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Pope Thanks Religious, Lay People Who Help HIV/AIDS Patients

Pope Francis said this in 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.

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. During this time, 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.” (Read: A Prayer for Persons Living with HIV)

“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

A family is tested for HIV at a health dispensary in Kenya, which serves more than 7,000 people. (Photo from Laura Reinhardt/World Vision)

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

Minnesota AIDS Project banner at the Twin Cities Pride Parade in Minneapolis in 2013. (Photo from Tony Webster Flickr)

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.” (Read: Pope at Audience: Equality in Christ overcomes our differences)

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).

Text by Salvatore Cernuzio for Vatican News.

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