Twenty-five years ago, a youthful and athletic Polish pope was settling into the third year of his pontificate, a former actor was president of the United States and American doctors saw the first cases of what has become a pandemic -- acquired immune deficiency syndrome or AIDS.

Two years later, researchers in France isolated and identified the virus responsible for the syndrome. It would eventually be called the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV.

Sometime between 15 and 20 years ago, Lawrence Ford contracted HIV, unknowingly, and passed it on to other men.

"Back 20 years ago, I really didn't pay too much attention to protection," Ford told Our Sunday Visitor. He is a patient at House of Mercy in Belmont, N.C., a Catholic AIDS hospice. "I was surprised when the doctor told me I was HIV positive."

According to the director of nursing at House of Mercy, Shirley Stowe, often people living with the disease do not know they have it until they become very ill or near death. Such was the case with Ford, who became too ill to work and too weak to care for himself.

House of Mercy is a ministry of the Sisters of Mercy of North Carolina, located on the campus of Sisters of Mercy of the Americas. Established in 1988 and opening its doors in 1991, House of Mercy serves the poorest, most needy men and women in advanced stages of AIDS. It is one example of the Church in America's outreach to those living with HIV/AIDS.

Caring for others

The compassionate response of the Catholic Church is one of the ways the faith can seem to be a paradox. Since HIV is spread most often through sexual contact, the Church urges men and women to abstain from sex in cases where people are not married. Homosexual men, who currently account for most cases of HIV in the United States, are asked also to abstain. This is rooted in the Church's teaching that homosexual sex is "instrinsically disordered" and a sin.

Condoms provide some means of protection from HIV transmission, but the Church forbids their use. Despite this, anyone who contracts HIV/AIDS is still a child of God and so must be cared for when in need -- hence the many Catholic ministries.

In January 2005, in response to some Spanish bishops who spoke out for the use of condoms to combat HIV transmission, Pope John Paul II said that the Holy See "considers that it is necessary above all to combat this disease in a responsible way by increasing prevention, notably through education about respect of the sacred value of life and formation of the correct practice of sexuality, which presupposes chastity and fidelity."

He also spoke of the need to care for people with disease. Referring to the Vatican's Good Samaritan Foundation, which raises funds and provides resources for organizations to help AIDS victims, the Washington Post reported.

The Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry estimates that over 25 percent of AIDS patients worldwide are cared for by institutions of the Catholic Church or by Catholic nongovernmental organizations. In the United States, many such ministries date their origin in the early years of the pandemic.

To give a glimpse into the Church's response in the United States, Our Sunday Visitor investigatedsome Catholic HIV/AIDS ministries around the country.

Sacramento, Calif.

In 1986, Bishop Francis Quinn charged Father John Healy with forming and developing the Catholic HIV/AIDS ministry of the Diocese of Sacramento.

"The first three or four years were hard, organizing the ministry," Father Healy said. "I decided that I would do two things. First, go wherever the people with AIDS were, whatever that meant. Second, I would do it for the people with HIV/AIDS."

With these mindsets, the priest progressed from learning about the disease to touching people in the streets, praying with mothers whose adult sons were dying and working information tables at health fairs with Mercy Sister Mary Redempta Scannell.

Over the years, Father Healy and Sister Scannell said they have seen the face of AIDS change. What started as a plague among homosexual men now shows its face regularly in women of color. These are young mothers who, with Sister Scannell's help, prepare for death by arranging the care for their surviving children.

The diocese also provides emergency financial help, spending more than $40,000 last year. "There are people needing assistance with the most basic needs of life: a home, emergency shelter, food, medicine, utilities," Father Healy said.

Chicago, Ill.

In the late 1980s, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin established the Archdiocesan HIV/AIDS task force in Chicago, said Pat Drott, the liaison for Catholic Charities to the task force. The 14 members of the task force represent Catholic schools, the National Catholic AIDS Network, physicians, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, pastoral ministries and peace-and-justice ministries in the Archdiocese of Chicago.

"Our mission is to provide leadership and direction in training, education and services to persons with HIV/AIDS," said Drott of efforts to reach out to all parishes in the archdiocese.

Catholic Charities in Chicago sponsors several health fairs where they distribute pamphlets in English and Spanish about HIV/AIDS. Recently, they began offering free, confidential HIV/AIDS testing onsite, Drott told Our Sunday Visitor.

Houston, Texas

Although not officially part of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, Morning Star Hostel has Catholic spirituality at its core. The six-bed facility opened in 1986 in Houston as part of Magnificat House, a local social-justice organization founded by Rose Mary Badami.

"We are based on the corporal works of mercy and the Beatitudes," said Sacred Heart Sister Sara Kay Thompson, assistant director of Magnificat House.

Local school and church groups contribute to the operation of the hostel by fundraising, volunteering and donating goods and services. According to Sister Thompson, the facility houses only adult men and women, however, there was a time when Magnificat provided housing to women afflicted with AIDS and their children.

"We listen to the cry of the poor in all that we do."

Elisa Rose writes from Indiana.