“Who is my neighbor?”
A Pastoral Letter on AIDS
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with your entire mind; and, Love your neighbour as yourself.”
Our dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ:
In 1993, the CBCP released a Pastoral Letter on AIDS entitled “In the Compassion of Jesus” inviting the whole Church to a loving ministry of service and care for the sick and in solidarity with those living and affected by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus or HIV and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome or AIDS. Eighteen years have passed and we do not see any respite from the growing epidemic and no cure is available yet.
In the 2010 UNAIDS report, the Philippines was one of seven nations in the world which reported a 25 percent increase in new HIV infections between 2001 and 2009. The Department of Health warns that if the trend continues, we will be witnessing 9,000 new infections per year in the next 5 years!
What is fueling the spread of the HIV epidemic?
Pervasive stigma associated with HIV and AIDS is recognized as a major barrier to an effective response in stopping the spread of the virus. Stigma prevents people from talking about HIV and the behaviors that put them at risk for infection with this virus, and from seeking counsel and health services when such action could help them learn how to protect themselves and their families from HIV infection. Thus, it makes HIV a silent and thriving killer.
Such actions drive people in the margins, until they cut themselves off from the life of the Church, at a time when they need most its counsel and compassion. These are the people Jesus sought after and ministered to in his time. Unfortunately, HIV-related stigma and discrimination exists in every corner of society, in all cultures, and even in our own faith communities.
Today it is imperative to rise above our HIV and AIDS-related prejudices and biases, and ponder “Who is my neighbour?” In the Gospels, it was the Samaritan who made himself a neighbour to the wounded without prejudice. We are called to do the same: every Christian must reach out to members of our families and society who may be at risk of the virus and offer them compassionate understanding and the support they need.
It is urgent, therefore, that we recall our 1993 Pastoral Letter and, based on this teaching, we propose some concrete actions in our parishes and communities:
1) Every local parish must establish itself as a privileged place where education about HIV and AIDS is disseminated and persons most vulnerable to the virus or living with or affected by the virus receive Jesus’ healing love through the physical, emotional and spiritual support of the members.
2) Church workers, seminarians and the clergy must be equipped with basic knowledge about HIV & AIDS and complementary pastoral counseling skills in order to bring hope, healing and reconciliation to those vulnerable to the virus, those infected and affected by HIV, through the sacraments and pastoral care.
3) Behaviors that can make people more vulnerable to HIV infections are shaped by several factors: poverty, violence against women, ignorance, inequality between women and men, peer pressure, corruption of family values, and displacement due to war, civil conflict and calamities, among others. As such, an effective response to HIV requires a realistic and comprehensive response to these deeper social issues thru the Church various advocacies for gospel justice.
4) Parents and educators need to teach, by their word and example, the dignity of the human person, the beauty and sacredness of human love anchored on God’s love. Chastity and monogamous fidelity are the best protection from HIV and AIDS.
5) Voluntary, confidential counseling and testing should be encouraged especially for those who engaged in sexual behavior that placed them at risk of infection, inject drugs or received unscreened blood. It is their moral responsibility to prevent further transmission of the virus to their spouse and eventually to their children.
6) The government must ensure full protection of the human rights and civil liberties of persons living with HIV and AIDS. Basic health and social services must include steady supply of antiretroviral drugs, the life-extending treatment for persons living with HIV and AIDS.
The credibility of our witness as followers of Christ lies on our ability to demonstrate how much we love God by loving our neighbour. St. John warns us, “If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.” (1John 4:20)
We commend our church workers engaged in ministries on HIV and AIDS and, with them, we call on the rest of the flock to be in solidarity with those living with and affected by HIV and AIDS. They are our sisters and brothers. They are our neighbors. They are the human face of Jesus in our modern time. To love them is to love God.
For and in the name of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines,
+Most Rev. Nereo P. Odchimar, D.D.
Bishop, Diocese of Tandag