This article was published in Ministry and Liturgy Magazine, November 2014. I have published several articles on my experiences. This story is a lead-in to exploring the gospels in Ordinary Time.
I ministered among people suffering with HIV/AIDS for twenty years in the various cities in which I lived. On this World AIDS Day, I remember with pain and joy the families whom I met along the way.
Ministering Beyond the Threshold
I ministered among people with HIV/AIDS for most of the first twenty years of my priesthood. My religious community never assigned me to such a ministry. I just happened to live at a point in history where I could not avoid being involved with people facing such a horrific illness. As I look back to those years, I would never have dreamed when I was ordained that a disease would become one of the major influences of my early priesthood.
I began sifting through people’s complications of HIV/AIDS in Colorado Springs, Colorado around 1985, and I have mentioned some of those experiences through the years in this column. I got involved because the director of the county health department was a parishioner. I gave him permission to put my name on a list of clergy who were willing to offer spiritual guidance. At that time, that list was very short.
I remember a young man who came to my office for the first time. He stood at my office door and said, “I have tried to speak to three other priests. Would you at least listen to me?” I still hold on to that question as one of the most formative questions of my priesthood.
There was much fear at the beginning of a disease that no one understood. One of the fears that brought me into the circle of care was that many religious people would not enter a hospital room to comfort a person who was sick. Clergy would stand outside the door of the patient’s room and just yell toward the person in bed.
I thought that if I promised to listen to a young man in my office, then I should also listen in a hospital room. I broke the barrier of the threshold many times. I cannot believe now how groundbreaking that gesture was at the time.
I was young and ignorant of the complications people faced from a diagnosis. However, I could struggle with the grief, the loss and the fear of dying. I learned quickly the gut-wrenching reality of people dying who were of my generation. I learned to listen for the first time in my life. I stood silently along bedsides with prayer in my soul, healing oil on my fingers and with much fear in my own heart.
I refer to this story again as I reflect on the gospels for the Second Week of Ordinary Time through the Seventh Week of Ordinary Time. I listen to these texts again with great amazement. I am struck how connected disease is to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry on earth. I find the connection startling and yet consoling.
Jesus asks his disciples and even every person in our day, “What are you looking for?” He then calls his disciples from their place of work as fisherman. Jesus tells them that he will make them fishers of men. He is saying that people will be our priority.
Immediately after Jesus calls his disciples, he encounters an unclean spirit. I am so intrigued that the unclean spirit is the one to name Jesus for who his is, “The Holy One of God.” This new teaching of authority radically identifies Jesus with the most marginalized people of his day. The people around Jesus were astonished.
Jesus is teaching us that weakness, vulnerability, and powerlessness will be our greatest teachers. In fact grief, fear and pain will begin to open us up to faith. In our suffering, we will find God.
Jesus continues by entering the house to see Simon’s mother-in-law. He reaches out his hand to her. This intimate encounter teaches us still how to live our ministry in the world. We need this personal touch, this intimate encounter to bring to people who are ill and marginalized, the love and healing of Christ Jesus. Jesus goes on to cure all the sick, the demonic and those whom people were forbidden to touch.
A leper then kneels in front of Jesus. “If you wish, you can make me clean.” I see before my eyes, the young man who came to the threshold of my office door. Jesus is moved with pity, “I do will it. Be made clean.” It was the leper who spread the word of who Jesus was and what he could do. The person filled with physical poison revealed to healthy people the miracles and presence of Christ Jesus.
People flocked to Jesus. Friends even brought friends to him by opening up a roof to lower the sick before the person of Jesus. Everyone knew what Jesus could do because the people who were sick were the teachers. Jesus even forgave sinners. Jesus still says, “I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home.”
I learned so much about the healing power of Christ walking through the threshold of those hospital rooms. This is the risk for us all today as well, to bring our ministry and the Eucharist itself to the many rooms where people live in fear, doubt, isolation and pain. Jesus invites us to enter the threshold of suffering and to discover his love for every person in need.