Health Calls

Stories of Catholic Health Care from the AIDS Crisis

Episode Summary

World AIDS Day is commemorated every year on Dec. 1. As we approach this year's observance, how do the stories of those who pioneered care for AIDS patients inform our care today?

Episode Notes

World AIDS Day is commemorated every year on Dec. 1. As we approach this year's observance, how do the stories of those who pioneered care for AIDS patients inform our care today?

Paulo Pontemayor, CHA's Senior Director of Government Relations, and Michael O'Loughlin, national correspondent for America magazine and author of Hidden Mercy, join the show to discuss O'Loughlin’s contributions to Hold Out Your Hand, a new resource offered by CHA. O'Loughlin discusses his work telling the stories of Catholic caregivers during the AIDS crisis and offers thoughts on how these stories can inspire Catholic health care providers to care for the marginalized in the future.


Listen to Plague, a podcast produced by America Media and hosted by Michael O'Loughlin

Read Hidden Mercy, Michael O'Loughlin’s book on stories of Catholics and the AIDS crisis

Read this story about St. Mary's CARE Center from Catholic Health World

Episode Transcription

Brian Reardon (00:00):

Paulo, good to hear your voice.

Paulo Pontemayor (00:02):

Yes, it's good to be back here. Thanks for having me.

Brian Reardon (00:05):

What's going on in Washington DC these days?

Paulo Pontemayor (00:07):

Well, you can see that there's so many things happening in Washington DC.

Brian Reardon (00:13):

Never a dull moment.

Paulo Pontemayor (00:14):

Always is a fun time here.

Brian Reardon (00:16):

Well, we're not going to really talk about policy. We're going to talk a little history in this episode. So are you ready to go?

Paulo Pontemayor (00:22):

Yep, ready on my end.

Brian Reardon (00:29):

This is Health Calls, the podcast of the Catholic Health Association of the United States. I'm your host, Brian Reardon, and in this episode we're going to look at stories of Catholic Care from the AIDS crisis. And joining me, you just heard his voice is Paulo Pontemayor. He is the Senior Director of government relations for the Catholic Health Association. Again, Paulo, great to have you with us and in a few minutes we're going to talk to Michael O'Loughlin. He's National Correspondent with America Media, and he's the author of the book, Hidden Mercy. Paulo, let's start with you. Early in your career, I thought this was interesting, you actually interned for an HIV outreach organization in Guam. How did that experience shape and inform your work in Catholic health care?

Paulo Pontemayor (01:14):

Thanks, Brian. I really look to my experiences that summer, as you'll see in our resource that we published as life-changing, I was in between my freshman year and sophomore year of college and I had gone back home to look for an opportunity to maybe strengthen a med school application or a health care profession application. And I didn't really know what I was doing other than I wanted to be part of a health care organization. I thought I was going to intern at the hospital. But someone pointed me to the direction of the Coral Life Foundation, which was Guam's very first HIV AIDS community-based organization, actually founded by one of the first indigenous people who was afflicted with HIV in the early 1980s. And I got a chance to really learn from him about his experiences in New York City in the early eighties, the Compassionate Care from St. Vincent's, which Michael really highlights in Hidden Mercy and really this resource as well and just how important Catholic health care was in ministering and taking care of people living with HIV. And so that really changed the course of my life. It got me interested in public health, really got me interested in looking at why health disparities exist, and also got me interested in looking at how providers can really exercise as much compassionate care as they can to a population that oftentimes is very marginalized, regardless of which society, which state, which community that they're a part of. So it was really life-changing to be able to do that internship.

Brian Reardon (03:00):

And I think that experience comes through and it's mentioned, as you said in the new booklet that we are releasing. It's called Hold Out Your Hand. This is a new resource that CHA has created around World AIDS Day, which every year is December 1st. So can you tell us a little bit about how that process started with the booklet and what you learned along the way in working with Michael on this project?

Paulo Pontemayor (03:21):

Yes. This is really a secondary evolution of our first experience working with Michael back in 2021, which I can't believe is two years ago when we had all come together to have a conversation around the 40th anniversary of the discovery of what is now known as AIDS. And so Michael was able to join us for that conversation and highlight really, I think serendipitously what he had talked about in his new book, Hidden Mercy, but he had just released. And so I was really inspired by a lot of the stories there, the way that Michael had really built on his podcast Plague. And I just wanted to make sure that as a lot of these providers, as you can see, courageous sisters, priests and Catholic laypeople, they're getting up there in age. We wanted to make sure we captured their stories to be able to talk about how their experiences really with a pandemic that we didn't at the time know the science behind or the origins of Catholic health care was there to provide care to anyone who walked in through our doors. And that really just inspired me to really approach you and Lisa, our Vice President of advocacy and public policy to essentially tell that story because it's really a beautiful story, really complex story and really a story that we can learn a lot of lessons from in Catholic health care as we move forward, especially as we deal with future pandemics or the way that we also deal with HIV and AIDS currently in this country.

