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AIDS diagnosis helps priest to understand

In early 1989, the Rev. Dennis Rausch was thinking about leaving the priesthood.

Though ordained for nearly a decade and serving as Catholic chaplain at a Florida university, Rausch felt unfulfilled.

"I didn't know what I wanted to do," he 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 seven 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 powerful new drugs have helped create a new class of priests _ those living with HIV and AIDS.

Born in North Dakota and raised in Montana, Dennis Rausch had yearned to be a priest. He was ordained 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. 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, 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.

"He was great," Rausch said. "I was kind of surprised."

Having AIDS has allowed Rausch 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.

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."

Rausch takes about 17 pills a day _ a mix of AIDS drugs and vitamins. His health is relatively good, but there are bad 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 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.