Pope Assures AIDS Patients of God’s Love

Times Staff Writers

In one of the most emotional events on his current American tour, Pope John Paul II drove past several groups of angry protesters Thursday to embrace a teary-eyed 4-year-old AIDS patient and assure all AIDS victims of God’s love for them.

“God loves you all, without distinction, without limit,” the Pope said after being greeted at Mission Dolores by San Francisco Archbishop John R. Quinn. The event was the pontiff’s first public meeting with AIDS sufferers, and he was careful not to describe the disease as an exclusively homosexual affliction.

“He loves those of you who are sick, those of you who are suffering from AIDS and from AIDS-related complex,” the Pope said. “He loves the relatives and friends of the sick and those who care for them. He loves us all with an unconditional and everlasting love.”


AIDS and homosexuality have been discussed at other stops on the tour, but since both topics so materially affect this city--and because local opposition to Vatican teachings is so strong--the pontiff’s comments here on those issues were anxiously anticipated. AIDS has hit especially hard, claiming more than 2,152 lives in this city of 750,000.

The papal gesture was enthusiastically welcomed by one locally influential parish priest, but was shrugged off as a “meaningless pat on the head” by gay groups, including Dignity, a relatively moderate organization of and for homosexual Catholics.

Gay men inside the church, however, said later that they were inspired by the Pope’s encouragement not only for them, but for their relatives, friends and lovers who comfort and care for them under emotionally trying conditions.

“He’s my leader, my vicar . . . he makes me very proud to be a Catholic,” said one gay AIDS victim, 52-year-old Fred Powell, as he left the basilica, his voice quaking with emotion. “I will see God soon enough. But right now, the Pope will do.”

The 800 worshipers crowded into the compact basilica included 62 people afflicted with acquired immune deficiency syndrome, an invariably fatal disease that cripples the body’s immune system. With them were 36 of their loved ones, including some gay lovers. One man, too sick to attend in person, was represented by his wife.

In addition to the 4-year-old boy, Brendan O’Rourke of San Francisco, who contracted the disease through a blood transfusion, the AIDS patients included two priests, a former Christian Brothers monk, several former drug abusers--and a number of homosexual men trying to reconcile their sexuality with the teachings of their church.


One of the AIDS-infected priests, Father Robert Arpin, said he was “moved to tears” by the Pope’s remarks and actions. “This was touted as the city with the problem,” he said, “and all he spoke about was God’s unconditional love for all beings.”

Special Mass for Gays

After the papal service, Arpin, 40, went uptown to the Palace of Fine Arts to join with three other local Catholic priests in a special Mass they had organized for gays.

At the Mission Dolores service, the bulk of the worshipers was made up of 400 elderly San Francisco Bay Area Catholics, including some retired priests, and about 300 longtime members of the Mission Dolores parish, a predominantly Latino area that also includes significant numbers of gays and old-line Irish and Italian families.

The Pope entered the church under a shower of verbal brickbats--including chants of “Shame! Shame! Shame!’--shouted by protesters from behind police barricades nearly a block from the church.

Once inside, however, the Pope was greeted warmly. Many inside the basilica crowded unusually close to the smiling pontiff, waving eagerly when they could not edge close enough to shake his hand or be touched on the head.

Again demonstrating his affection for children, John Paul tenderly embraced three children as he toured the packed basilica, a modern addition to the centuries-old mission next door. Once he arrived at the altar, ready to make his speech, he was bathed in enthusiastic applause and spontaneous shouts of “Viva! Viva! Viva El Papa!”

Tears of Joy

The most electrifying moment, however, was when the 67-year-old Pope paused to hug 4-year-old Brendan, resplendent in a tiny blue suit and carried in the arms of his father, John. The boy promptly shed a torrent of joyful tears, as did many of the adults standing nearby.

Later, the boy’s mother, Elaine O’Rourke, said she hopes the Pope’s actions will reduce the public’s hysteria about contact with AIDS patients. She added that Brendan was as thrilled by the encounter as his tears had testified.

