, if they wished, approach Him again”.
“Gradually, thanks be to God, their hearts were softened,” the nun recounted, relating the story of her encounter with one of the young men who, in the last stages of his illness, needed to be transferred to the hospital, but asked to remain in the house to remain close to her and to Jesus, because the pains in his head, back and limbs reminded him of the scourges of Christ crucified.
Mother Teresa remains perhaps the most famous case, but even before her, there have been many nuns, priests, religious and laypeople who have dedicated themselves to the assistance and care of the sick, particularly in the United States and especially between 1982-1996, during the peak of the epidemic. Alongside this work of charity, they also had to fight a battle against judgment and prejudice.
Another example is that of Carol Baltosiewich, a nurse who was among the first to work with AIDS patients and who often clashed with people who criticized her work. Her experiences are recounted in O’Loughlin’s book, including some from her interviews.
Caring for others
O’Loughlin is also the author of the podcast, “Plague”, which is dedicated to the issue of AIDS cases. In the response from the Pope, the Holy Father said that he was struck by how we will be judged: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me” (Mt 25: 35).
In 2008, Pope Francis himself, as the archbishop of Buenos Aires, washed the feet of 12 HIV/AIDS patients during the Holy Thursday celebration. More recently, during his visit to Panama in January 2019 for the World Youth Day celebration, the Pope visited the Casa Hogar Buen Samaritano, which takes in many HIV-positive people.
On that occasion, Pope Francis noted that “the Good Samaritan, whether in the parable or in all of your homes, shows us that our neighbour is, first of all, a person, someone with a real, particular face, not something to avoid or ignore, whatever his or her situation may be.”
With thanks to Vatican News and Salvatore Cernuzio, where this article originally appeared.