The Church and AIDS (August 2006)

August 2006



Many readers will know already of my love for Africa and my particular concern about the ravages caused by HIV and AIDS on that continent. More than 40 million people are infected worldwide, mostly in Africa.

I have just retuned from the International AIDS Conference in Toronto with my heart and mind filled with impressions, ideas and new concerns. Here, I would like to reflect on a particular set of ideas that crystallized in my mind while I was there.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus shocks his disciples by saying, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” But Christ is not only talking about the Eucharist: there is clearly something even more challenging to the verse, and their response confirms it: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

Indeed, we’re told, “many of his disciples turned back, and no longer went about with him.”

But it doesn’t end there. Jesus, seeing into the fragile heart of his disciples, asks those who stayed, “Do you also wish to go away?” I love Peter’s response. He says, perhaps even with reluctance, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

We are very familiar with Jesus’ self-emptying love. But, if we think about that carefully for any length of time, we become troubled by the challenge that it represents. Usually, we dismiss it by saying that this was his mission, not ours. Ours is simply to love and adore him and to share in his mission by eating his flesh and drinking his blood in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Then, we go home and forget about it for a while.

Who can blame us? This teaching is too hard. If we were to believe that Jesus was modelling what it means to be fully human, it would be impossible for us to follow in his footsteps. Or would it? The truth is that it would be impossible without grace. But the very purpose of the Holy Eucharist is to grant us that grace.

So back to the AIDS Conference. What set of ideas emerged that are relevant to this Gospel? I came away with a more profound understanding of the foundations of Christian giving.

The first thing that happens to us as Christians when our hearts are touched with compassion for the poor, the marginalized and the suffering is to act in charity. We allow ourselves to become instruments of God’s love by giving generously to a particular cause or project. That’s a beautiful thing. These are moments of real holiness. In them, we find consolation from the Lord who is well pleased.

With time and attention to what we’re doing and why, we develop something more: a spirituality of giving. Here, we become engaged in an encounter with the other, in a sudden realization of the presence of God in the rejected or the destitute, as in an Epiphany. We might be shocked to find this presence in our neighbour nearby, or our brothers and sisters in Christ in some remote place half way around the world.

This is what I came to realize in Toronto: full participation in Jesus’ Holy Eucharist makes giving of ourselves an integral part of what it means to be a Christian disciple. This is the true theology of our being One Body, broken and shared in an authentically holy communion.

Our giving then is no longer random but systematic. It’s not even about money or material but begins to respond to an invitation to move beyond pity, and even beyond compassion into the realm of solidarity with each human being made in God’s image, near or far.

It’s the theology of the cross which brings us into solidarity with the suffering. It’s an understanding of the cross and of the Eucharist which celebrates its victory by condemning and exposing power games and violence. It’s a presentation of the cross as the embrace of the other in love, even in their differences. Finally, it’s an understating of the cross as the extension of forgiveness and healing to us. It is a graced empowering to participate in our own salvation through what we do for others.

And there’s more, much more.

A true theology of love, which is the purpose of the Eucharist and the cross, rests on twin foundations. Charity is one, but it cannot stand alone. It must also be about justice. Love of neighbour, as Christ taught, calls us to actively oppose discrimination, marginalization and the systemic roots of poverty.

A true theology of Christ-centred love, for which the cross is the ultimate symbol, calls us to help build up the foundations of sustainable lives through education, health and fair trade policies.

There is a broad understanding among the world’s faith communities that love of neighbour invites each one of us to call on our government to cancel the debt owed by countries with above-average HIV rates; to increase contributions to the Global Fund for AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis; and to set a timetable for reaching the foreign aid standard of 0.7% of our country’s Gross national Product by the year 2015.

A true theology of love also reminds us that if we are One Body, as Saint Paul told the Corinthians, our joy is one joy and our suffering is shared by all. When the least of God’s children suffer, we all suffer, whether we know it or not. Things are connected more than we realize.

At the conference, I heard an expression that seared itself onto my heart: “The church has AIDS.” That’s right, the church has AIDS. That’s a very profound statement because it says not only that we’re all affected in some way or other but that our inability to demonstrate to the world that the church is the principal agent of God’s compassion, healing and love speaks volumes about the brokenness of Christ’s body and about the unconverted parts of the human heart.

The effects of AIDS go way beyond matters of health. It profoundly alters lives, families and communities. And, because we haven’t seen the worst of it yet, AIDS is in the process of destabilizing our world and may ultimately pose a challenge to peace and security more than the forms of terrorism that now preoccupy so many of the world’s leaders.
The issues that prevent us from dealing with AIDS around the world, as one body, are the same ones that prevent us from being one family under God because of bad theology, exclusion or – worse yet – indifference.

AIDS is not from God; it is not God’s punishment upon individuals – whether guilty or innocent of blame. Conversely, nor is the notion of sin, personal or social, irrelevant because AIDS is indeed a challenge to the people of God and a call to conversion.
Saint Francis of Assisi’s conversion began the moment he came down from his horse and embraced a leper; something that had previously filled him with fear and disgust, he now said filled him with sweetness and joy.

How similar is the opportunity that now stands before Christians of all traditions and all places! What has until now filled us with dread can be the cause of abundant grace, perfect joy and fullness of life as only Jesus can give.

Legend tells us that when Saint Francis got back on his horse, he looked back. The leper to whom he had given money – and had also kissed – had disappeared. We assume that it was Jesus.

Jesus is with us today, in the Eucharist, in our community, but most especially in the poor, the marginalized and the suffering.

My friends, each one of us is called by them in the name of Jesus to charity, to justice, and ultimately to conversion. We’re all called to love them as Jesus always has.

Why? Because God loves us. Watch him at work in the midst of darkness. Taste and see the goodness of his love. He wants more for us that we dare even dream. If the church has AIDS, let’s pray for healing. Let’s pray for understanding and courage not to just watch Jesus from a distance but to follow him — even to uncomfortable places.

As Saint Paul urged the Ephesians, “Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”