01 Dec Minister General’s World AIDS Day Message 2017
Each year, on 1 December 2017, public health officials, medical doctors and nurses, scientists, social workers, activists, and many others in the global human family, but most especially those women, men, and children living with or affected by HIV and AIDS, pauses, even for a few moments, to reflect on the experience of this pandemic disease that has taken the lives of countless millions of persons since it was first noticed in 1980 and to renew their hope that one day we will have an effective preventive vaccine or a cure for those already infected.
On this World AIDS Day 2017, we can share the “good news” of much progress made in providing life-saving medicines to treat this disease to many millions of people who otherwise would not be alive today. Take, for example, the situation in South Africa, where, for many years, our Friars have been providing medical, social, emotional, and pastoral care to people living with HIV in Boksburg (Johannesburg). In the year 2000, the public health experts reported scientific evidence that treatment with combination treatment with at least three types of anti-retroviral medications prolonged the lives of people living with AIDS and offered them a significant improvement in their quality of life, only 90 South Africans had access to such treatment. On this World AIDS Day, there are more than 6 million such persons being treated in South Africa and, throughout the world, international agencies, governments, private industry, and churches and other faith-based organizations are collaborating to provide affordable and accessible treatment to almost 21 million people living with this disease. This achievement has avoided the tragic consequences of AIDS and prevented new HIV infections among millions of people.
You may be asking yourselves why we continue to observe World AIDS Day if there is only good news to report. The reality is, however, that our journey is far from completed. Some 20 million people living with HIV, including 1.8 million children, still lack access to treatment. During this year, new infections in Eastern Europe and Central Asia increased by 60% and AIDS-related deaths increased by 27%. But perhaps of greatest concern is that people living with HIV still report frequent experiences of discrimination and stigmatization, by health care professionals and even from members of their families and local communities, including our Catholic and Christian communities of faith.
This last fact should cause each of us Friars to question our own reactions toward those living with or affected by HIV. Do we embrace them wholeheartedly and without fear or prejudice? Or do we avoid them, blame them for contracting the virus, gossip about them, and set limits on the compassion that we offer to these our brothers and sisters? Such thoughts make me recall the life-changing experience of our Holy Founder, Francis, who, we are told by Thomas of Celano in his First Life of Saint Francis, harbored a profound fear of lepers. It was only by the grace of God that he was led to embrace and kiss the wounds of lepers and later to live among them caring for their physical, spiritual, and social needs. Even as he washed and bandaged their wounds, he experienced the power of their love for him, their care, which led to a healing and conversion in his life. “It is in giving that we receive!”
Leprosy is not the same as HIV infection, but the marginalization experienced by both groups of affected people is similarly hurtful and contrary to their God-given human dignity. Thomas of Celano tells us that, through his profound experiences of interaction with lepers, with those perceived by others as the “poorest of the poor”, Francis “… therefore resolved in his heart never in the future to refuse any one, if at all possible, who asked for the love of God. This he most diligently did and carried out, until he sacrificed himself entirely and in every way; and thus he became first a practicer before he became a teacher of the evangelical counsel: To him who asks of thee, he said, give; and from him who would borrow of thee, do not turn away.”
My dear Brothers, let us follow in the footsteps of Christ and St. Francis as we observe with pray and with loving acts this World AIDS Day.
Rome, December 1, 2017
Br. Michael A. Perry, OFM
Minister General and Servant