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Starting Point

AIDS and a God who is mercy

As part of the World AIDS Day (Dec. 1) candlelight vigil at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, Va., Holy Ghost Fr. James K. Healy gave an address from the perspective of a Catholic priest living with AIDS. An occasional contributor to this page, Healy wrote the following reflections for NCR.


When a Catholic priest is found to have AIDS, it is no more tragic than for the next person, since we are all equally precious in God's eyes. But it certainly has a unique poignancy for the faithful.

They have been taught over the years to stand in awe of the courage and self-denial their priests express in their solemn commitment to celibacy as a personal gift to the church. Is this then proof of a betrayal of a sacred trust between priest and people? Can there be some perfectly innocent explanation of how a priest might contract HIV other than through a violation of his vow?

One well-meaning physician suggested I might imply I contracted the virus through a transfusion while working in East Africa. One problem with his suggestion is not only that it's not true, but that I left Africa in 1973 and therefore would almost certainly be the longest living AIDS survivor in the world!

The simple but painful truth is that I do have AIDS and have been HIV positive for many years. I shared that fact with very few people. I was determined it should not become the central fact of my life and I believed I still had a few good homilies in me as well as freedom to continue my pastoral ministry.

I think I made the right decision but, inevitably, the first subtle symptoms began to manifest themselves and I chose to retire rather than risk the decision being taken out of my hands by new complications.

I have been under a physician's care and have been given the new protease medications, which might turn this disease around. The fact that I'm still here may be cause for greater hope than I dared to expect. But, like others, I try not to get my hopes too high.

I regret that constant fatigue makes it almost impossible to do creative things, much less continue my active ministry. I am kept humble if not guilty by the fact that my medical plan provides $2,500 a month for my medications, while so many are left without effective treatment.

Meanwhile, with so much time and quiet at my disposal, I have been free to reflect on my life, my commitment to ministry, the deeper implications of the church's law of celibacy, demanded as a precondition to ordination, and the church's seeming obsession with sins of the flesh, while too easily accepting structural injustices that constantly oppress the poor and powerless.

From childhood I always wanted to be a priest. I was fascinated by every facet of the priest's role, bringing comfort to those in distress and reassurance to those with doubts about God's love and forgiveness. Of course, I was not indifferent to the ritual mysteries and the deference of the people.

I never seriously considered any other vocation and, when I was ordained in 1962, I felt a tremendous sense of fulfillment. But I can say quite candidly that I never personally embraced celibacy as a gift from me to God or a grace from God to me. It was something I had to accept as the price of the priesthood I never wavered from wanting.

There was no apparent way to solve my sad dilemma. I could have summoned the courage to leave the ministry and find a deep personal relationship. But in fact that was no answer, because of my sexual orientation. The church had condemned the type of relationship for which I longed. To be in sync with the hierarchic church, I was destined to be celibate, like it or not.

In the context I have described, you won't be terribly surprised that I became persuaded of the emptiness of celibacy for me. In time I made decisions at odds with my vows -- some very foolish, unfortunate decisions for which I now pay a terrible price.

I must never deny responsibility for those decisions or try to contrive some innocent excuse. But neither can I deny that we priests have long realized that the institutional church has done extraordinary harm to both the laity and to us in its adamant stance on all sexual issues. We do well to remember that this is the same institutional church that only in our time gave approval to Galileo's discoveries and more recently gave us permission to explore the notion of evolution.

I will never regret becoming a priest. The love and affirmation I have experienced in my ministry is a priceless treasure to me. But I cannot avoid a deep, abiding sense of sorrow for the many ways in which we have failed to deal courageously with the sexual myopia of the institution. Perhaps my belated decision to share these thoughts will encourage other priests to speak, but I rather doubt it.

As for me, I will continue to draw strength from my oft- repeated preaching, which insists, "We do not have a God who has mercy. Rather, our God is mercy, love and forgiveness. Nothing shall I fear."

National Catholic Reporter, December 13, 1996