A note of joy among AIDS sufferers

By 
  • November 24, 2006
Fr.Gilles Mongeau. S.J.TORONTO - When Our Lady of Lourdes parish marks World AIDS Day Dec. 1, those who have gathered for the monthly healing Mass the past 16 years will remember the ones who have died and their families and friends, not forgetting those who still depend on a handful of pills every day to keep the human immunodeficiency virus at bay.

But it won't all be suffering, gloom and worry. Standing at the altar, Jesuit Father Gilles Mongeau will be wearing a note of joy. Mongeau  presides at the healing Mass for the HIV positive the third Saturday every month at 7 p.m. draped in a glorious silk chasuble.

"It's a symbol of joy for the community," Mongeau told The Catholic Register. "They see it and instantly they're happy."

The chasuble, which has come to stand for unity in a community that lived through the worst of the AIDS crisis in the 1990s, began in a dream. As a young Jesuit studying for the priesthood, Mongeau had been assigned to pastoral work with the community that gathered for healing Masses at Our Lady of Lourdes — the huge, diverse downtown Jesuit parish next door to Toronto's gay village. It was 1994 and there were rumours of new drugs that might keep people with HIV alive, but it would be years before they became available. In the meantime, more than 1,000 young men each year were dying in Toronto.

Mongeau discovered he had been called to work right at the heart of the Gospel.

"It was a tremendous, life-changing kind of involvement," he recalled.

When it seemed that everyone knew someone who was dying, Mongeau found himself thinking a lot about what it would mean to be ordained a priest.

"We were serving a community that was in the midst of a profound spiritual crisis — a crisis in its relationship with God, a crisis in its relationship with the church," he said.

And then the chasuble appeared to Mongeau in a dream.

At first Mongeau only spoke with his spiritual director about this vision of himself presiding at Mass dressed in a radiant chasuble. Eventually he shared the story with the healing Mass community.

"They said, 'Well, we have to have this chasuble. This chasuble has to exist.' "

It was two years before Mongeau was presented with the product of his dream (and the work of fabric artist Gloria Marshall), a month after his ordination, in June 1997.

But the chasuble isn't Mongeau's property.

"The chasuble tells the story of this community. It tells the story of God's compassion, giving healing gifts to this community," he said.

The central image emphasizes the Trinity. Between the hands of the Father and the Son reaching out in compassion is the Holy Spirit depicted as a descending dove.

"Down the right side of that you have three curling lines in cool colours, in green and blue and purple — lines that go down from God to a broken world," said Mongeau.

The cool colours that represent God's compassion descending into the world are matched by ribbons of warm reds and yellows rising back to God, offering praise and thanksgiving.

The cross on the back of the chasuble is taken from the Gospel of John.

"The son being raised up like the serpent that Moses lifted up in the desert," said Mongeau. "Out of this death, God is making new life."

There is even meaning in the texture of the silk garment. The outside of the garment is rough, raw silk while the inner panel is a finely finished, shiny midnight blue. The outside shows "a sense that it's not a finished thing," said Mongeau. "It's a rough reality. It's in the middle of the mess. But underneath, there's that beautiful, finished blue silk."

Since the chasuble has been in regular use at Our Lady of Lourdes, constantly improving drugs have changed the face of AIDS in the community. And the community has gone from crisis to new life.

"The experience of the community is very much an experience of Easter, of God making a new kind of life from death," Mongeau said. "At no time did the community ever experience suffering as a good thing, but in the midst of this suffering they realized that God was bringing life."

Today the healing Mass community has expanded to include parents who have lost children to AIDS, people with cancer, people with addictions and refugees from the mental health system. A community which once needed care and compassion now reaches out to others, said Mongeau.

Mongeau understands how it is easy for many in Toronto to ignore AIDS, or think that World AIDS Day has nothing to do with them. But Christians are called to a greater awareness, he said.

"Like it or not, this is part of who we are. There are people living with AIDS among us. They are part of who we are as the church in Toronto," said Mongeau. "Where one of us suffer, we all suffer.... We are the suffering body of Christ."

Though some think of the Lourdes healing Mass community as radical, Mongeau likes to emphasize how traditional it is and the "incredible support from the diocese and from the cardinal."

"It's part of being the Roman Catholic Church to overcome injustice and overcome division and be an instrument of peace. That's what it means," said Mongeau.

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