A Catholic Reflection on HIV/AIDS and the Call to Love

As Catholics, we need only follow our faith and the conscience that guides it, to realize that World AIDS Day is an opportunity, and a call, for us to exercise faith in action.
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The statue of Christ the Redeemer, atop Corcovado Hill, is lit in red to commemorate World AIDS Day on December 1, 2011 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. AFP PHOTO/ANTONIO SCORZA (Photo credit should read ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP/Getty Images)
The statue of Christ the Redeemer, atop Corcovado Hill, is lit in red to commemorate World AIDS Day on December 1, 2011 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. AFP PHOTO/ANTONIO SCORZA (Photo credit should read ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP/Getty Images)

These remarks were originally prepared and presented as a keynote address for the World AIDS Day service on Dec. 1 at St. Augustine's Roman Catholic Church in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Thank you, Fr. Tom for your thoughtful introduction, and a special thank you to the The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Straight Ministry of St. Augustine Church, the Rainbow Ministry of Immaculate Heart of Mary, and the Friends of Social Justice at St. Francis Xavier. I am truly grateful and humbled by your invitation to join you this evening.

This evening we have gathered to celebrate the lives of friends and family while seeking to also raise awareness regarding HIV/AIDS. Tonight, offers a moment for us to pause and reflect on the essence of Catholic social teaching and how it guides our hearts to be sources of compassion for each other.

In his landmark encyclical, Pacem in Terris, Peace on Earth, Blessed John XXIII eloquently wrote...

Finally, may Christ inflame the desires of all men to break through the barriers which divide them, to strengthen the bonds of mutual love, to learn to understand one another, and to pardon those who have done them wrong. Through His power and inspiration may all peoples welcome each other to their hearts as brothers, and may the peace they long for ever flower and ever reign among them.

Standing at the threshold of a new era of faith it was these prophetic words that called upon the Church to speak to the world with a renewed sense of purpose aimed toward achieving the peace that Christ promised. This evening, we stand at a similar juncture in the history of the Church; we stand at a place that calls upon us to reflect on the meaning of faith and what we are called to do as a people of the Gospel.

Earlier this year, I reflected on the stories of the Canaanite woman and the tax collector Zacchaeus to gain a deeper appreciation and understanding of what it means to be viewed as an "outcast" or different. What I realized in these moments of reflection was that I am the Samaritan woman and I am the tax collector.

Just as the disciples urged Jesus to send the Canaanite woman away and the residents of Jericho accused Jesus of staying at the house "of a sinner," so too today do those of us who are marginalized feel the look of judgment. Yet, amid this reality Catholic social teaching guided by the prophetic words of forward-thinking Church documents remind us of the Christian call to justice in furtherance of the liberation of humanity. One such document is Justitia in Mundo, Justice in the World, which states: "By his action and teaching Christ united in an indivisible way the relationship of people to God and the relationship of people to each other. Christ lived his life in the world as a total giving of himself to God for the salvation and liberation of people." Through our experience of being the outcast, the different, and the marginalized, we come not only to witness the Gospel's message of inclusion, but also to see the face of Christ in a way that truly allows us to understand his very essence. Christ is Peace. Christ is Love. Christ is our Liberator.

These concepts of peace, love and liberation are not foreign to the Catholic experience, but rather define the very essence of our faith. These teachings guide us as we respond to poverty, warfare, LGBT inequality, racism, HIV/AIDS and other issues related to social justice. As Catholics we cannot turn a blind eye to the realities of our world, and more importantly, to the fact that these issues are impacting the lives of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Peace and love are not merely words, they are a way of life; a practice of faith in action that allows others to meet Christ through our very being. In fact, the words from the first book of Samuel remind us that it is through our acts of love that God comes to know each of us:

But the LORD said to Samuel: Do not judge from his appearance or from his lofty stature, because I have rejected him. God does not see as a mortal, who sees the appearance. The LORD looks into the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7)

Tonight, as we gather to memorialize the lives of friends and family, while also raising awareness about the importance of effective treatment and prevention for HIV/AIDS, it is Catholic social teaching that guides our conscience as we unite our hearts in prayer. The issue of access to treatment and medically supported prevention are issues of justice in our world today. It is for this reason that Catholics must stand in solidarity with people living with HIV/AIDS. We must as a community of faith be Christ to each other and, in turn, bearers of justice and peace not only for our world, but perhaps most importantly within our own hearts.

