By Catherine Healy
When the Aids epidemic hit New York in the early 1980s, Bernárd Lynch did all he could to care for the sick and dying. The Ennis-born priest founded the first ministry for people with Aids in the city, supporting countless gay men who had been shunned by their families. He saw many of his friends succumb to the condition. Nobody knew the cause back then, and there was no such thing as treatment.
Lynch will never forget the terror of those early crisis years. “We used to go to patients in hospital and find their food had been left outside the door for days because staff were so afraid of contracting Aids. When you visited people, you dressed up like you were going on a moonwalk — covered from head to toe. You wouldn’t drink from the same cup or use the same toilet seat as anyone who had it.”
The ministry’s work was often more practical than spiritual. “I spent more time shopping, changing diapers and cleaning up urine than giving the last rites or praying with the sick,” says Lynch.
He had appealed for volunteers at St Francis Xavier Church in Greenwich Village after becoming overwhelmed with requests for help. The ministry grew to more than 1,000 members, but about half of them had died within a few years. Many were abandoned by their families when it was discovered they had Aids, while fellow priests who became ill were excluded by their diocese and religious communities.
Yet there were also moments of great tenderness. “I picked up one Irish mother at JFK whose son was in hospital. ‘How’s Michael?’ she asked, and I had to tell her he was quite ill. ‘He has the Rock Hudson disease,’ she said, referring to the actor who died of the condition in 1985, and I said, ‘Yes, he does’.”
“She found out he was gay about two weeks before he died, but she was formidable. I took the funeral and asked her if she’d like to say a few words. She went up to the altar in front of around 200 people — a woman who had never spoken in public before — and said: ‘Thank you. You were his real family.’ It was inspirational to see at a time when so many others had rejected their sons on their deathbeds.”
He is talking to the Independent after donating his personal papers to the National Library of Ireland. The Fr Bernárd Lynch Archive includes records of smear campaigns against him, personal letters to his family while he was coming out as a gay man, and letters from people struggling to reconcile their sexuality with church teaching.
What impact did his time in New York have on him? “Well, I was radicalised. I was devastated, but I had no time to cry — and no time to recover. Day after day, you were in and out of funeral homes and hospitals visiting the sick. And, of course, we all thought we had it. I went home in 1982 to tell my family about what was happening and to make a will for the first time in my life, because I genuinely thought my number was up.”
Lynch has struggled with his faith in the years since, but he stops short of describing himself as a non-believer. “Maybe I’m a coward, but I couldn’t have kept going if I didn’t hold on to something. Even today, it’s a hope more than a belief.”
There were no such doubts growing up in 1950s Ireland. Mass at Ennis Cathedral was, he says, like Broadway. “It was our theatre, to put it in secular terms. With the pre-Vatican II church, everything was in Latin and everything felt very dramatic. Men and boys went around in the fanciest of clothes, and I just found it extraordinary.”
But he also came to appreciate the spiritual aspects of religion. “I had an interest in things that were unexplainable, and things other than what we perceive. You know, the beauty of creation and all that.”
After seminary training and a stint in Zambia, Lynch was sent to New York in 1975 to pursue graduate studies. It was here that he finally came to terms with his sexuality.
He contacted Dignity, a Catholic LGBT group, but was nervous about getting involved. “When I first joined, I didn’t tell anyone I was a priest or even give my second name,” he says. He only became more disillusioned with Catholic authorities when the Aids crisis took hold. Church leaders expressed little sympathy with the dying, and a Vatican spokesman went as far as to suggest Aids was a punishment for immoral behaviour.
At the height of the epidemic, the Archdiocese of New York opposed the passing of legislation banning discrimination against gay people in employment and housing.
“People with Aids were being fired and thrown out of their homes,” Lynch recalls. “Cardinal John O’Connor of New York did everything in his power to stop that legislation and was succeeding. Council members were told they wouldn’t get the Catholic vote if they voted for the bill. People said to me that if I testified in favour, as a priest, a lot of these Catholic members would take courage. I went to City Hall and testified, and it did finally pass — although not for that reason alone.”
The Archdiocese of New York refused to renew his licence to minister as a priest. He approached other bishops but was shut out. It was, he says, the end of his career in America.
In 1992, Lynch left for London, where he started working with an Aids counselling group. Treatment has improved since then, but he is conscious that stigma endures. He knows people in Ireland who still hide the cause of their loved one’s death. “There are families I can’t visit even today because it might draw attention,” he says. “The fear is that I’ll be recognised in their locality, and then the secret will be out.’”
It was in London that Lynch met his now husband, fellow Irishman Billy Desmond. In 2006, he became — it’s believed — the first Catholic priest to enter a civil partnership. The couple held their wedding in Co Clare in 2017, two years after the passing of the marriage equality referendum.
“To be able to come back and marry in my own home county was such a gift,” he says. “You know, we left home because we couldn’t stay, but there are people who stayed and have now given us a country to come home to. I really am so proud of Ireland.”
Lynch has remained a prominent activist, meeting such figures as President Mary Robinson and Elton John.
He remains deeply troubled by the church’s position on LGBT issues. As founder of a support group for gay clergy in London, he has met countless priests torn between their jobs and sexuality. “Things might be a bit softer under Pope Francis, but the teaching is still that we’re disordered in our nature and evil in our love. It’s a toxic teaching that does such damage to people. The church still won’t come out and say loud and clear that that teaching is wrong and that gay people are as much loved by God and accepted as straight people.”
Katherine McSharry, acting director of the National Library, describes the donation of Lynch’s archive as an important addition to its collections. Lynch’s papers provide insights into “important questions in our national life, including the nature of faith and organised religion, the taboos around sexuality and individual expression, and the impact the Aids crisis had on the LGBTI+ community”, she says.
There will be an event on Monday to mark the acquisition of the archive, after which it will be available for public consultation. Libraries in the US and UK had also expressed interest, but Lynch is pleased his papers have ended up in Dublin. “What this is doing, as I understand it, is bringing the diaspora home,” he says. “There were so many who left and then couldn’t come back when they were ill; who never saw their families again. All those nameless Irish people in the archive, who can’t be named even today, are in a sense now coming home. It’s about them, not me.”
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