Catholics called to reach out to the suffering at annual World AIDS Day Mass

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PROVIDENCE — Parishioners of St. Patrick Church and members of the greater community commemorated World AIDS Day with a bilingual Mass celebrated at St. Patrick’s last Wednesday, November 30, gathering to pray for those affected by HIV/AIDS and remember those who have died from the disease.

While HIV/AIDS affects more than 3,000 individuals and their families in Rhode Island, for Deacon Dr. Timothy Flanigan, homilist and organizer of the annual World AIDS Day Mass, the disease is especially personal. In addition to serving as a deacon assistant at St. Theresa and St. Christopher Parish, Tiverton, Deacon Flanigan is an infectious disease specialist at Miriam Hospital and professor of medicine at Brown University’s Alpert Medical School who has cared for HIV/AIDS patients throughout his career. He began his New York medical residency in 1983, shortly after the outbreak of the AIDS crisis, an experience that continues to impact his career and ministry today.

“We were seeing the epidemic unfold and really the incredible pain,” he shared with Rhode Island Catholic prior to the Mass. “We frequently went to funerals and to wakes and you really shared in the pain. We could provide a lot of care but we couldn’t reverse the course of it.”

Since the first observed case of AIDS in 1981, the medical community has made great strides in the treatment of HIV using antiretroviral medication, as well as toward the elimination of stigma surrounding HIV-positive individuals. However, according to Deacon Flanigan, the virus continues to pose a great risk to vulnerable populations, while discrimination stemming from fear can amplify the already considerable difficulties for those living with HIV.

“Whether it’s the medical community or the Church, we need to reach out,” said Deacon Flanigan. “Many patients with HIV/AIDS are some of the most marginalized in our community.

“From the medical point of view, you can be treated,” he added, stressing the need to provide hope for those with the condition. “From the Church’s point of view, you are an adopted son or an adopted daughter of God.”

World AIDS Day, officially celebrated on December 1, was founded in 1988 by the World Health Organization and the United Nations General Assembly to raise awareness of the disease and honor all those who have died from AIDS and related complications. World AIDS Day is observed around the globe, including in the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, where the disease is most prevalent.

Father James Ruggieri, pastor at St. Patrick Church, celebrated the commemorative Mass, which coincided with the feast of St. Andrew. He was assisted by Deacon Eduardo Birbuet, pastoral associate at the parish, and Deacon Stephen Raymond, director of operations at St. Patrick Academy, in addition to Deacon Flanigan.

“We’re privileged tonight to be able to gather to celebrate not only the apostle Andrew but also those who have died, those who live with AIDS [and] those who are HIV-positive,” said Father Ruggieri.

Addressing the faithful during the homily, Deacon Flanigan shared his experience working with HIV and AIDS patients during the height of the crisis, once again emphasizing the importance of reaching out to a community in need of compassion as much as medical attention.

“One of the greatest mysteries is that Jesus didn’t just say go out and speak the gospel. He said go out and live the gospel. You have to go and show the love to those who think they’re unlovable.”

Deacon Flanigan also shared his belief that those who have died of AIDS are watching over the living with prayer and intercession, continuing to share their love with families and those suffering from the disease today.

“What separates us here from the other side is just a very thin curtain. It’s not a big wall, it’s a thin curtain, and I’m convinced that they are helping us in so many ways,” he said.

Following the homily, Father Ruggieri invited those present to speak aloud the names of loved ones who have died of AIDS, asking for the repose of these souls during the prayer of the faithful. In a touching reminder of the closeness of the disease, several individuals volunteered the names of family and friends, offering these names in a silent church as they asked God to look after their souls.

Among those who attended, Nancy Hernandez, a Providence resident who often attends weekday Mass at St. Patrick’s, said she thought the Mass was a great idea to bring the community together and offer some spiritual healing to those affected by HIV/AIDS. A medical resident at Rhode Island Hospital, she said she sometimes encounters negative perceptions of patients affected by the disease during her work.

“There’s still a lot of stigma behind it, so addressing that as a physician for sure comes up with complications from HIV/AIDS.”

Like Deacon Flanigan, Hernandez said she relies on prayer to get her through stressful days as a physician, especially when she encounters patients in difficult situations.

“I think that just adds another level of hope and love for my patients. It’s about healing the whole person,” she said. “At a certain point, you just have to offer them up and trust that God will take care of the situation.”

Earlier in the day, Pope Francis made his own appeal for the victims of HIV and AIDS during his weekly general audience. Speaking to the crowds gathered at the Vatican, he asked that individuals pray and work for greater access to treatment and that communities act responsibly to prevent the spread of the disease.

“Millions of people live with this disease and only half of them have access to lifesaving treatments,” said Pope Francis. “I ask you to pray for them and for their loved ones and to promote solidarity so that the poorest may also benefit from appropriate diagnosis and care. I lastly appeal that all may adopt responsible behavior to prevent the further spread of this disease.”

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