Brian Reardon (04:57):

Great. No, really appreciate that context. Well, let's bring in the storyteller again. Michael O'Loughlin. He's National Correspondent for America Media, somebody we've had the pleasure of working with these. Also, as we mentioned, author of Hidden Mercy, and he's a podcaster too. Great podcast called Plague that CHA supported a number of years ago. So Michael, again, great to have you with us and great to hear your voice.

Michael O'Loughlin (05:20):

Yeah, thanks Brian. Thanks, Paulo. And let me just thank CHA for calling attention to World AIDS Day and the ongoing fight against HIV. I know over the years you've done a number of programs and publications, so I really appreciate the commitment CHA has to continuing to highlight this important issue now.

Brian Reardon (05:37):

And again, like I said, the storytelling is just so robust and so important to the history of our ministry. So let's talk about the storytelling real quick. Can you give the folks listening who maybe haven't heard about your podcast Plague or the book Hidden Mercy? Just tell us a little bit about how those projects came to be and a little bit about what they're about.

Michael O'Loughlin (05:57):

Sure. Yeah. So Plague is a podcast from American Media and the book, Hidden Mercy is based sort of on the podcast going a little bit deeper into the stories. And the idea behind it was the church is confronting a number of issues today, including the place for LGBT Catholics in the church today. And there was this whole period of history in the 1980s and nineties where gay Catholics were really struggling with their place in the church and also with the new, and then quickly expanding HIV epidemic. There was sort of this overlap between what was happening in parishes, what was happening at Catholic Hospitals, the fight for LGBT civil rights. And I didn't know any of this history because I was born in the 1980s as it was beginning. And so I was too young to really pay attention. So I began reaching out to people, Catholic priests Catholic sisters, like Catholics who were working on the front lines of HIV and AIDS ministry.


Some were in pastoral care, some were in Catholic health care. And I was able to interview them and kind of get a sense of what was happening at the time, learn some of that history that we risked losing because people were getting up in age. And then mine that time in history for lessons for today as the church continues to grapple with these issues. So the result was this podcast in this book that is really in some ways an oral history from people who were living out the gospel during the height of the HIV and AIDS epidemic in the United States.

Brian Reardon (07:18):

And you just mentioned the lessons of the eighties and nineties really are so relevant today. So you helped us with this booklet that we've mentioned. Hold Out Your Hand, which again, we'll have a link to that next to the podcast and you can find it on our website. You write a really nice forward in that. And I was reminded that in the forward to the resource, you mentioned that you actually sent Pope Francis a copy of your book, Hidden Mercy, and he replied. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Michael O'Loughlin (07:45):

Absolutely. When I finished writing Hidden Mercy, I was reflecting back on the interviews I had done and almost down to a tee. Everyone I interviewed would pause and mention how happy they were to have Pope Francis talking about issues that had been important to them in the eighties and nineties about the church being inclusive, being welcoming, going to the margins, acting as a field hospital. And they were just so excited to have a Pope who recognized that kind, that flavor of Catholicism. So when I finished writing the book, I decided I wanted to introduce some of these characters to Pope Francis because they were so edified by his pontificate, and I thought he should know about their story. So I sent a copy of Hidden Mercy over with a letter introducing him to a Catholic sister. I write about in the book a Catholic priest and a lay Catholic who had been involved in HIV and AIDS ministry in the eighties and nineties and just said I wanted him to know about these Catholics who were living out the gospel in ways that I think he would appreciate.


And to my surprise, I actually got a letter back from the Pope a couple of weeks later. It arrived in my mailbox, a folded envelope from the Papal Nuncio in Washington DC and I was shocked. I didn't expect to hear back, but sure enough, inside was a letter from Pope Francis thanking me for sending him the materials, but more importantly, commending the individuals I introduced to him for really living out the gospel and as he said, at great personal risks to their reputations and vocations because it was a rather taboo ministry at the time. So it was a great coup for me. In some ways I was able to use that letter to help promote the book, but more importantly, I was able to call the three people I had written to the Pope about and read the letter to them. And they were very moved by this because their ministries had been difficult at times. They were often working away from the limelight because of the taboo nature of the work they did. But to now be recognized by Pope Francis was very meaningful to them. So as a journalist being able to connect some people who did heroic work to their real life hero was an incredibly moving experience.

