Books for Christmas: 'Hidden Mercy'

Reviewed By Father Jim McDermott, SJ
Wednesday, December 15, 2021

In late 2019, America Magazine’s national correspondent Michael O’Loughlin released a nine-part podcast, “Plague,” that dug into the Catholic Church’s responses to the AIDS crisis. It detailed extraordinary, previously unknown stories of nuns who worked with the sick; of the staff at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village, which served the gay community of New York with a level of care and respect not afforded them elsewhere; of William Hart McNichols, a gay priest who offered pastoral care to hundreds of men as they died; and others. 

In his new book “Hidden Mercy: AIDS, Catholics and the Untold Stories of Compassion in the Face of Fear,” O’Loughlin builds on that work, using a novelistic approach that takes you into the lives of people like McNichols, Dr. Ramon “Gabriel” Torres, who led St. Vincent’s AIDS clinic for a decade or Michael Harank, a gay nurse who started a Catholic Worker House for people with AIDS in Oakland after finding the New York Catholic Worker ambivalent about the rights and needs of gay people.

O’Loughlin’s book is filled with inspiring characters and stories, but also chronicles some of the church’s failures, like Cardinal John O’Connor’s criticism of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ first statement on the AIDS crisis, “The Many Faces of AIDS,” or Dorothy Day’s struggle to accept gay people.

O’Loughlin saw this project as an opportunity to educate himself more deeply on the experiences of gay Catholics during the AIDS crisis and to reflect on his own identity as a gay Catholic. The result is a book paradoxically filled with hope even as it is recounts so much loss. As he writes in his introduction, keeping this history alive and introducing it to others helps us all feel less alone.