America Media will launch Plague: Untold Stories of AIDS and the Catholic Church, a six-episode podcast series, on World AIDS Day, December 1, 2019. Reported by Michael O’Loughlin, who has covered the Catholic Church and L.G.B.T. issues for more than a decade, the series explores both the lights and the shadows in the Catholic Church’s response to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and ‘90s. You can click this link to subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts. You can find out more about the show and listen to the trailer here.
The 1980s was a harrowing decade for L.G.B.T. people everywhere. If you were gay and also Catholic, it was often even more challenging.
In 1986 a Vatican department released a letter that described homosexuality as “a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.” The letter caused a great deal of suffering among people who were already grappling with the largest, most devastating public health crisis in a generation. Yet while the church continued to uphold traditional teaching on human sexuality, pushing back against the sexual revolution in the public debate, it also responded in an unprecedented way to the suffering on the ground during the AIDS crisis. At the community level, the gay community and the church, which managed its own vast health care network and wielded immense political influence, began to work together. Many of the stories from that complicated time have gone unreported until now.
“For those of us who are too young to remember, the scope of that suffering can be difficult to comprehend,” O’Loughlin wrote in a story for America magazine on the secret history of Catholic caregivers during the epidemic. “More than a few Catholic priests, sisters and brothers, and laypeople confronted the stigma by responding pastorally to the H.I.V. and AIDS epidemic.”
Plague captures the stories of ordinary people responding to suffering in extraordinary fashion, as O’Loughlin talks with people who worked on the frontlines of the AIDS crisis, those whose lives were upended by it, and those who believe there are lessons from that time still unheeded.
The first episode will premiere on Sunday, December 1, with subsequent episodes released weekly. Episodes (content and order subject to change) include:
EPISODE ONE: ANGER AND FAITH – premiering Sunday, December 1, 2019 David Pais’s personal story exemplifies the experience of many gay Catholics who were personally affected by the AIDS epidemic in the early days. He describes the role his faith played helping him cope with his own diagnosis—and his struggle as he eventually had to walk away from the church in anger. David was one of many gay people protesting the church, and he discusses how he found his way back.
EPISODE TWO: ST. VINCENT’S HOSPITAL In New York, no hospital was more associated with the AIDS crisis than the former St. Vincent’s Medical Center, run by the Sisters of Charity. In this episode we ask: How did this Catholic hospital become a safe haven for the gay community? Featured voices include Dr. Ramon Torres, the young gay physician hired by the sisters to lead the AIDS clinic; Gerri Wells, an ACT UP protester; and Karen Helfenstein, S.C., the soft-spoken nun who served as St. Vincent’s vice president for mission.
EPISODE THREE: VISITING THE SICK Early in the AIDS epidemic, there was little in the way of medical treatment available. But spiritual guidance and accompaniment was in high demand. Patients had questions like those anyone with a terminal illness might have: Are my affairs in order? Am I reconciled with my loved ones? Am I ready to die? This episode tells the story of the AIDS crisis from the perspective of a priest, trying to figure out what he can do to help. Father William Hart McNichols, a gay priest who was an early volunteer at St. Vincent’s, talks about his mission to accompany hundreds of men in their final days, and how his vocation as an artist came into play.
EPISODE FOUR: A CHURCH IN THE CASTRO How did the epidemic change ordinary church life? Most Holy Redeemer Parish, a church in the heart of San Francisco’s Castro district, transformed itself in order to provide pastoral care to neighbors affected by the AIDS crisis. Members of the parish tell how ministries were adapted to accompany people through their most difficult moments and brought the wider community together.
EPISODE FIVE: BETHANY PLACE The AIDS epidemic swept across the country. And serving patients in small cities and towns posed different challenges. Carol Baltosiewich was a Franciscan sister and registered nurse who saw that patients with AIDS were being underserved in her small city of Belleville, Ill. She opened one of the first drop-in centers for people with AIDS in the Midwest. But first she had to confront her own biases about gay people and learn about medical care on the frontlines, in New York City.
EPISODE SIX: FINALE The series finale looks at examples of AIDS ministry today.