|Hidden Mercy: AIDS, Catholics, and the Untold Story of Compassion in the Face of Fear
By Michael J. O’Loughlin
Broadleaf Books, pp. 281, $28.99
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Review by Michael Tessman
In recent years we have lived to witness the deaths of over 1 million people in the United States (6.3 million worldwide) from COVID. These staggering losses compare to over 6 million in the Holocaust and 1.3 million American deaths in all wars (1775-2022).
Every year, my parents’ generation remembered where they were and what they were doing on December 7, Pearl Harbor Day (1941), just as many of us do on November 22 (1963) and September 11 (2001). Timelines tend to mark news-grabbing people, events, and occasions, while the more obscure people and occurrences tend to be forgotten. For example, few noticed on May 18, 1981, when the New York Native, an influential gay newspaper, published the first report on the disease that became known as AIDS. The headline was “Disease Rumors Largely Unfounded.”
On June 5, 1981, the Centers for Disease Control’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report described five cases of Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia among previously healthy young men in Los Angeles; all of them were gay, and two were dead. It took until July 3, 1982, for The New York Times to report those cases (on page A20, alongside a patriotic song for use the next day) and nearly another year (May 25, 1983) for the story to become front-page news.
Fully 40 years later, amid another deadly virus (this one of pandemic proportions), Michael J. O’Louhglin’s Hidden Mercy provides a timely reflection on the personal, social, and political effects of HIV/AIDS. Well into its fifth decade, the virus and its derivative diseases have deep implications for the ethical, moral, and theological facets of a church in decline and a society rapidly disintegrating.
As national correspondent of the Jesuit magazine America, O’Loughlin is an experienced journalist as well as a Roman Catholic. His perspective is broad, if not always deep, yet the book aims to reach into a hidden dimension of the Catholic Church’s ministry to persons with AIDS and those ministering to them, clergy and laity alike.
I was reminded of my first pastoral encounter with AIDS while serving a suburban congregation in Fairfield County, Connecticut, in the early 1980s. Asking if I would mind having to gown and mask up because of her nephew’s condition, my parishioner spoke in a hushed tone, her fear and grief (tinged with shame) palpable, as I assured her I would see him at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Bridgeport that afternoon.
The 20-something young man I met that day remains vivid in my memory. Officiating at his funeral a few weeks later, I knew it was the beginning of a marathon in which I would meet countless others during chaplaincy to an HIV/AIDS hospice, serving as ecumenical board vice president alongside St. Mary’s Hospital in Waterbury.
O’Loughlin weaves many such stories through a masterful telling of often overlooked realities: that Roman Catholic hospitals, in keeping with their commitment to the Corporal Works of Mercy, were among the first responders when other religious and nonsectarian healthcare institutions were fearful and cautious. Nursing homes and extended-care facilities would come along later to provide dedicated HIV/AIDS and palliative care.
If the book has any flaw it would be O’Loughlin’s use of this medium for his coming out story. Compelling though this is, it can occasionally interrupt his narrative’s emphasis on the many vibrant, often unsung individuals and ministries that courageously provided essential care amid uncertain support by church and state alike.
The concern is that the book be marketed primarily to LGBTQ readers rather than capturing the readership of a much larger, broader audience. O’Loughlin admits that he has only skimmed the surface, and that many more stories need recounting.
On the whole this is a book for our times. Both inspirational and sobering, it can help us face into the marathon that COVID is becoming, even as AIDS moderates to a sprint, given newer medications, changes in formerly toxic public opinion, and supportive aid from church and state, at long last. That both Pope Francis and Dr. Anthony Fauci made endorsements is praise enough, and a Catholic writer’s dream come true. We have come a “far piece on the road to glory, having a farther piece to travel yet.” Michael O’Loughlin is a capable and worthy journeyman.
The Rev. Michael Tessman, a retired priest and former professor of pastoral ministry at Nashotah House, lives in Rhode Island.