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young Canadian Jesuit recently told his relatives and friends about
his upcoming ordination to the priesthood and asked, “In lieu of
gifts, I suggest that, for the occasion, a donation be made to the
African Jesuit Aids Network.” Why did he make this gesture? “It does
have an interesting genesis,” he explained briefly: “My background
in the arts, losing many close friends to AIDS, the meaning of my
Jesuit priesthood and a broadening awareness of today’s world.” He

name is Erik Oland. I am a Jesuit, a newly ordained priest who
happens to be a professional opera singer. During the 1980s and
1990s, prior to my entering the Society of Jesus, I came into direct
contact with the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Canadian arts community.
As a performing artist I travelled from city to city across Canada,
rehearsing and giving concerts. As a result I was forever hearing
about talented performers who were struggling with HIV/AIDS, and
then witnessing first-hand as it gradually weakened their immune
system and left them vulnerable to the multitude of illnesses that
would inevitably lead to their death. Those were sobering times —
Canada lost many talented and leading performers.

a deeper level, when close personal friends began to disclose that
they were HIV-positive, no longer able to keep up the pretence of
health and needing the support of friends, family and colleagues,
then the reality of the situation hit home. My prayer became “Why
have you forsaken them, O God?” It is no coincidence that, during
the same period, I began to rethink my own career and life choices.
This faith journey — a search for a deeper connection with God in
the face of what was happening — eventually led me to enter the
Jesuit order in 1994.

Today, nine years after entering religious life and now a newly
ordained a priest, my horizon has very much expanded. From the
relatively small and intimate world of the performing arts, Jesuit
formation has opened me up to a wider world including the disastrous
situation of AIDS in Africa. It is alarming that, while HIV/AIDS
treatment is progressing in Canada and other rich countries, this is
far from the case in Africa and other areas of the developing world.

the same time, when I look back to my experiences in the 1990s, I
remember with great consolation the kind of love and support that
existed within the close-knit arts community. I hold this memory in
high regard because it shows how people can join together to face a
crisis and, in turn, become an example to wider society by breaking
down barriers of discrimination and prejudice.

“All the world’s a stage,” William Shakespeare wrote, and while I no
longer perform in opera, the world is still a stage for me. In the
1980s through the 1990s and up to the present day, the HIV/AIDS
epidemic causes shock and disbelief around the globe. With many
others I believe that this shock and disbelief can be surmounted
through a lived hope and faith. Requesting donations to AJAN in lieu
of gifts for my ordination is both a memorial to many artistic
performers and friends who have died, and a gesture of hope that the
kind of solidarity that has been shown within the arts community in
Canada will spread to the wider world.”

Religion and Medicine: Foe or Friend?

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