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30 years of conversion

How has the Catholic Church responded to HIV in the 30 years since the discovery of HIV? This was the question for a three-day conference, held at St Joseph’s Theological Institute, Cedara, South Africa, 20-22 January 2013, and organized in collaboration with the AIDS Office of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

Before the conference focused on Southern Africa, Fr Michael Czerny SJ considered the question at the global level, and Fr Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator Emmanuel SJ provided a general African perspective.

The response to AIDS worldwide and in Africa shows how the Church has learned to be embracing, her arms stretched wide in welcome. After some initial fear and denial and overly judgmental tendencies, these have been 30 years of conversion in discerning and discovering how to implement Gospel-inspired responses to the challenges of HIV/AIDS. Sisters have led the way and women done much of the ministry bringing the comforting and healing hands of Christ to touch people living with HIV or affected by AIDS.

Both speakers retold stories of compassion, creativity and courage. They underlined that it is the Church as people of God who are the first subjects in being infected, in being affected, in responding. The essence, the core, the rule that guides this response is the supreme dignity of every person, be they dead and gone ahead, or living now, or yet to be born. Those who have been ministered-to, in turn learned to minister to others in need. Those who were “as good as dead” and helped to rise again, in turn shared their new life with others struggling to survive. A major focus has been to prevent the transmission of HIV from parents to their yet-to-be-born children, and to accompany orphans and orphan-headed households. Spirituality animates all we do as Church, from simple gestures to organized ministries: our faith provides inner strength to do for others as Christ has done for us.

Several types of response were identified: existing ministries typical of the Church (hospitals, clinics, schools, parishes) reached out and expanded, while new ministries were launched and developed. Responses have included documentation, research, theological reflection based on experience, developing spirituality and media outreach.

In Africa, much of this production was furthered by AJAN since 2002, and the recent conference at St Joseph's is another important step in historical and theological research. At the international level, the principal umbrella for Catholic responses has been Caritas Internationalis, and for nearly 30 years no one has done more to make sure that the Church responds evangelically and effectively than Msgr Robert Vitillo.

Unlike many other helping organizations, the Church did not need to "come to help". Instead, God's people can gratefully testify, “The Church was already with us before AIDS. The Church is generously with us now during AIDS, and the Church will surely be with us after AIDS."

All this has not gone unnoticed. In 2009 the Executive Director of UNAIDS, Michel Sidibé, testified glowingly: “The Church’s uncompromising position on the need for social justice -- to do what is right -- and on the inherent dignity of individuals, inspires us to champion for universal access to comprehensive HIV prevention, treatment, care and support as a moral imperative” and he affirmed: “My friends, we in the AIDS movement look to the Church for leadership.”

How has the Catholic Church responded to HIV throughout the world in the thirty years since the discovery of HIV? She has shown herself to be Church as Mother and Church as Teacher and Church as Learner. Thanks be to God!