Brian Reardon (09:48):

And in the forward, I love this quote from the letter the Pope says, instead of indifference, alienation, and even condemnation, he writes, these people let themselves be moved by the mercy of the Father and allowed that to become their own life's work, a discreet mercy, silent and hidden, but still capable of sustaining and restoring the life and history of each one of us. I mean, really, really powerful. So that's just awesome that he responded and shared those thoughts.

Michael O'Loughlin (10:16):

And each of the characters, coincidentally, who I introduced to the Pope through my letter, had done work at Catholic Hospitals. They had volunteered on the AIDS wards, they had volunteered in the chaplain's office offering pastoral care. So it was this nice connection between the church's very powerful health care ministry here in the United States and HIV and AIDS work in the eighties and Pope Francis today. So I was glad to be able to make that connection.

Brian Reardon (10:42):

And so in this resource, you basically provide snippets of some of the interviews you did, and as you went back and I guess curated that, maybe share a little bit, are there impressions that came back to you as you revisited the work you did a few years ago? And what impressions did those stories leave upon you and maybe irrelevant to the work we do in Catholic health care today?

Michael O'Loughlin (11:02):

Yeah, it was a nice opportunity to be able to go back because some of the interviews I had done are now three or four years old. And while I stay in touch with a number of the folks I interviewed, it was a good opportunity to revisit some of those lessons. And I think one that really stuck with me was the story of St. Vincent's Hospital in New York. It is sort of a legendary place in terms of HIV and AIDS care because it was serving a population that was most heavily impacted by HIV in Greene Village in New York City. And to me, it was interesting that the hospital that is now closed, but that was so closely associated with HIV, wasn't always the most welcoming place. And the Sisters of Charity who I interviewed told me that it was actually a challenge for them to connect with their large gay patient population who was suffering from HIV.


They had to learn how to bridge cultural divides a Catholic hospital serving a primarily a gay patient population in its HIV clinic. There were some bumps along the way. And as I was going back through the interviews, I was struck by the humility of the Catholic sisters, the physicians, the nurses who were working at the hospital at the time, the humility with which they recounted the history and also their posture at the time. They said that there was some actual physical clashes between HIV protesters, LGBT protesters and some hospital administrators, different demonstrations taking place in the hospital. But rather than press charges or create more conflict, the sisters who were running the hospital said, we need to listen to the community to find out what's not working. What are we doing that is causing this pain to be manifested in this way? And the result was a series of listening sessions, the community getting to know the hospital administrators, building real trust between these stakeholders in New York City, which resulted in a hospital that was able to serve a patient population that maybe didn't share the same cultural background or same societal values, but nonetheless created this real dynamic of trust and the care that was available because of that really was the best in the country.

Brian Reardon (13:14):

Yeah, no, and that story from Sister Karen Helfenstein, if I'm saying her last name correctly, I thought was really powerful. And I like the fact that in addition to saying we need to listen, she made the point. We didn't want to be defensive. And again, that idea of exploring common ground I really think is powerful because there's a lot of detractors of the Catholic church and of Catholic health care. And I think those words of wisdom from Sister Karen to not get defensive, to find ways to explore where they can work together, I think is really powerful. And do you think that has, again, relevancy or implications for the world we live in today?

Michael O'Loughlin (13:52):

Definitely has relevance for today. I cover the church in the United States for America Magazine, and certainly Catholic health care remains a vibrant ministry in the United States, but society has changed quickly over the last several years and looks like that pace of change will continue. And I think the way that Catholic health care has responded has been powerful. In some instances, these posture of listening continues. I think sometimes there's a challenge of capturing the right story, whether it's over issues of reproductive health care, gender care. There's certainly challenges because society is changing so fast. So I think it's easy to look at history as something that happened, maybe a simpler time, but that's simply not true. There were great conflicts in the 1980s and nineties, and it was not inevitable that Catholic hospitals would know how to respond, but there was this insistence that the gospel could be lived out in a multicultural pluralistic society. And I think we're seeing that play out today. It's the tensions will give way to solutions, and we'll look back at this time and explore how Catholic health care ministry responded with agility in order to respond with compassion.

