The Church of the Assumption, Warwick Street, Soho, London, was packed for special Mass yesterday, 30 November, marking the the eve of World AIDS Day. The celebrant was Father John Sherrington CP, from the Inner City Passionist Community in Newcastle-on-Tyne, who has worked in HIV ministry since the early 1990's.
During his homily, Fr John said: "AIDS is not one of those affairs that we can export as something 'over there', wherever 'there' might be!"
Speaking about the ever-increasing numbers of people diagnosed with HIV, nationally and globally, he said: "There's a tendency to distance ourselves from the reality, to export compassion and solidarity as an 'African or Third World' issue." Warning against the great danger of 'collective forgetfulness' when it comes to HIV and AIDS, "making those affected by HIV 'absent', even when present among us. This damages us all, psychologically, physically, and spiritually. It undermines people living with HIV and diminishes us as Christians.
"We fail to see Christ next to us, in them, failing to see his woundedness, and when rejected by fellow-Christians, we are judging him in judging them, and so also passing judgment on ourselves. Perhaps, at heart and for church communities in particular, is an unresolved, deep-seated prejudice, often
bound up with issues of human sexuality."
Pointing to the layers of stigma and prejudice that may be experienced by people living with HIV, Fr Sherrington said: "These difficulties are experienced at all sorts of levels, other than only within church communities: the workplace, within families, building new or sustaining existing relationships; in general social interaction, when it would be otherwise normal to speak about one's health. This propels those affected, whatever their gender, into a multi-layered minefield, where being ostracised completely is not just a threat, but the actual experience for many people."
Rather than focus on people living with HIV as 'the least of my sisters and brothers' with a risk of patronising them with our care, Fr.Sherrington
called upon faith communities: "Be haunted by Jesus' words, 'when you did it to these, you did it to me'. At the heart of his words is the challenge NOT to treat people as 'the least'. We are to be the sign of contradiction, the sign of the Cross, which in St. Paul's words 'breaks down barriers' .. Rather should we say 'here are my mother, and sisters and brothers.' People living with or affected by HIV, in my experience, are people of courage, living with a deep sense of human fragility and mortality, and with a more profound understanding of themselves and God's love, than many of the rest of us. We must not, especially in our faith communities, 'export' them, rendering them absent, invisible, 'not wanted here'! They can say, along with St Paul: 'I hang on the Cross with Christ; I bear the marks of Christ's suffering in my body. The marks of Christ's crucifixion were the outcome of being socially and
religiously ostracised, yet it is the rejected and crucified Jesus, the Christ, who suffers in his sisters and brothers today, and throughout history."
Representatives of Catholics for AIDS Prevention & Support (CAPS), Positive Catholics, the Mildmay Hospital and the Soho Masses Pastoral Council took
part in the Mass, with music provided by the Souls of Prophecy Gospel Choir, directed by Jay Kamiraz.
Positive Catholics, a peer-support group for Catholics living with HIV, will hold an Advent Reflection afternoon on Saturday, 6 December 2008, in Central London, ending with a pre-Christmas tea-party. For further details see: http://positivecatholics.googlepages.com