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'If it infects one of us, it affects all of us'

Archbishop Wenski's homily at Mass for World AIDS Day 2013

Archbishop Thomas Wenski preached this homily at a Mass Dec. 1 at St. Mary Cathedral marking World AIDS Day.

Advent calls us to a renewed hope in God who keeps his promises. During these days and weeks we prepare to celebrate that promised fulfilled in the Birth of the Messiah. God keeps his word – as it were – by giving it to the world.

His word is a word of peace; his word is a word of justice, a word of mercy, a word of healing. His word is Jesus.

Today, of course, is the first Sunday of Advent. It is also December 1st which is also observed throughout the world as World AIDS Day. There are an estimated 54,000 people – men, women and children – in South Florida living with HIV/AIDS. So it would be no exaggeration to say that there are people in each one of our parishes who are living with HIV/AIDS. And there is no one here that does not know someone who is living with AIDS; and each one of us here has lost someone – a family member or friend – to HIV/AIDS disease. If it infects one of us, it affects all of us.

As we begin this Advent season which calls us to renewed hope because God draws near to each one of us through the Incarnation of the Word, that is, through God’s taking on our own flesh in the birth of the Son of God made man, we do well as the Church to express our solidarity with the world of those who have been affected or infected by the pandemic of HIV/AIDS. For both those affected and those infected need to hear God’s word of justice, of mercy, of healing.

Education continues to be the only effective “vaccine” to combat denial, ignorance and prejudice which places all people at risk. And the most effective education is education which respects the truth about man, his dignity and his eternal vocation. For this reason, while the Church is engaged in giving medical care, and in educating about the risk factors that expose one to this disease, she also must do so in a way which is coherent with the Gospel which she is to proclaim fearlessly in season and out of season. To fail to educate in a way coherent with the Gospel, not to witness to the truth about man and to demands that truth place on us, would be “to build on sand” and not a solid foundation.
Archbishop Thomas Wenski
In condemning what he calls the “globalization of indifference,” Pope Francis has spoken eloquently not only with words but with moving gestures of our responsibility to the poor and marginalized. In doing so, he stands in continuity with his predecessors. As Blessed John Paul II said:

“How can we exclude anyone from our care? Rather we must recognize Christ in the poorest and the most marginalized those whom the Eucharist – which is communion in the Body and Blood of Christ given up for us – commits us to serve. As the parable of the rich man, who will remain forever without a name, and the poor man called Lazarus clearly shows, ‘in the stark contrast between the insensitive rich man and the poor in need of everything, God is on the latter’s side.’ We too must be on this same side.”

Solidarity calls us to seek the face of Christ in the poor and the marginalized. Solidarity calls us to seek his face among those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. This is truly a pandemic affecting the entire world. Today there are an estimated 34 million people worldwide living with HIV/AIDS –some 3 million are children younger than 15 years of age. Especially hard hit are sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the Pacific, as well as communities of color in the United States and the Caribbean. Here in the US perhaps as many as one million people are living with HIV: half of them in the African American community and another 20 percent of them Hispanics.

Progress has been made – thanks to wider access to education and medication. The rate of HIV infections has dropped some 33 percent since 2001; and deaths have fallen 30 percent since their peak in 2005. One particular piece of good news is that Congress – in a rare show of bipartisanship – voted to reauthorize funding for PEPFAR (the President’s Emergency Plan for AIIDS Relief). PEPFAR – perhaps President George W. Bush’s greatest foreign policy achievement - has saved millions of lives by making available life-saving medicines to those infected in Africa and the Caribbean.

The Catholic Church has sought to serve those affected by HIV/AIDS – and has done so in many ways, especially through the Church’s network of health care providers. In Africa, in South America and the Caribbean, the Catholic Church is often the major player in providing medical assistance, shelter, and pastoral care to people living with HIV or left orphaned by the ravages of this disease. This is true also in the U.S.; and we Catholics in the U.S. support the efforts of the Church worldwide in combating the spread of HIV/AIDS and in ministering to those living with it through programs sponsored by our own Catholic Relief Services. And, here in the archdiocese, Catholic Charities’ AIDS ministry – in spite of limited resources – continues to provide care and pastoral services to those living with AIDS. Yet, we have a long way to go before we get to zero: zero infections, zero deaths.

Education continues to be the only effective “vaccine” to combat denial, ignorance and prejudice which places all people at risk. And the most effective education is education which respects the truth about man, his dignity and his eternal vocation. For this reason, while the Church is engaged in giving medical care, and in educating about the risk factors that expose one to this disease, she also must do so in a way which is coherent with the Gospel which she is to proclaim fearlessly in season and out of season. To fail to educate in a way coherent with the Gospel, not to witness to the truth about man and to demands that truth place on us, would be “to build on sand” and not a solid foundation.

Given the demographics of this pandemic, we can see that HIV/AIDS primarily affects people who are most vulnerable – due to discrimination, loneliness, poverty. In this Advent season, which speaks to us of waiting, waiting for the Lord who comes, we must as communities of faith respond to the “waiting” for care and compassion that face so many people today.

Today, on this World AIDS Day, during this first week of Advent, a time of anticipation and of hope, we pray in faith and hope that one day we will see the end of this pandemic. To quote Pope Francis, “Do not let yourself be robbed of hope! Do not let yourselves be robbed of hope!” And, he explains, “…hope is like embers under the ashes; let us help each other with solidarity, blowing on the ashes to rekindle the flame…hope carries us onwards.”

We pray for our families, we pray for our friends, we pray for our neighbors, conscious that as long as “it infects one of us… it affects all of us.” May this season of joyful expectation of the coming of our Lord inspire in all of us, the infected and the affected, renewed hope for a cure, renewed commitment to the care of one another, and continued solidarity with those who because of this disease feel especially alone or abandoned.

God keeps his promises. He has given us his Word. To those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS, God has shown that he is on their side. May we be too.

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