In the 1980s and 1990s, many AIDS activists believed the Catholic Church turned its back on people dying of the disease.
But at the same time, many devout Catholics and clergy reached out and even ministered to sick young men who were shunned by the institution of the church. Michael J. O'Loughin tells these stories in a new book, "Hidden Mercy: Aids, Catholics, and the Untold Story of Compassion in the Face of Fear."
His reporting led him to reflect on his own life as well. Right at the beginning of the book, O'Loughin writes: “I am gay and I am Catholic.” Putting those words on paper wasn’t easy, he says.
“Even though I'm comfortably gay and comfortably Catholic, I still have a hard time kind of talking about that,” he says. “And then to set out to write an entire book with a premise sort of covering those topics, I was a bit daunting, but ultimately I'm glad that I did.”
O'Loughin spent the last decade reporting on Catholicism in the U.S. and Catholic leaders fighting against same-sex marriage. As a closeted gay Catholic himself, his work took him on a personal journey.
The “hostile development” of church leaders coming out against same-sex marriage felt novel to him, he says, and he didn’t know who to talk to about how to live as a gay Catholic.
Over dinner one night, an older priest friend of O'Loughin’s told him about the extent of the clash between the gay community and the Catholic church over AIDS and encouraged him to explore it.
One story told in the book is that of Sister Carol Baltosiewich, a nun from the small city of Belleville in southern Illinois. Baltosiewich worked in emergency rooms and intensive care units in the Midwest but decided she wanted to do something easier as she neared age 40, O'Loughin says.
Baltosiewich moved to Belleville and started homecare nursing — where she met her first patient with advanced AIDS. But Baltosiewich didn’t know how to help and grew frustrated.
So, Baltosiewich and another nun, Sister Mary Ellen Rombach, told their superior that they needed to go learn about HIV and AIDS elsewhere to prepare for when the pandemic would hit Belleville, O'Loughin says.
The duo packed their bags, moved to New York City and started working in Catholic hospitals with AIDS wards.
“It was a lot for her because you had a small town nun really learning about gay life in New York in the 1980s,” he says. “But she did that because she wanted to be able to move back home and serve people who were back in Belleville.”
In the book, O'Loughin also profiles a priest named Father Bill McNichols, who ministered to men who were dying of AIDS. In one ABC News interview from 1987, McNichols explains why gay Catholics were so angry at church leaders.
“I think it is the cruelest thing in the world to ask a human being never to be touched, never to be held, never to be treated like everyone else gets treated simply because they're born one way or another,” McNichols said. “They ask that of no other person.”
McNichols and Baltosiewich radically challenged the institution of the church — which was cracking down on the gay rights movement in the ‘80s, O'Loughin says. It took courage for McNichols to speak out about what he believed in despite the personal risk he faced as a member of the clergy, the author says.
O'Loughin wanted the book to show the juxtaposition between how local parishes and the Catholic church as an institution responded to the AIDS crisis and the gay rights movement.
“Many people like Father Bill and Sister Carol were doing the right things, setting up the clinics, visiting the hospital wards, fighting for rights in the public square,” O'Loughin says. “But they were doing so against an institutional bigotry that unfortunately still persists to this day.”
The book also includes the story of a time the winner of the International Mr. Leather Contest attended an interfaith AIDS service at a church in Chicago. The community of men in leather, who hold a convention in the city every year, pivoted to HIV and AIDS awareness activism and fighting for gay civil rights in the ‘80s and ‘90s, O'Loughin says.
Despite that the church didn’t fully embrace the gay community, the group wanted to get involved with the interfaith vigil walk but refused to hide. The group of men in leather sat right at the front of the church and helped lead the candlelight vigil through the neighborhood Boystown, O'Loughin says.
During this terrifying, uncertain time, gay men knew they needed to work together to raise awareness about the virus, he says.
“It was literally a fight for their lives,” he says. “I think it's hard for us to imagine what HIV and AIDS did to a generation of gay men that fight for survival when everything else seems hopeless because you're being ignored or even stigmatized by institutions that should be protecting you.”
By the late 1980s, priests were dying of AIDS and the virus’ significant impact on the Catholic priesthood became clear. That was a problem because Catholic priests are supposed to maintain celibacy and gay men aren’t allowed to become priests.
“On an institutional level, there was a lot of denial and even outright cover-up that priests were dying from AIDS,” O'Loughin says.
The church covered up these cases because of the stigma surrounding AIDS, O'Loughin says.
On the local level, however, O'Loughin reported on instances of religious leaders seeing their friends and colleagues dying terrible deaths and realizing the importance of publicly showing compassion.
