Today is, of course, World AIDS Day. We tend to forget in the some ways how AIDS has affected us here in the US and how it is continuing to be a true plague in the rest of the world.
For us in the Episcopal Church, it has been particularly difficult. Three Episcopal congregations that I particularly love (and all are, by the way, progressive Anglo-Catholic congregations), have been affected by AIDS.
At the Church of Advent of Christ the King in San Francisco the AIDS crisis was particularly bad. This is from Advent’s parish profile:
“When the Rev'd William Rhodes came to Advent as its 27th rector in 1984, the illness that came to be known as AIDS was beginning to affect a number of parishioners. Over 100 members of the congregation died of AIDS-related illnesses over a ten-year period. The church was the site of 2-3 Requiem Masses per week, and many members had become too ill to carry on the running of parish affairs. It was during this dark period when the grace of the Holy Spirit sent women to join Advent in increasing numbers and take over responsibilities traditionally carried out only by men. Women served as senior and junior wardens and began to appear at the altar as acolytes. In addition, these women undertook the care and support of men who were ill and exhausted by grief.”
I never fully realized how bad it was at a place like St. Luke’s-in-the Fields in Greenwich Village in New York until I visited there a few years ago and, after Mass, took a look at their columbarium. There the ashes of young men who died in 1980s and 1990s was sobering. Nothing quite hit home for me like that columbarium.
St. Damien of Molokai, who we now commemorate in Holy Women, Holy Men, is the patron saint of those suffering from HIV/AIDS. For this very reason, St. Damien is commemorated at another one of my favorite congregations, St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Hollywood. This from an online source about St. Thomas:
“A gift from a parishioner provided a carved-in-Italy colossal figure of the Ascending Christ, around which the distinguished liturgical artist Rhett Judice designed and executed a new reredos over the main altar. This was in the midst of the AIDS epidemic and it was felt a symbol of hope and resurrection was needed. Later Rhett Judice built a new reredos for the Lady Chapel, also of his own design, and, an altar and reredos for the Damien Chapel in the east porch of the church, centring on the figure of Christ the King, flanked by Saint Thomas the Apostle and Blessed Father Damien, the leper priest of Molokai. In 1998 Rhett completed the ‘East Wall’ (liturgical east) and created the Stations of the Cross currently in use.
“After the death from AIDS of assistant priest Robert Kettelhack in 1989, the chapel in the east porch was designated the Diocesan AIDS Memorial Chapel, with a painting by Ian Faulkner of Father Damien over the altar, and a specially-designed AIDS Memorial Book listing persons who have succumbed to the disease. When it was decided to build an AIDS Chapel in the new Cathedral Center, Saint Thomas relinquished the furnishings. The altar is still used for the interment of remains. The chapel is now dedicated to Fr. Damien of Molokai. Fr. Damien is the 19th century priest who worked among the lepers of Molokai and has been adopted as the patron of people with AIDS. Rhett Judice designed the triptych replacing the Falkner painting. A copy of the Memorial Book remains. This chapel also serves as the parish shrine for Our Lady of Walsingham. The Holy Rosary is recited there every Sunday morning.”
Even though we are not commemorating him today, St. Damien is the saint we really find ourselves relating to on this World AIDS day. He’s truly a symbol for us of the care and the love we need to show for all people stricken with illnesses like AIDS.
In the collect we use for Damien (and his companion Marianne), we essentially ask God for the chance to challenge ourselves. We pray that we may be “bold and loving in confronting the incurable plagues of our time…”
That is the challenge for all of us on this World AIDS Day, that we may, like Damien and all those who have fought and helped and who suffered from the incruable plagues of this world, may truly be “bold and loving in confronting” this incurable plague that’s still wages.
And so, using the collect for St. Damien from Holy Women, Holy Men, let us pray:
God of compassion, we bless your Name for the ministries of Damien and Marianne, who ministered to the lepers abandoned on Molokai in the Hawaiian Islands. Help us, following their examples, to be bold and loving in confronting the incurable plagues of our time, that your people may live in health and hope; through Jesus Christ, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.