May the Lord give you peace!
On this World AIDS Day 2014, many leaders of governments and of international agencies will release messages and strategies aimed at effective action to bring an eventual end to this terrible disease that has caused untold suffering and early death to too many millions of people in every part of the world. The “good news” is that past efforts have begun to meet with success. In fact, experts reported recently that, worldwide, since 2001, new infections with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, has declined by almost 40% and the number of AIDS-related deaths has declined since 2005.
Thus, on the occasion of World AIDS Day 2014, the United Nations has launched a new plan to promote HIV testing so that, by the year 2020, at least 90% of those living with HIV will know they are infected with this virus. Of these, at least 90% of HIV-infected people will be able to receive treatment with combination medicines. And, of those taking such medicines, 90% will have a significantly lower level of virus in their blood and body fluids, which will make it less likely for them to transmit the virus to others. Above all, the UN insists that the global human family must eliminate all stigma and discrimination toward people living with or affected by HIV since prejudice is an affront to their human dignity and simply causes those at risk for this infection to become more secretive about their behaviour and to hide from testing and treatment. (Ibid.)
We Franciscans are called to continue our efforts in three important areas related to the fight against this pandemic. First, we offer our commitment of prayer for all people who are living with or affected by HIV and AIDS. Prayer is an important tool in the fight since it transforms hearts, bringing our brothers and sisters closer to us, thus reducing stigma. Second, we must continue to offer our services through health care centers, pastoral care of those who are ill, and make of our fraternities, parishes and structures centers of spiritual and human hospitality. And third, we must support the efforts of the international community in its planning, insofar as the recommended actions are in conformity with Catholic Church teaching and our Franciscan values. All of our efforts must reflect our unique Franciscan charism of minoritas and fraternitas, to be “lesser” (minor) and to be “brother” to all. It is in that very same spirit that we Franciscans can strengthen the worldwide response to AIDS.
For many of us the intricacies of medical technology or treatment of HIV are beyond our knowledge or experience. Yet we know well the journey of the heart and soul which we ourselves learn by following in the footsteps of Francis, and we can share that journey with millions living with or affected by HIV and AIDS.
In this same vein, I believe that it was not simply coincidental, but rather in full keeping with the name that he took upon his election as Pope, that, when our Holy Father Francis addressed the European Parliament, he called little attention to his office as Sovereign Head of Vatican City State, but rather presented himself “… as a pastor, to offer a message of hope and encouragement to all the citizens of Europe. (Address of Pope Francis to the European Parliament, Strasbourg, France, 25 November 2014) In that address, Pope Francis called upon all in the human family to respect “transcendent human dignity” of each and every human person, which means “means appealing to human nature, to our innate capacity to distinguish good from evil, to that ‘compass’ deep within our hearts, which God has impressed upon all creation.” He also shared his deep concern that, when we resort to an almost exclusive emphasis on technology, “[m]en and women risk being reduced to mere cogs in a machine that treats them as items of consumption to be exploited, with the result that – as is so tragically apparent – whenever a human life no longer proves useful for that machine, it is discarded with few qualms, as in the case of the sick, of the terminally ill, the elderly who are abandoned and uncared for, and children who are killed in the womb. (Ibid.)” This reflects a truly ‘Franciscan’ vision of the human person!
On this World AIDS Day 2014, as we Franciscans ponder what we could contribute to the continuing global response to this epidemic, I pray that our reflections will flow from our gift of minoritas. Can we help to restore to those living with or affected by HIV a sense of their “transcendent human dignity” by which they are accorded inalienable rights as persons made in the image and likeness of God? Can we urge all people to live, not as individual islands, but as loving, caring, and responsible members of families and of society as a whole, all striving for the common good? Can we address more than the physical and emotional needs of persons whose lives have been touched by HIV disease by attending, with equal energy and commitment, to their spiritual needs? Can we challenge others – and ourselves – to overcome prejudice or blame toward those living with or affected by HIV and to welcome them fully into our communities of fraternity, service, and worship?
If we Franciscans can respond to AIDS in this “lesser” way, we may one day be able to say, as did St. Francis did at the time of his death, “I have done my duty; may Christ now teach you yours.”
1 December 2014
Fr. Michael A. Perry