A care-full and loving Church


"He could work no miracle there, though he cured a few sick people by laying his hands on them."

As a doctor, I have always loved the last line of this reading. It seems like - for St Mark - just healing a few sick people doesn't really count as a miracle! He takes it for granted that healing is a natural part of God becoming really present in a human life.

Well, a few days ago I had a young man in my office with his girlfriend - both much in need of healing. Both of them had just tested HIV positive. Like many people who are newly diagnosed with HIV, they were in despair. They wept tears of pain, grief, shame and bitterness. And the young man said something which struck me particularly: "Why does this have to happen? I've got all my life in front of me. How can it happen to me?"

His reaction is really very typical of many people I have looked after with HIV. Most of them are or were previously fit young adults whose whole lives were suddenly brought up short by the shattering reality of sickness and mortality. One of the joys of youth - and I think I'm still just about young enough to be able to say this - is that death seems a long way away. We have all our lives in front of us. Everything and anything is possible for our future. We mostly haven't made any really bad mistakes - yet . Young people always believe they will live forever.

But when it happens, the cold reality that death may actually be very close changes us all - but in so many different ways. Sadly, there are some for whom a diagnosis of HIV destroys all hope and they feel their lives are over even before they have properly begun. Many of them, sadly, kill themselves. But for many others the diagnosis brings about remarkable changes which pervade their entire lives in very unexpected ways. One can almost hear them say "if I cannot live longer, then I will at least live better!"

One of the most remarkable people I have met with this condition is now a counsellor for a Catholic service for people with AIDS. She was 21 and newly qualified as a nurse when she received her diagnosis. Like many others, she was initially shocked and terrified. But, over the following three years she has found herself reconsidering the entire course of her life. She found within the Church the love, care and support she needed. (There's a sentence I wish I could say more often.) Returning to the practice of her previously disregarded Catholic faith, she began, as she puts it, "to pray for real - like it really mattered as much as a telephone call to your best friend". And, in developing her relationship with the Lord, she found the love that she had desired to feel all her life and had never previously encountered. When I last spoke with her - about six months ago - she told me this:

"You know, for months now I can't even feel sorry that I got AIDS. Everything that has happened since then has been so good for me that I can't bear to think that I might have gone through the whole of my life - supposedly healthy - and not discovered what life was really about. AIDS may shorten my life, but it's taught me how to live it".

The next time you hear that someone has contracted HIV, please remember Carmel and pray that they too may find the healing hand of the Lord laid upon them.

Paul O'Reilly SJ