Learning To Be Church In The Time Of AIDS. 02/07/08

Kenya: From AJANews 69, July 2008

At a Theology Symposium on Ecclesial Witness in the Global World, held in March 2008 at Tangaza College, Kenya, Michael Czerny SJ, AJAN Coordinator, reviewed the experience of the faith community vis-à-vis AIDS.

Man no longer perceives properly, understands properly, desires properly, or acts properly. This lament from Bantu oral tradition, more than just a critique, can be seen as a call to action, to become, as Bernard Lonergan writes in Method in Theology, our true selves by observing the transcendental precepts: Be attentive, be intelligent, be reasonable and be responsible. Each precept takes us further, promoting us from mere experiencing towards understanding, from mere understanding towards truth and reality, from factual knowledge to responsible action. As we learn to be Church in the context of HIV and AIDS, our journey is an ever more exacting application of this mandate for authenticity.

1. Be attentive and show compassion
A leper came up to Jesus and pleaded on his knees: 'If you want to' he said, 'you can cure me.' Feeling sorry for him, Jesus said, 'Of course I want to!' and stretched out his hand and touched him and said, 'Be cured!' And the leprosy left him at once and he was cured (Mark 1:40-41). To touch is to draw near enough to pay attention and listen, not to keep at arm's length or even further. Drawing near, to see the human face of AIDS, without being too afraid of suffering and death, is to show compassion which heals. This We Teach and Do, the Kenya Catholic AIDS Policy, says: Let everything be done, not only with efficiency and professional competence, but also with the hands and mind and heart of Jesus - not just excellent, but clearly Christian.

2. Be intelligent and competent, and really learn to understand AIDS
AIDS is complex; it is not just medical, not just traditional culture, not just women's empowerment, and not just individual behaviour change. AIDS is not the only challenge in Africa, but it is a most serious one and, like a window, opens up on nearly all the others. This We Teach and Do gives a long list of powerful contributing factors, which make infection as well as the onset of AIDS more likely: First of all, grinding poverty throughout Africa, situations of injustice and, in many places, conflict and involuntary displacement. In order to understand HIV and AIDS, we add intelligence, competence and serious research to our opening attention and compassion.

3. Be reasonable, including the good!
Church teaching urges men and women to treat each other as sons and daughters of God. It is not the risk of HIV, which makes sexual licence immoral; the Church does not teach a different sexual morality when or where AIDS poses no danger. But this teaching is not easy for the world to accept. The Church encourages everyone to live an integral sexuality, which means behaving responsibly. All those involved in the Church's ministry - pastorally, in education and in healthcare - should help people to develop a well-formed conscience. This includes the Church's moral teaching as well as solid information about HIV and AIDS.

4. Be responsible and serve
The Church has been responding practically since the beginning. Usually those who first take up the challenge are prophetic, heroic, but gradually the ministry is mainstreamed. Note the process: HIV-and-AIDS-work begins way beyond the pastoral edge; then the Church slowly expands her frontiers, bringing outside issues in and making them her own, in the heart of parish ministries and the commitment of her Bishops. What was out is now in, but slowly.

The Church needs to do more in two senses: first, what she is already doing well needs to be multiplied; secondly, more creative, focused and sustainable responses need to be developed. As we face and fight AIDS, we are becoming the Church which Christ calls us to be. In the words of Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, Archbishop of Westminster visiting Zimbabwe: It is when caring for the poor, sick and most vulnerable to bring them hope that the Church is at her finest.

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