Learning from Catholic Caregivers’ Response to the Early AIDS Epidemic

At this time of great uncertainty for LGBTQ Catholics, with every instance of progress being matched by one of regression, the living saints who cared for the early victims of the AIDS crisis call each of us to deeper communion.

Recent efforts have been made to memorialize not only the victims of the AIDS epidemic, but also their caregivers. Among these unsung heroes who cared for those suffering and dying from AIDS were Catholic priests, sisters, and laypeople willing to look beyond the stigma to see the humanity of those in desperate need of medical and pastoral care.

Looking beyond the stigma was particularly hard for Catholics to do in the 1980s at the origin of the AIDS crisis. An HIV-AIDS diagnosis in the 80s and 90s carried not only a death sentence, but also cultural and moral shame, often leading to isolation and neglect.

Michael O’Loughlin, who chronicled the stories of Catholic caregivers in an article in America magazine, acknowledges that many of those suffering from AIDS “felt abandoned by their friends and family and by the institutions that should have responded with both compassion and bold action.”

Sister Julie Driscoll, SCN

O’Loughlin found “more than a few” Catholics who were willing, like Jesus, to cross the societal boundaries to minister with those on the margins. These priests, sisters, brothers, and laypeople worked to infuse their medical care with the greatest gift the Church had to offer–healing pastoral presence.  Among them, Sister Julie Driscoll, SCN sought to assure those in her care in the House of Ruth, a center for those managing HIV and AIDS, that they were not alone.  She advised those wary of ministering to anyone with HIV to “touch them please. Hug them if you can.”

The care of Sister Driscoll calls to mind the image of Jesus choosing to reach out and cleanse the leper, when no one else would.  This choice was a difficult one, but one central to Jesus’ mission: to not only heal the physical wounds of those who suffer, but to heal the hearts and minds of those neglected by society.

Along with Catholic sisters, Catholic priests made the bold decision to put their compassion into action. After seeing too many grieving families attend too many funerals, two priests in the Archdiocese of New Orleans to open the first Catholic hospice for AIDS victims, a decision so scandalous, the location of their Lazarus House was kept secret. Frs. Paul Desrosiers and Bob Pawell knew their project would be unpopular and legitimately feared, but could not respond in any other way, because in each of their residents, they saw the face of Jesus and cared for the “beautiful people with beautiful souls” who felt they had lost the love and attention of those around them.

Fr. MIchael Carnevale, OFM

In all the instances recounted, the laity were key to the mission of compassion.  In San Francisco, Fr. Michael Carnevale, OFM enlisted the help of the “old Italian ladies” of Mission Dolores Parish to provide the extra level of care to those managing AIDS.  They provided what may seem menial acts of kindness–cooking, cleaning, dropping patients off at their appointments–but to those who felt isolated, these acts of kindness were radical acts of love, acceptance, and compassion.

Our church memorializes saints for both their heroic virtue and fidelity to God.  Saints, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church “have always been the source and origin of renewal in the most difficult moments in the Church’s history.” Saints make Jesus relevant in new and difficult contexts, reminding us who Jesus was and who Jesus would be today. Though formal sainthood can only come after death and through intercession, when someone fearlessly imitates Jesus in his bold acts of compassion and embrace, it is hard not to be inspired by their example.

O’Loughlin points out that part of his mission to collect the memories of Catholic caregivers during the AIDS crisis is to embrace their stories as helpful examples of a pastoral response to the LGBTQ community, with whom the church has a fraught relationship.

Though an HIV/AIDS diagnosis is no longer a death sentence for most people in the U.S., the LGBTQ community still suffers physically, psychologically, and socially. LGBTQ youth attempt suicide at a rate five times higher than their straight peers. Already twenty-one instances of transgender or gender non-conforming homicides have occurred this year. The social isolation and alienation, from the Catholic Church that claims to be a center of belonging, calls out for what O’Loughlin states motivated these early HIV caregivers: “compassion and bold action.”

The humble saints among us, who would shutter at the mere suggestion that what they have done is saintly, call us to a renewed commitment to choose the causes of Jesus as our own–to love unconditionally, to embrace those on the margins, and heal the wounds of the world. Together, with them, we can enter into deeper communion with one another, with the radical compassion of Jesus, and with the boundless love of God.

Kevin Molloy, New Ways Ministry, October 30, 2019

5 replies
  1. Thomas Berube
    Thomas Berube says:

    Please also acknowledge the work of the National Catholic AIDS Network. It served as a light in the darkness for those with AIDS and their caregivers for over 20 years as a source of support community and education.
    Brother Thomas Berube, SSE

  2. Don E Siegal
    Don E Siegal says:

    I know that it is not possible to list all the incidents of loving care by the Catholic communities. However, I would like to note the care and hospice work by the entire San Francisco Parish of Most Holy Redeemer located in the heart of the Castro District. The parish had the nickname of the church of the “gays and grays,” a reference to the demographic makeup of the parish.

  3. Elizabeth Linehan RSM
    Elizabeth Linehan RSM says:

    I’d add Dan Berrigan SJ to the list of allies/saints, for his ministry to people dying of AIDS who were shunned by so many in the Church.

  4. Susan Klepper RNAPN
    Susan Klepper RNAPN says:

    I was deeply involved in the care , diagnosis , case management , in our Hospital Infectious disease Clinic, and Research through WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY St. Louis, Mo. Truly a Vocation called to when the General population was hateful, discriminatory and judgemental.


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