SA Church a Good Samaritan on HIV/Aids
CATHOLIC RESPONSES TO AIDS IN SOUTHERN AFRICA, edited by Stuart C Bate OMI and Alison Munro OP. SACBC/Grace & Truth (2014). 330pp.
One summer afternoon at the bottom of a muddy road, in the shadow of a rusting mine shaft, I met a nun. She was standing, smiling, outside a house painted in warm colours. The smell of home-cooking lingered in the air, and in a vegetable patch lined with marigold flowers a man was digging with a garden fork.
The nun was Dominican Sister Sheila Flynn, whom I was there to interview about a project she had started for people with Aids.
Sr Flynn had convinced a bank to donate a vandalised house near the settlements of Langaville and KwaThema so that she and her assistants, locals from the settlements, could turn the property into a community that would not only care for people with aid, but also provide food and jobs.
The project, known as the Kopanang Community, was giving hope to people with Aids at a time when then-President Thabo Mbeki was denying the causes of the disease and the government was stalling on the roll-out of medication and treatment.
Soon after visiting Sr Flynn I heard of other nuns around Gauteng, some in their 80s, who were taking care of more than 150 women and children with Aids with no access to treatment.
I thought about Sr Flynn when I read Catholic Responses to AIDS in South Africa, a compilation of essays, expertly edited by Fr Stuart Bate OMI?and Sr Alison Munro OP, which gives a comprehensive overview of the Church’s action on HIV/Aids.
Even though it still causes considerable suffering for so many, Aids has become yesterday’s story. The topic is a hard sell to newspaper editors. Aids is done, they’ll tell you. The angle has to be unique before it will be considered for publication.
Despite the ongoing suffering, treatment for the disease has largely been rolled out and those in the health sector will tell you there are bigger priorities now, like obesity, diabetes and tuberculosis.
Recently, I interviewed a young woman in Cape Town who said quite confidently that she’d rather have Aids than cancer. You can treat Aids, she said, but cancer eats you and kills you slowly.
Despite this, I was transfixed by Catholic Responses to AIDS in South Africa, which includes among its contributors Bishop Kevin Dowling, Sr Munro, Ruth Stark and Marissa Wilke, Fr Raymond Mwangala OMI, Sr Susan Rakoczy IHM, Fr Charles Ryan SPS, Fr AE Orobator SJ, Br Philippe Denis OP, and more. It also includes a generous section of various papers issued on the subject.
In his chapter, Cardinal Wilfrid Napier recalls how in 1987, under the leadership of his predecessor Archbishop Dennis Hurley, the archdiocese of Durban took action after a warning from Fr Ted Rogers that the epidemic was not going away soon.
Fr Rogers had established an Aids programme in Zimbabwe at the start of the epidemic and he could already see its social impact on communities there and beyond.
While others were focused on the medical aspect, Fr Rogers was concerned about the social consequences of Aids.
Soon after hearing from Fr Rogers, Archbishop Hurley formed a group of experts to discuss what the Church should do. The approach adopted in the beginning was one of education and awareness, Cardinal Napier writes.
Archbishop Hurley’s committee set out the Church’s stance on HIV and Aids: To love and care for those infected and affected by HIV, who were being shunned, rejected and stigmatised, and to get people to take responsibility for their moral and sexual behaviour.
From the beginning, the Archdiocese of Durban preached the message of giving love and care and never judging.
A starting point for the Church was to educate people and parishes about the virus and its social impact and about the Church’s moral and practical teaching.
The book offers various perspectives on how the Catholic Church dealt with the disease, far beyond that shorthand issue of condoms. Clearly, there was never a single answer to the pandemic.
HIV kept challenging us all the time, writes Bishop Jose Luis Ponce de Leon.
We started burying young people every week. In 2001 half of the people who died in my parish were younger than I, and I was only 40 years old, the bishop, now of Manzini in Swaziland, recalls.
Catholic Responses to AIDS in South Africa, writes Bishop Ponce de Leon, is about a Church that never stops being the Good Samaritan.
It is about the thousands of people who like Sr Flynn, stood at the side of those suffering and generously and silently put their lives at the service of those who needed it most.
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