This is precisely the message that was proclaimed by the Second Vatican Council in their pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes. In unequivocal language, the Council Fathers professed the dignity of the human person. This is made particularly clear in the document's emphasis that every individual has been created in the imago dei -- the image and likeness of God. It is this common likeness, not a likeness defined by physical trait, but rather by the spiritual essence of who we are as children of God that unites us even amid worldly differences.

Hence this spiritual identity should aid all of us in accepting our moral obligation to demand equitable access to antiretroviral medications here in the United States and throughout the developing world. Just as Christ went to the home of Zaccaheus, witnessed the great faith of the Canaanite woman, and sat beside the Samaritan woman at the well, so too are we called not only to see ourselves in these biblical figures, but we are also called to be hope for one another just as Christ was hope for them.

This is particularly relevant to our global community as we recognize today, Dec. 1, as World AIDS Day. Today, discrimination based on real or perceived HIV status continues to serve as a barrier for millions of people around the world. The existence of such discrimination is antithetical to Christ's message of compassion and should guide our hearts to stand with those who suffer injustice due to fear. Just as the old axiom states: "Fear knocked, faith answered, and no one was there." The question is, will we and will our leaders -- both spiritual and secular -- open the door to see that now is the time to respond to this epidemic with open hearts and charitable embrace?

If we truly profess to be a people of the Gospel, then the only answer to this question is YES.

Yes, I am prepared to open the door and speak out against discrimination, and, yes, I am prepared to stand in solidarity with people living with HIV/AIDS. We must profess a unity that is rooted in the meaning of being created in the image of God, because no child of our Creator should be subjected to stigma or discrimination. Such discrimination is contrary to the meaning of being human and to the dignity that is inherent in the essence of every person.

As we respond "yes" we become living witnesses to the Gospel's message of inclusion and to the love that defined Christ's ministry.

Today, more than 1 million Americans are living with HIV/AIDS. As communities of faith we have a moral obligation to lead by serving as examples of compassion and bearers of great love as we respond to an epidemic that has claimed the lives of far too many friends and loved ones. As we join together this evening at St. Augustine's, take a moment to look around.... Love surrounds us. It is through moments such as this, that Church leaders encounter our lived experience and through these experiences discover an embodied theology that embraces the human experience.

As we go forth from this sacred place tonight, let us remember that the sacred is not limited to the walls we currently find ourselves within, but rather the sacred is as vast as our love for one another. Therefore, we must carry the sacred with us wherever we go so as to constantly bear witness to the Gospel's message of inclusion and to our faith's great love and compassion. Through this simple action, we will not only be prophets to each other, but we will also be working with the hands and heart of Christ.

This evening, we stand at the threshold of the door. This evening, we stand at one of those moments in history when peace prevails. Tonight, we look at each other and discover anew the face of Christ. As we look into the eyes of those we love and long for the eyes of those we love who have found eternal rest, let us take great comfort in the compassionate arms of Christ; however, let us also offer our open hearts and arms to each other as a living expression of Christ's own love.

As Catholics, we need only follow our faith and the conscience that guides it, to realize that World AIDS Day is an opportunity, and a call, for us to exercise faith in action. As you look into the eyes of Christ tonight, do so realizing that Christ not only looked, but touched, not only prayed, but knelt, and not only stood alongside, but embraced and loved those he encountered. This is our call: embrace and love -- by doing so you may be the only Christ someone meets.

By this action, may Christ help us to overcome those barriers that divide us, so that we may discover the ultimate source of our unity: peace and love through Christ.

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