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Catholic AIDS meeting highlights pastoral care

The spiritual dimension of caring for people with HIV was highlighted during a pre-conference in Washington DC held for those involved in Catholic AIDS ministry.

About 80 people attended the Catholic pre-conference, which was held on 21 and 22 July at the Catholic University of America, before the week-long International AIDS Conference.

Among the reasons for holding a separate meeting for Catholics, Mgr Bob Vitillo, one of the meeting organisers, mentioned sharing “the Catholic teaching and values that motivate us in our work as well as lessons learned and challenges still to be faced by our Catholic Church-sponsored programmes.”

The Jesuits who attended on behalf of AJAN praised the event, describing it as “interesting”, “well planned” and, in the words of Fr Jean-Simon Ratsimbazafy SJ from Madagascar “enriching in the subjects broached as well as the quality of the discussions.”

One of the Jesuits representing AJAN, Fr Désiré Yamuremye SJ from Burundi, was impressed that the pre-conference actually “started by analysing the spiritual dimensions of the pandemic before going into issues like donor fatigue and the new challenges ahead”.

The AJAN Coordinator, Fr Paterne Mombé SJ, was one of three panellists in the first plenary session on faith, spirituality, and pastoral care in the midst of HIV was. Fr Mombé showed how the Jesuits have built on the heritage of their founder, St Ignatius of Loyola, to integrate prayer and Scripture readings in pastoral care for people with HIV.

Fr Mombé used the example of the disciples’ journey to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), when the risen Jesus joins them and listens to their deep sorrow, discouragement, disappointment and… faith crisis. “The listening presence is crucial here; maybe it is the first step of a healing process,” said Fr Mombé. “Sometimes, the role of the Church is just to be there and listen.”

Fr Ratsimbazafy said the talk showed how listening entailed a “discreet but effective presence” and that spiritual accompaniment had an important role to play alongside psychosocial, medical and other forms of support.

Another panellist in the plenary session on spirituality, Dr Christina Puchalski, also underlined the importance of a listening presence. Her intervention was about spirituality in clinical settings, a topic she is well qualified to talk about as Director of the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health in Washington DC. Dr Christina has pioneered effective strategies to address the spiritual concerns common in patients facing illness.

The third panellist, Fr Rick Bauer, is a Maryknoll priest who has worked in Namibia and Tanzania for many years. His talk centred on the care of caregiver. He used the image of the Transfiguration (Mt 17:1-13) to stress two key elements in the life of the caregiver, mysticism and mission: ‘mysticism’ as an illuminative phase whereby the disciple enters in communion with the Lord (with the temptation sometimes to remain there) and ‘mission’ as the call to go back to the world with its chaos to proclaim the good news.

The Jesuits representing AJAN were each struck by different aspects of the rest of the pre-conference. Fr Mombé singled out a presentation that compared a “person-centred response” to HIV with the global public health approach that tends to focus exclusively on risk reduction.

The AJAN Coordinator was also impressed by an insight that emerged when participants discussed the sustainability of Church-sponsored programmes – definitely a concern as funding is being flat-lined or sharply cut.

“Principles like doing more with less have been proposed. But two interveners stressed it does not work this way: the reality is, having to do less with less, and we should not allow this at such a crucial moment,” said Fr Mombé.

Pointers for more sustainable services included: diversification of partnership, collection of quality data to tell one’s stories, building strong organisations to deliver quality services, and a community-based approach; the last has also been highlighted as “most effective” by the just-released UNAIDS report – Together we will end AIDS.

For Fr Désiré, the “great recommendation” he took away from the pre-conference was the need of networking among Catholic organisations at country and regional level. “I think this is what the Society of Jesus in Africa has already done with AJAN,” he added. 

In the photo, AJAN Coordinator Paterne Mombe SJ, in the foreground, addresses the pre-conference, flanked by the other panelists of the spirituality session (Neshan Naltchayan).

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