Published December 11, 2008
The Sunday evening service at Holy Cross Church included this reading from the prophet Isaiah: “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God.”
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory led the worship at the crowded church as Catholics gathered on Dec. 7 to mark the Archdiocesan Mass for a World Living With AIDS, an annual commemoration for people living with the disease, families affected by the disease and their caregivers. The Crossfire Choir set the tone for Mass with a song titled “God’s Eye Is on the Sparrow.”
Scores of people—young and gray-haired, white, black, Asian, Latino—gathered at the foot of the altar to have their foreheads and hands marked by the archbishop and several priests with consecrated oil in blessing during the rite of the anointing of the sick.
At the foot of the altar was an icon of Mary and a young Jesus titled “Mother of God, Light in all Darkness,” which was a symbol used by the National Catholic AIDS Network.
It has been more than 20 years since priests and others in ministry in the Atlanta Archdiocese began reaching out to people living with the new disease, formally called acquired immune deficiency syndrome. What began as individual efforts led to the creation of an archdiocesan task force on AIDS. Today, in addition to the work of the archdiocesan Office of HIV/AIDS Ministry, a dozen parishes around North Georgia have efforts to comfort people living with AIDS. Georgia is among the top 10 states in AIDS cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
At Holy Cross Church, Archbishop Gregory spoke of the need of people living with HIV/AIDS and their families for comfort from churchgoers and the church.
It is an “illness that touches far too many lives,” he said, adding that it is not a punishment from God for behavior. It is a “sickness just like those Jesus cured,” he said.
People living with HIV/AIDS and their families deserve the comfort of the Christian community because “they belong to” God, said the archbishop.
“We need to comfort them … because God himself is a compassionate and gentle father,” he said.
Linking the Advent season with AIDS ministry, Archbishop Gregory said the role of the AIDS ministers, like John the Baptist, is to “rouse the church” to action and to “soften” the hearts of people to make them more compassionate toward people living with the disease.
Later, state Rep. Pedro Marin, of Gwinnett County, presented the archbishop with a commendation from the Georgia Secretary of State. Marin said the archbishop was recognized as a goodwill ambassador for the state of Georgia in part for his leadership in advocacy for people and families with AIDS-related illnesses.
Researchers have found the disease is making inroads into the region. The South accounted for close to half of the new cases in the United States in 2006, the most recent figure. Also, the South has the greatest number of people estimated to be living with AIDS, according to the CDC.
In response, the archdiocesan AIDS ministry office in 2008 spurred the creation of a regional network of Catholics working on the issue. Some 100 people from across the South and other places met in Atlanta to share knowledge and exchange ideas during the summer.
AIDS ministers from Immaculate Heart of Mary Church were grateful for the recognition of their efforts. It is one of the most active AIDS ministries in the archdiocese. In 2008, a parish team raised more than $9,000 at the AIDS Walk.
Dr. Nancy Koughan, along with other physicians with the ministry, said nourishing the spirit is valuable in treating the disease. She found the Mass a time of personal renewal also.
“It gives me the strength to go back to work,” said Koughan, of the DeKalb Country Board of Health.
Dr. Clare Dykewicz, of the CDC, said similar gatherings and the Mass keep her inspired with her ministry and professional life.
“It really helps a lot. It makes me feel like I am not alone,” she said.