“Hidden Mercy” spotlights nuns and priests who responded to AIDS with compassion

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In 1986 the Vatican published a letter condemning homosexuality with which the New York Times called “sharp allusion to AIDS”.

A year later, nearly 48,000 Americans had died from the disease.

Even as the death toll rose, the Roman Catholic Church strengthened its position and also opposed the gay and lesbian rights movement more generally, creating continuing tension. Despite this, some nuns and priests went against these teachings and worked behind the scenes to care for and sit by the bedside of people dying from AIDS-related illnesses.

A new book, “Hidden Mercy: AIDS, Catholics, and the Untold Stories of Compassion in Face of Fear,” by Michael O’Loughlin, reveals these stories.

O’Loughlin, a reporter who lives in Chicago, writes in the first chapter that as far as he can remember he is looking. “I am gay and I am Catholic,” he wrote. “And I continually struggle to reconcile these two parts of my identity.”

Michael O’Loughlin.Courtesy of Mr. Klein

He wanted to talk to people who had been through similar struggles, and in 2015 a priest friend suggested that he speak to gay Catholics who experienced the height of the AIDS crisis in the United States. He ran with the idea and began to hunt down scientists and doctors involved in AIDS work – nuns and priests who served as caregivers for the sick, and activists, including those from the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP.

He said he chose to focus on compassionate stories because he was interested in “people who had a lot to lose by attacking the church power structure but who still did. what was needed “.

“So the priests who care for gay men who die of AIDS, some of whom turn out to be gay themselves, and challenge churches to be more welcoming and tolerant,” he said. “The nuns who are really disjointed people who find the resources to learn all they can about HIV and AIDS and then do their own ministry. from the church.”

He said he kept asking himself, ‘How do they make this work? “

“I am drawn to these stories because there is something universal about having the courage to do the right thing when it would be much easier to do nothing,” he said. said, adding that this courage “applies to all kinds of situations, even today”.

The book does not try to “rewrite history” and also tells how religious leaders have advocated against LGBTQ rights. But at the same time, O’Loughlin has said he wants to make sure that people who have done extraordinary things and cite their Catholic faith as motivation are also part of this story.

He noted that many people he spoke to said their trips were complicated. For 10 years, Sister Carol Baltosiewich, a nun and nurse from a small town in southern Illinois, traveled to Kansas City, Chicago and eventually New York to care for people living with AIDS. She told O’Loughlin that she didn’t know any homosexuals before she started her AIDS work and that she had to balance the teachings of the church with her willingness to take care of people.

O’Loughlin said it was sometimes painful for people he interviewed, including Baltosiewich, to take a hard look at their prejudices and prejudices before their experiences changed them.

“When she first started learning about HIV and its effects on the gay community, it was kind of a whole new culture,” O’Loughlin said. “It was that clash between what she had known and something that was foreign to her, so she eventually learned and grew, but I think some people might be hesitant to look honestly at that point because it there was so much stigma and shame that even the most well-meaning people really couldn’t break free without making a conscious decision, which she ultimately did, but a lot of people were sort of in this culture watching with it. such hostility the LGBT community.

Some of the people O’Loughlin spoke to have experienced this hostility themselves. The Reverend William Hart McNichols, a Jesuit priest and artist who attended the Pratt Institute in New York, cared for people dying of AIDS-related illnesses. In 1989, McNichols declared himself publicly gay in a chapter of a book published by New Ways Ministry, a group that deals with Catholic gays and lesbians.

He asked for permission from his Jesuit superiors at the time, and they told him that it was his choice to make, but that if he went out he could not work in a Jesuit high school, college or parish. . As an illustrator who worked in a hospital, he was not offended by the response and decided to write the chapter.

O’Loughlin said the LGBTQ people he interviewed all decided at some point to stay in the church “no matter how strong the headwinds they were facing” because it was also their church.

“Once people made that decision, there seemed to be something – whether it was grace or just stubbornness – that kept them involved,” he said. “And that sort of thing spoke to me as I continue to understand my place in church and interview dozens and dozens of LGBT people every year going through something similar, which you have to take. the decision to stay and then to be ready to fight to keep your place in an institution that is not always welcoming.

O’Loughlin wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times on Tuesday that conducting interviews for his book had a “profound effect” on his faith, so much so that he wrote a letter to Pope Francis telling him about the book and the conversations he had.

In August, the Pope responded. The letter was written in Spanish but has been translated into English.

“Thank you for bringing lives to light and witnessing to the many priests, nuns and laity, who have chosen to accompany, support and help their brothers and sisters sick with HIV and AIDS, in great danger. for their profession and reputation, ”Pope Francis wrote.

The Pontiff added: “Instead of indifference, alienation and even condemnation, these people allowed themselves to be moved by the mercy of the Father and let it become the work of their lives; a discreet, silent and hidden mercy, but always capable of sustaining and restoring the life and history of each of us.

O’Loughlin wrote that the letter will not heal old or new wounds – the church still won’t bless same-sex marriages and teach that homosexuality is immoral – but gave him hope that leaders of the church will “be transformed” in the way they see LGBTQ people and “others whose faith is lived on the margins.”

Regardless of whether that happens, O’Loughlin said one of his goals for the book is to show LGBTQ people struggling with their faith that they are not alone and that there are a lot of people out there. that came before them.

“As I met people and learned about struggles and learned history, I realized this was nothing new at all,” O’Loughlin said. “The reality is that people have grappled with these questions forever… and there is a lot of wisdom in these stories that has helped me realize that I am not alone at all.”

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