Mgr Seamus O'Boyle, Vicar General of Westminster Archdiocese, gave the following homily last night at the World AIDS Mass in the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption and St Gregory, Warwick Street, Soho, London Homily for First Sunday of Advent � World AIDS Day 2.xii.2007 In the early 90's I, no doubt like some of you, saw a friend of mine fade away to a skeleton and later die in the clinical calm of the Mildmay Hospital. With great black humour he would joke about his 'vanishing cream' actually working! At that time I learned quite a bit about opportunistic infections: PCP, cryptosporidiosis, Kaposi lesions. He was from an Irish Catholic family � very Catholic actually, with priests and at least one nun in the clan. For hat older generation it was easier to say that this young man had died of cancer. A more acceptable disease to die of! Around that same time I remember seeing a documentary on television about groups at 'high risk' of infection, rather neatly they all began with the letter 'H': Haemophiliacs, Haitians, Heroine addicts and Homosexuals. Since my friend very sadly died, I have had little or no personal or actually much professional contact - apart from one haemophiliac - with anyone suffering with HIV. I am ashamed to admit it, but it is true, for me it has been slightly 'out of sight out of mind'. This summer I had the opportunity of going to South Africa to visit Ian, a friend of mine who is working there as a priest and paediatric nurse. He is based with the Sisters of Mercy in a place called Winterveldt about an hour's drive north from Pretoria. One morning we were out doing the tourist thing when a phone call came from the Mercy Clinic � a little girl of three had been brought in because she had been raped by her uncle. As if this were not horrific enough � by the calmness in Ian's voice as he told the auxiliary nurse on the other end of the phone what she must do for the child, I realised it was not an unusual occurrence. Quite the opposite! It seems the local traditional medicine men tell males who discover they are HIV + to have sex with a virgin and the sickness will go away. In the Winterveldt, a terribly poor hopeless dustbowl of a place, the infection rate is near to 50% of the population. High even by South African levels. I had read the statistics about Sub-Saharan Africa and it all seemed so far away and unreal. At the Mercy Clinics in the Winterveldt the immense tragedy of the pandemic was there to be seen all around. Many of the people living in the scattered townships around the Clinic also have respiratory problems � TB is rife. As I said a large number are living with HIV infection and some with 'full blown' AIDS. Yet, oddly, one of the most memorable things about the mornings there was the smell of freshly baked bread. They have a bakery providing good bread for all the families who can make it to the Clinics, and for those who can't. The bread is also sold to local schools which helps bring in provisions for the next batch. Singing women in relays tended a patchwork of allotments, growing fresh mineral-rich vegetables for their sick husbands, children and themselves. Having managed finally to get hold of them, there's not much point giving hard-won anti retroviral drugs to the malnourished! There are education programmes run from the Clinics on all manner of things. There are women's health groups and men's health groups. There's a 'catch up' school for older youngsters who have missed out on their education because they have been nursing family members. There's a school for bricklayers � to help get skills that might provide employment. Information, communication and leadership all going on � the themes of this World AIDS day in action daily. At the heart of the compound is the Parish Church where on a Sunday hundreds come smiling to hear the local PP and Ian telling them in their own language (Ian has gone to school to learn it) that, no matter what, God is with them. Catherine McCauley would have every reason to be proud of her sisters and their associates attempting the impossible in that place day after day. What amazing tough, hope and faith-filled women they are too! And the Catholic Church has every reason to be proud of what we are doing in countless places like that � not pointing fingers or judging � but being down, in the dust, with these poorest of the poor, as Jesus himself certainly would be. A warm welcome, bread, loving care. In fact if Christian Charities were not there in Africa working in so many ways the situation would be even worse. Nearer to home we hear the depressing news that over 70000 people in the UK live with the infection and there are thousands of new cases each year. It is no longer the 'Gay Plague' that the ignorant tabloid headlines in the 80's once proclaimed. We all belong to this 'high risk' group � which also begins with an 'H' � Humankind. And World AIDS Day coincides in our calendar with the beginning of Advent � the Season of Arriving. During this Season we prepare to receive, believe in, enjoy, and be given life by God's arriving as one of us on earth � God becoming human in Jesus Christ. We are invited to stay vigilant and prepared by living as Christ commands and as Paul describes in today's extract from his Letter to the Romans. It is full of great opposites: night/day, darkness/light, sleep/wake. Our human existence is a life of tension between these opposing forces. Paul also provides a list of sinful ways of acting which seems designed to take the fun out of the party season! And my life, dare I say it, our lives are lived immersed in that constant imbalance and mess. On the BBC programme 'Monarchy' this week we got the chance to see the now famous tetchy exchange between the Queen and Annie Leibovitz. The photographer wanted to catch HMQ - all Garter Robes, velvet cloak and tiara - in the natural light coming through a window (� la Cecil Beaton). And after some negotiation what a stunning portrait resulted � the sunlight flooding in being the magic ingredient, lighting up the Queen's face, lines and all, and picking out the recesses of the room behind. During Advent we Christians, we Catholics, as it were stand in the dark allowing our faces to be lit by the approaching dawn. In the liturgies of Advent we actually say that we look forward, with longing, for the 'dayspring from on high'. Not just at Christmas but at the summation of time, whenever that might be. Isaiah's challenge to beat our swords into ploughshares has been around for centuries, as have the other biblical challenges to cast off deeds of darkness. It is now the hour for us to do something about it, to wake from sleep. We should attempt to live today "as in the day". Unfortunately you and I are still in the night, in the darkness - of our selfishness, our wayward desires and addictions, our weakness and ignorance. But there is hope of course, because it is not by our own unassisted effort that we as believers are to conduct ourselves 'becomingly as in the day', but rather by "putting on the Lord Jesus." We must turn to face his dawning brightness. Let us use these days of Advent to do just that � 'put on the Lord Jesus' - for Christ to be out of our sight does not mean that he should be out of our hearts and minds too. For more information see: www.sohomasses.com
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