“(Brendan) goes to church with us every Sunday,” said the mother of three. “He saw him (the Pope) as a very nice and holy man. He is just very happy and excited.”

She said Brendan was born three months premature and required transfusions shortly after birth. This was before blood donations were routinely screened for the AIDS virus; he received some tainted blood and became infected.

Before and after embracing the boy, the Pope also shook hands with several AIDS-afflicted men, one of whom kissed his ring in a show of respect.

Even as 8,000 gays and others stood outside the church, waving placards and chanting in protest, these people chose to cling to their faith in the face of death.

“Because so many of these people have suffered great pain not only from their disease, but because they are gay in a church that doesn’t recognize that (life style) as moral, they came seeking a sign of caring,” said Sheila Madden, a counselor at the nearby Most Holy Redeemer Church and a coordinator of the prayer service.

“They all wanted the blessing of the Pope before they die,” she added in an interview. “There was no feeling that this was a time for dissent, for any sign of anger.”

Whether they got the blessing they came for remained a matter of opinion.

Religious leaders were ecstatic that the Pope embraced AIDS victims both physically and verbally. Gay activists, meanwhile, noted that the Pope showed no inclination to soften the Vatican’s hard line against homosexuality.

“The people in our parish and people with AIDS will be thrilled with this (speech),” said Father Anthony McGuire, the parish priest at Most Holy Redeemer Church in the city’s predominantly gay Castro District. “It is great. It is fantastic. It is filled with compassion and understanding. Some people have said AIDS is the wrath of God, but there is none of that here.”

“I interpret (the speech) as . . . a message of good will and a proclamation of God’s love to all people, including the gay community,” said Father Alfred McBride, a spokesman for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Saying this in San Francisco, which has a large gay community, and in front of AIDS patients and their families is a positive message full of grace and love and personal warmth.”

None of that was felt by the protesters outside the basilica.

Leonard P. Matlovich, a decorated Vietnam War veteran who has AIDS, said the pontiff’s comments could not make up for his former inaction on the epidemic. “The Pope’s record on AIDS is worse than President Reagan’s because the Pope took longer to address it,” he said. “The Pope needs to open up his heart.”

Women’s Issues

“We owe no allegiance to an organization so totally based toward hatred of women,” said Shireen Miles, state coordinator of the National Organization for Women, referring to the Vatican’s opposition to birth control, abortion and the ordination of women priests.

The protests were organized by a variety of groups, chief among them a coalition of gays, lesbian feminists, Jews, Catholics and prostitutes organized by attorney John Wahl.

Demonstrations were to continue into the night with about 20 gays standing “watch”--as one would “watch something of great danger,” Wahl said--outside St. Mary’s Rectory, where the Pope was to sleep. Another demonstration was planned for this morning, when the Pope is to meet with Catholic lay leaders at St. Mary’s Cathedral before celebrating Mass at Candlestick Park.

There were demonstrations in other cities along the Pope’s route, but none as vocal, angry and well-attended as here, where protests are a way of life. Homosexuals, feminists, Jews and disaffected Vietnamese Catholics began laying protest plans as soon as the papal visit was announced.

Anger among gays was focused primarily on an October, 1986, Vatican letter, written by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and endorsed by the Pope, that denounced homosexual acts as “intrinsically disordered” and, in the eyes of many gays, apparently condoned anti-homosexual violence.

It said: “It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice . . . (but) when civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable right, neither the church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase.”

Since then, Quinn and other moderate Catholic leaders have emphasized that gays still are welcome in the church, even though specific homosexual acts are condemned and homosexuals themselves are urged to be chaste.

Nonetheless, the negative reaction among gays to the Ratzinger letter added to the extraordinary security in force during the Pope’s visit here. His San Francisco parade, for example, was remarkably short, only a little more than a mile long; the exact route was kept secret until little more than a week ago.

Also contributing to this story were Imbert Matthee and Philip Hager.