Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


At AIDS Mass, Catholics Asked To Help, Pray

By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published December 6, 2007

Catholics from across the Atlanta region gathered in dance, prayer and song to commemorate World AIDS Day as the skirl of bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace” filled the sanctuary of St. Philip Benizi Church.

Some 200 people attended the Saturday Mass Dec. 1 filled with signs of remembrance of victims of HIV/AIDS, from a shrine of pictures of loved ones to the handmade quilt with victims’ names draping the altar. Msgr. Luis Zarama, vicar general, was the principal celebrant.

“My heart is very happy,” said Rosario de la Cruz, of St. Lawrence Church, Lawrenceville, one of the AIDS ministers to the Hispanic community.

The archdiocese has reached out to people with HIV/AIDS since the epidemic started to kill people in the prime of their lives. During the past three years, the community of ministers has joined together to support each other and recall friends and family who have died. The ministry’s leaders face continuing demands as the number of infections rises, especially among those in the Hispanic and black communities.

Deacon Chester Griffin told the crowd that Catholics are to be people of compassion.

“We know God does not care about our race, about our color, or any other criteria that restricts our services to people,” he said.

Deacon Griffin, a leader with the AIDS ministry known as Simon’s Call at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Atlanta, said he has grown in knowledge of the disease.

“My mindset has grown from my thinking of HIV/AIDS as a gay, white man’s disease to seeing the human face of men and women and, yes, even children. And they are people that look just like you and me,” he said.

Deacon Griffin said more people are struggling with the disease than ever.

“Our response to this disease cannot simply be just lip service. We must be willing to help where we can. We must be willing to heal where we can. We must be willing to have compassion where we can,” he said. “We must be willing to pray that this disease will be eradicated. AIDS is not a faceless disease and it never has been.”

During the prayers of the faithful, those faces were recalled. The congregation spoke aloud names of people who had died from the disease, names like Peter, Dorothea, Victor, Jerome, Darryl.

And photos of loved ones sat at the shrine at the foot of the altar. People like “Javi,” a smiling, brown-haired young man, called a “beloved brother, teacher and hero.” Another was a bearded man, sitting on a golden sand beach under a vivid blue sky.

Georgia is in the top three states in the country with the number of new infections of HIV, according to the most recent figures. In 2005, nearly 4,000 people were diagnosed with the illness, with only Florida and New York counting more new infections, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a database of health statistics. In Georgia, some 15,900 people live with AIDS.

The disease is wreaking havoc across racial lines. Nearly half the people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in 2005 were black. And this summer’s 10th National Black Catholic Congress in Buffalo, N.Y., focused on resources for HIV/AIDS ministries to help curb the disease’s spread.

Latinos represent 19 percent of the newly diagnosed in 2005 but make up 13 percent of the population.

Kevin and Donna Kirby, parishioners at St. Philip Benizi, said the best part of the service is how it raises awareness of the issue.

He said people are becoming aware of how the disease affects everyone, not just one group of people.

For the first time, a Hispanic group to talk with parishioners about AIDS formed to educate that community and serve people.

De la Cruz said many people still treat the disease and the people with it as a stigma.

“That is one of the big problems we have,” said de la Cruz, 42, who works as a housekeeper.

Even ministers who work with people living with the disease face discrimination from fellow Catholics. But everyone in the Hispanic ministry group called the mistreatment their “badge of honor.”

James Martino has volunteered with the St. Philip Benizi AIDS ministry team for 10 years. In 1993, his son passed away because of the disease. Some 17 members of the Martino family attended the Mass.

Martino, a retired Army colonel, said people look down on victims of the disease, but the tide is turning.

Irene Miranda, the director of the archdiocesan HIV/AIDS Ministry Office, said the annual event unites all the ministers who work on behalf of people with the disease.

It is especially nice for people to receive the sacrament of the anointing of the sick and feel welcomed as an important part of the community, Miranda said.

“It helps people to realize that the people of God living with AIDS look like everybody,” she said.