Florida priest finds acceptance, fulfillment after devastating news
By JUDY L. THOMAS - The Kansas City Star
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- In early 1989, the Rev. Dennis Rausch was thinking about leaving the priesthood.
"I didn't know what I wanted to do," the Fort Lauderdale priest said. "A lot of things had changed, and I was kind of searching for an angle on my ministry and of being a priest."
Then he tested positive for HIV.
"After about a year ... I slapped myself across the face and said, 'Dennis, you're healthy. You're probably going to be healthy for a long time, so you'd better figure out what you're going to do with your life.' "
For the last 7 1/2 years, Rausch has run the Catholic Charities HIV/AIDS ministry program in the Archdiocese of Miami.
An HIV diagnosis used to be a death sentence, but that's not always the case today. Powerful new drugs have helped create a new class of priests -- those living with HIV and AIDS.
I I I
Born in North Dakota and raised in Montana, Dennis Rausch had yearned to be a priest since he was a young boy. He was ordained a Divine Word Missionary in 1980.
In 1986, Rausch moved to South Florida and eventually became Catholic chaplain at Florida International University in North Miami. It was there that he began counseling and ministering to people with HIV and AIDS.
In February 1989, Rausch decided he should get an HIV test himself. He waited nearly three weeks for the devastating results.
"The first year was really difficult," said Rausch, 47. "I went through anger at myself for being so stupid. You wonder, 'Am I going to get sick and die? How long am I going to be around? What if the bishop finds out? Is he going to ship me off? And if people find out, what are they going to do?'
"Just tons of questions, and lots of fear."
He kept his illness a secret for several years.
During that time, Rausch said, the families of some of his AIDS clients encouraged him to go into AIDS ministry full time. He went to his archbishop with the idea, still not revealing that he had AIDS.
"And he said, 'I've been praying for somebody,' " Rausch said. "So it was a prayer answered."
In July 1992, Rausch left campus ministry and became HIV/AIDS Ministry Program Director for Catholic Charities.
He supervises a "care team" program that groups AIDS clients with two or three volunteers. Rausch also counsels about six clients a week, fills in as pastor in the Fort Lauderdale area and runs the Florida Catholic AIDS Network.
About two years after he founded the AIDS ministry, Rausch told his archbishop that he had AIDS.
"I asked for a meeting with him, and he was great," Rausch said. "I was kind of surprised."
Having AIDS, Rausch said, has allowed him to be more understanding.
"It has helped a lot to be able to identify with my clients, to know first-hand what it's like to go through that and then to live with this disease day in and day out, take the pills, get sick, get better, have bad days, have good days," he said.
Rausch has told members of a few parishes that he has AIDS. It took him a long time, however, to build up the courage. He feared others would reject him.
But the response of his parishioners, Rausch said, has been compassionate. And after telling them, he said with a chuckle, "nobody changed lanes" during communion.
"My line was as long as anybody else's. All my fears were just unfounded."
The people Rausch counsels are also supportive.
"When I found out Dennis was (HIV) positive, it kind of blew my mind," said Raymond H. Brouillette at a recent holiday gathering for AIDS clients and volunteers. "At first, I had a hard time believing it, because he's a priest."
But now, Brouillette said, "he's like my hero."
"He's taught me a lot. He's always busy ministering to someone, and I know I can always call him."
I I I
Rausch now takes about 17 pills a day -- a mixture of AIDS drugs and vitamins. His health is relatively good, but there still are difficult days.
"About six weeks ago, I was really not feeling well, and I had two Masses in a row," he said. "After I finished my homily, I said, 'I need to sit down. And I feel I owe you an explanation of what's going on, because a lot of you probably don't know I'm HIV-positive. I have some good days, and I have some bad days. And today just happens to be a bad day.' "
Afterward, he said, "people sent me cards and told me to take care of myself."
Rausch, who has lost several friends _ two of whom were priests _ to AIDS, said he plans to work in AIDS ministry as long as he can. And he wants other priests with AIDS to know there is hope.
"For guys who are struggling with this disease or struggling with being gay or both, you have to pray, you have to stay close to the Lord," he said.
"You can survive as a priest with AIDS. Your life hasn't ended. It's just taken another corner. There's so much that, as you continue to deal with it, you can do for others."
Strange at it may sound, Rausch said, AIDS saved him in many ways.
"It saved my life, it saved my priesthood," he said. "It gave me goals and direction. I really have come to the point where this disease is a blessing."
The most fulfilling part of his ministry, Rausch said, is helping terminally ill people deal with death.
"To see that sense of peace, that to me is what my ministry is about," he said. "I couldn't do anything better with my life than that."