One priest in Chicago who died from AIDS-related complications insisted that the priest presiding over his funeral acknowledged how he died. He wanted to weaken the stigma and encourage other people to open up about their struggles with the virus, O'Loughin says.
Despite the church’s rules, many priests like Father McNichols are gay, the author says. When O'Loughin asked gay priests and lay LGBTQ Catholics how they stay in an institution that often feels unwelcoming, he heard different answers.
Some people choose to ignore the official church teachings and the Vatican, he says, while others struggle with the institution but make it work by finding a welcoming parish.
“Ultimately, I think the thread through all the answers was, you have to decide you want to be part of your faith community, whatever it is,” he says, “and then be willing to do the hard work to make those spaces welcoming and not shrink back when you encounter resistance.”
For O'Loughin, Catholicism is a “cultural thing." He grew up in a Catholic family, but also says he feels most connected to God through the Eucharist and the sacraments in a way he hasn’t found elsewhere.
“I explored once joining a more welcoming Christian tradition [but] ultimately didn't follow through with it because I feel home in the Catholic Church,” he says, “and I'm reluctant to let anyone tell me that I am not welcome in my home.”
Book excerpt: 'Hidden Mercy'
By Michael J. O'Loughin
By the time Father Bill McNichols started working in AIDS ministry in New York, it felt to him that everyone assumed he was gay. So he just went with it, never denying the gossip about his sexuality. He eventually confirmed the rumors, so that young men with AIDS would know they had an ally. This honesty would eventually harm him. But for now, he saw it as important to his ministry that he be open about his sexual orientation.
His intuition proved to be correct. Sister Patrice Murphy, in her job overseeing the pastoral care department at Saint Vincent’s Hospital, said Father Bill was especially gifted in his AIDS chaplaincy precisely because of his own suffering. Among the hundred or so volunteers at the hospital Sister Patrice saw Father Bill as unique, because “he knows what it is to suffer, what it is to be young and gay. As a gay male himself, he can empathize, and to some degree make the suffering of those to whom he ministers his own.” In Father Bill’s suffering, Sister Patrice saw “a model of Christian forgiveness,” someone who was able “to survive and be a better person.”
At Saint Vincent’s, Father Bill knew he did not have much time with many of the young men named on those lists. They were once athletic and full of life. Now they lived on an AIDS ward, emaciated after weeks and months of sickness. By the time Father Bill arrived to their rooms, many were too frail to speak. He might pray with them and console their loved ones. But ultimately, the overwhelming majority of the patients died.
The lists weren’t particularly memorable, at least not at first glance. Names. Rooms. The date. But each name represented a complex story. These patients were young men, like him, who had moved to New York to pursue their dreams. They left behind hometowns where they didn’t feel like they belonged. Bill got to know some of the people named on those lists, including Jeff, a cantor at a university chapel, whose voice touched Father Bill’s heart. There was also Louis, who to Bill resembled Saint Aloysius, the young Jesuit who in the sixteenth century had succumbed to plague. Father Bill and Louis talked for hours on the phone each week. Bill recommended spiritual readings, such as those of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, a suggestion the tough New Yorker initially dismissed. Then one night, Louis called Bill, amazed at the insight of this gentle saint. Father Bill and Louis clicked. But like so many of his friendships in those days, this one came to an end when Bill presided over Louis’s funeral Mass.
He knew that many young men who died from AIDS led difficult lives in which they were bullied, made to feel different and less worthy. It was here, in New York, that many of them had finally and fully accepted themselves, relishing the gift of living as openly gay men. And then, just as their lives were falling into place, they were struck down by an illness that brought stigma and condemnation. Father Bill couldn’t bring himself to add one more humiliation by throwing their names in the trash. So he didn’t. At the end of each day at the hospital, Father Bill held on to his list.
The pile of paper grew larger as the months wore on, the AIDS crisis unrelenting. Tens of thousands of New Yorkers died, many of their names printed on lists now stored in Father Bill’s scrapbook. Father Bill soon amassed a hefty pile of dates and names. He thumbed through them, reading some names aloud. When a particularly vivid memory resurfaced, he said a quick prayer. That’s when he had an idea.
Father Bill held a special place in his heart for the saints. Stories about their lives had consoled him when he was a child, helping him cope with bullying in school. Now as a young priest, he felt as if the saints were his friends and companions. There’s something mystical about Bill’s relationship with saints. He doesn’t pray to them so much as converse with them, sharing his fears and hopes. During the height of AIDS, Father Bill sat silently so he could listen for their guidance. They encouraged him to keep going. On the hospital wards, he felt something holy at work. Though society saw the patients as sick men who deserved what they had coming, to Father Bill, they seemed to be saints. He wanted to do something to honor their holy lives.
