The priest was dying. “I have come to accept the inevitability of my death—soon,” said the Rev. Michael Peterson, 44, during an interview last October with the National Catholic Reporter. But when he spoke of his terminal illness, his friends and associates, who watched this once energetic priest-psychiatrist wither to near helplessness, assumed it was cancer. They were mistaken. Father Michael was a victim of AIDS.
As AIDS has spread, the Catholic clergy has not been spared. At least a dozen reports of priests and brothers afflicted with the disease have appeared in recent months in Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Hawaii, New York and now in Peterson’s home diocese of Washington, D.C. While some of the clerical victims have been sheltered and cared for by their colleagues, others have died shunned, ashamed and alone.
Peterson was not alone. Late in February he told Washington’s Archbishop James A. Hickey the truth about his disease. The conservative archbishop responded by helping the stricken priest to emerge from secrecy and, as Hickey recalls, to “use this teaching moment to help AIDS sufferers free themselves from this terrible isolation.” From his deathbed, Peterson composed a confidential letter to the priests of his home diocese and to Catholic bishops across the U.S. “I hope,” he wrote, “that in my own struggle with this disease, in finally acknowledging that I have this lethal syndrome, there might come some measure of compassion, understanding and healing for me and for others with it—especially those who face the disease alone and in fear.”
His plea was all the more poignant because, with his medical training, he was himself a healer of wounded priests. In 1978 he had founded the St. Luke Institute in suburban Suitland, Md., a psychiatric-care hospital for priests, brothers and nuns troubled by alcoholism, drug dependency and sexual problems. “He was so charismatic, such a positive influence on so many lives,” says the Rev. Jim Yeakel, director of pastoral field education at the De Sales School of Theology in Washington, D.C. “His illness seemed so unfair. I thought, ‘Why him? Why him?’ ”
Peterson was a searcher for spiritual directions all of his life. Born in Seattle and reared in Stockton, Calif., he left the Mormon faith of his family at age 13. His interest in medicine evolved at Stanford University, and he went on for his M.D. at the University of California at San Francisco. He worked for six years with the U.S. Public Health Service, much of that time as a research scientist at the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, but he was not fulfilled. “Here I am sitting in a lab shooting monkeys and mice full of viruses,” he once said. “Why don’t I do something with my life?”
At 32 he entered the De Sales School of Theology. Ordained three years later, Peterson promptly persuaded his superiors to establish St. Luke, a 24-bed hospital that has in recent years had a substantial waiting list for admittance. A nonstop worker himself, Peterson logged 200,000 miles yearly for workshops, counseling troubled clergy on chemical dependency and pedophilia. He held firmly to his belief that homosexuality is “genetically programmed in utero.”
Ironically, the archbishop who ministered daily to Peterson until the end is known as a vigilant defender of the church’s censure of homosexuals. In a separate letter that accompanied Peterson’s message to bishops and colleagues, Archbishop Hickey, 66, did not retreat from that position. Yet he also wrote: “[Father Michael’s] illness reminds us in a personal way of the terrible human tragedy of AIDS in our midst. His suffering challenges us to reach out with renewed conviction and compassion…not condemnation.”
The archbishop said he never asked Peterson how he contracted AIDS. “And certainly in death,” Hickey adds, “I have no desire to pursue it.” Within the church, the archbishop’s ministry to Peterson is being viewed as a model for handling a sensitive and acutely embarrassing situation. “I think what we’re trying to do is to show that we care for our own,” said Hickey, “that we don’t send them off to die in oblivion.”
That message was clear on April 13, four days after Father Michael’s death, when Washington’s St. Matthew’s Cathedral overflowed with seven bishops and hundreds of priests for his funeral Mass. It was the first time in the U.S. that an acknowledged priest-victim of AIDS had been so honored, and some saw it as a watershed for the church. “All those priests coming out to the funeral was saying an awful lot,” says the Rev. Robert Nugent, an author and lecturer for the Catholic Coalition for Gay Civil Rights. “They weren’t ashamed of a priest with AIDS.”