Brian Reardon (15:06):

And they responded with courage, frankly. I mean, if you read your book, listen to the podcast, I was just blown away about the risks and really bold actions that these religious women and priests and laypeople took at a time of great uncertainty. And just, again, really looking at the church and maybe going against the grain or definitely going against the grain. And it reminds me, we spent the last year working on a new vision statement for CHA, which I will share, and I want you to reflect on that, is that our new vision statement is, we will empower bold change to elevate human flourishing. And so these stories really, I think, resonate on the bold change and being bold. So can you share a little bit about how these stories might inform those of us in Catholic health care who are looking to embrace bold change?

Michael O'Loughlin (16:01):

One of the things that stuck with me was it wasn't simply that these priests and sisters and lay staff at Catholic hospitals, it wasn't that they were going against the church. It was society as a whole was very resistant to talking openly about HIV. They were resistant to caring for communities most affected, whether it was gay men, IV drug users, marginalized immigrant communities. There was a lot of shame and stigma in outright bigotry against these communities. And Catholic sisters, Catholic priests, Catholic laypeople, they did respond with courage because they were engaging with communities that were already so stigmatized. They knew that simply by being associated with them, they could risk bringing on that stigma to themselves, but they did. So anyway. And I think the lesson from that time is it wasn't easy work. The people who were engaged in this ministry faced a lot of pushback, whether from the church, from society as a whole, but history ultimately caught up and holds them rightly up as heroes now.


So I think today, if there's difficulties in caring for certain patient populations, if there's concern about standing on the side of the gospel, standing on the side of justice, it can be hard. But there are people who did this before and who survived and thrived, and now their work is being recognized. So I think kind of taking the long view and looking at where we might be in 10, 25, 50 years from now where we know in our guts the gospel is calling us to be, I think these stories offer some edification in carrying out this ministry. Yeah,

Brian Reardon (17:40):

No, great perspective. Hey, Paulo, you want to come back in and maybe reflect on what you've heard and see if you've got any questions for Michael?

Paulo Pontemayor (17:48):

No, those were such powerful reflections from Michael. I really, again, I'm drawn to really his framing of the courage of Catholic health care in some of the darkest times of the hiv AIDS crisis. I had the opportunity when I was in New York earlier this year to actually go to the St. Vincent's former site and see just how powerful the city saw St. Vincent's work was. They put a plaque there just to commemorate the important pieces that they offered to the community at the time, very marginalized. And also working towards, again, justice and working with a population that could easily be seen as secondary and not necessarily, people were very scared at the time of where AIDS was coming from. And so that was great. I also, I'm really glad that Michael was able to connect the past to some of the current work. And as you'll see in our resource, we highlight St. Mary's Center in Long Beach, part of Dignity Health and kind of the program they started in 1986 and how powerful that has been for the communities that they serve, especially gay men who continue to avail themselves as some of the resources there. So many of the pieces that we look to in history can also really inform and strengthen kind of the work that our members are doing now, the courageous work our members are doing across the country, some in places like the Deep South that we can continue to learn from, be inspired by, especially as they work with people living with HIV and AIDS.

Brian Reardon (19:24):

Thanks for that, Paulo. Yeah, and I think I got to do another Pope Francis quote again in your forward, Michael, you're right. As Pope Francis put it in a 2018 homily, we are children of a history that needs to be preserved while noting also, we are authors of a history yet to be written. So I think, again, the historical account that you provided in the podcast Plague in the book, Hidden Mercy, and now in this new resource from CHA Hold Out your Hand, I think is really important that we don't lose sight of those who came before us and the courage they showed in extending the healing love of Christ to others. Michael, thanks for being with us. Really appreciate your contributions and your work with us in partnership over the years. So thanks again. Alright,

Paulo Pontemayor (20:09):

Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Brian Reardon (20:11):

And Paulo, thanks for being with us as well. This has been another episode of Health Calls, the podcast of the Catholic Health Association of the United States. I'm your host, Brian Reardon. You can listen and download Health Calls on all of your favorite podcast streaming channels and apps. We also ask if you're on one of the podcast apps, give us a rating. We'd love to get a five star rating from you. And of course, you can always access Health Calls through the CH a website ch Check it out. We'll also have the resources that were referenced on this podcast linked to this episode section, our podcast page. As always, health Calls is produced by Josh Matejka and engineered by Brian Hartmann here at Clayton Studios in St. Louis. Thanks for listening.