On the day after All Saints’ Day, Catholics observe All Souls’ Day, a time set aside to remember loved ones who have died, pray for their salvation, and recall their lives. In times of war or sickness, All Souls’ Day could be a source of special comfort to those who had lost loved ones. With the AIDS crisis killing thousands of Americans each year, restaurants and parks where he had passed time with now deceased friends. He needed to do something to remind himself that death would not have the last word, that his friends would be remembered.
Each November 2nd, Father Bill headed to a chapel for All Souls’ Day Mass, bringing with him the scrapbook, by now thick with the names of the dead. He placed the book on the altar. As he consecrated the Eucharist, he said a silent prayer for the people named on the lists. He thought of the patients he had befriended before their untimely deaths. He prayed especially for those who died alone, rejected by a society that held their love in such contempt.
For as long as I can remember, I have been on a search. I am gay and I am Catholic. And I struggle continuously to reconcile those two parts of my identity. It feels ridiculous admitting this today, given the societal acceptance achieved by the LGBT community in recent years, but just typing the words “I am gay” fills my gut with a knot of anxiety. Not that long ago, I never would have been able to muster the courage to write such seemingly simple words, knowing they would be read by others. This anxiety doesn’t make much sense, given my location as I write.
I’m sitting at an outdoor café in Boystown, the gay neighborhood I’ve chosen as my home. I’m surrounded by other people and I’m wearing a watch with a rainbow band. It’s not exactly subtle. I originally bought the watchband to wear one June, Pride month, but I decided I liked the look and I keep it on year-round.
That’s not the only accessory I wear.
Around my neck, occasionally poking through the open buttons of my shirt, rests a silver chain. Affixed to it are a couple of medals emblazoned with images of saints. If someone were looking at me and noticed the watchband and the necklace, there would be no need for me to tell them I am gay and Catholic. They would know. But writing those words, or voicing them aloud, hasn’t gotten much easier, even if I wear items that signify them silently.
And that’s the motivation for my search, a years-long attempt to unearth stories that help make these two indelible parts of my identity exist in peace. Or at least make me comfortable enough to say who I am without my cheeks warming and turning red
Over dinner one evening, in 2015, a friend told me a story that would change the course of my life for the next several years. My friend, a couple of decades older than me, told me that when he was a young priest, gay Catholics had faced fierce backlash from church authorities cracking down on unorthodoxy, just as HIV and AIDS upended their lives. These twin crises created a pressure cooker. My friend ministered to some of these struggling Catholics. Their stories stuck with him even decades later. He shared a few with me. I was hooked.
After this conversation, I was intent on learning more about the interactions between LGBT Catholics and church leaders during the height of the AIDS crisis in the United States. Like many gay Catholics in their early thirties, perhaps, I knew on some level that tension existed between the church and gay activists in the 1980s. I even understood that much of the frustration revolved around the use of condoms in fighting the spread of HIV. But a huge gap existed in my understanding of my own community. I eventually would come to learn why.
History about LGBT people often isn’t passed on from generation to generation. It’s not recounted around the dinner table and hasn’t been taught widely in public schools. Priests tend not to highlight it from the pulpit. Of the thousands of Catholic saints, not a single one is identified as gay or lesbian. Intergenerational friendships are also all too rare in the gay community. If these were more common, perhaps I would have known more of this history. My history. That realization gave me an idea.
I decided to take responsibility for my own education. Over the next few years, I used the skills I acquired as a reporter to locate people whose stories might help me find answers.
I learned a history that had previously been denied to me, one that could have helped me understand that my personal struggle was less unique than it sometimes felt. Later, I would come to learn that this feeling of isolation isn’t unusual for young LGBT people, especially those of us trying to find a home in what can often feel like an unwelcoming religious tradition.
I hope I do justice to the stories of Sister Carol and Father Bill and the many others who entrusted me with some of their most private moments. It might go without saying, but each person in this book is unique. Some are straight, some are gay. Some don’t say either way. Some were born and raised Catholic and never left the church, and some protested against it and eventually exited when they saw it failing to live up to its own ideals. Though each story takes different twists and turns, many of the people I interviewed for this book have at least one thing in common. They were willing to offer insights about a time in history filled with pain, grief, hope, anger, love, and loss, in an effort to keep this history alive and introduce it to others so that we might feel less alone.
Reprinted with permission from Hidden Mercy: AIDS, Catholic, and the Untold Stories of Compassion in the Face of Fear by Michael O’Loughlin. Copyright © 2021 Broadleaf Books
This segment aired on December 1, 2021.