Father David Stewart SJ, gave the following homily at the World AIDS Mass on 4 December 2017, at Farm Street Jesuit Church, London.
Pope Francis said, in a powerful and outspoken intervention reported on Friday, that "The presence of God today is also called 'Rohingya'. This of course was the word that he had carefully avoided using while he was in Myanmar - this came in Bangladesh, to where he had next travelled. The report had it that he next said: "Maybe we can't do much for you, but your tragedy has a place in our hearts. For those who have hurt you, and above all the indifference of the world, I ask your forgiveness." Those are words that cannot be ignored. What is the presence of God for us - where does that God want to be found? And for what indifference do I, do you, await forgiveness?
We know, if we were following the reportage of his Asian visit, that he had prudently circumvented using that word Rohingya out of diplomatic deference to his hosts, although plenty of activists and advocacy organisations had expressed their disappointment that he didn't use the word. This may or may not be justified criticism; but he did encounter a group of Rohingya refugees personally in, by all accounts, a most moving encounter. This might not be good enough for everyone but it's pretty good for me.
Reaching out, touching, dialoguing, in front of cameras and sound-recorders, that encounter says so much of what we try to do and be as followers of Christ. For it is Christ-like. That's why it cannot be ignored. Here, gathered for this Eucharist for World AIDS Day, where so many of us in this gathering are touched and affected, in one way or another, by HIV/AIDS and the stigma that hangs around it, we can legitimately ask if the same reaching out is evident towards those affected by this awful virus. How can it, how can the people who still suffer from it in various ways, still be ignored? But we are gathered here also because we are people of hope, Advent people, people of a promise once made and to be fulfilled; indeed already being fulfilled if presently visible only to those who have eyes to see its fulfilment.
Matthew's Gospel, which is the reading for 4 December (8:5-11), is so apposite to our purposes and prayers on this day. It's a foretaste of the mission to the Gentiles and St. Matthew deliberately paired it with the immediately preceding cure, of a leper and before another cure, of a member of Peter's family - lepers and foreigners, outsiders, are given prominence in the Kingdom. If we look at the world and its people through God's eyes: we see no boundaries or distinctions, just people to be loved, whose tragedy has a place in God's heart.
The Roman soldier in this story had already been touched by this; intuitively? to his own surprise? We don't know. We do know that the faith of this Roman, we may say, just blew Jesus away! God's mercy is unconditional, we like to say, but there is, if not a condition or a limiting factor, a potential hindrance - humility, or the lack of it. The centurion recognised not only his own lack of faith, as he thought, but also his unworthiness - he said it! His moving words, the words of a Gentile, an outsider, have made their way into our Christian liturgy! He was praying without knowing it! And in recognising this that Roman uncovered, unveiled a faith at a much deeper level that certainly amazed Jesus and certainly amazed this man himself - did he premeditate any of this, or did it all just well up from a deep place within his heart, his soul? It is that same place in each heart that every human tragedy should occupy; of the Rohingya refugee, of the stigmatised person living with HIV/AIDS, of any child of God hurt by the indifference of the world. "The presence of God today is also called the person living with HIV/AIDS.
We who gather here for an event like this do so in part because we know that we need to bring the Gospel and the world closer together. We know how important it is to live positively. Why? Because we are certain, in our faith, that the church's legacy of faith has something important, something valuable, to say to the world. We even go so far as to say that we think we have something that the world needs, even if it doesn't know so, by and large. There is no interest in establishing a theocracy but we are here because we feel ourselves called to mediate God's mercy that that Roman centurion, in Matthew's story, instinctively knew was available to all; and so he took that chance on Jesus. We have seen God's Spirit at work in others; some of us have experienced the consolation of that spirit-filled Christian ministry and we have known that our tragedy, or that of someone we love, has a place in God's heart.
Great examples of that ministry can be seen in the excellent new digital resource called positivefaith.net, of which we'll see more later - it really is very, very good. It shows that the Christian's way is a way of the heart, of prayer and ministry, for that is a way that opens us to an evangelising mission of compassion for all the world. Pope Francis again, in The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium), exhorting us to become missionary disciples - "Spirit-filled evangelisers are evangelisers who pray and work (...)
What is needed is the ability to cultivate an interior space which can give a Christian meaning to commitment and activity. Without prolonged moments of adoration, of prayerful encounter with the Word, of sincere conversation with the Lord, our work easily becomes meaningless; we lose energy as a result of weariness and difficulties, and our fervour dies out". Do we remember to say our prayers? The presence of God today is also called everyone who suffers AND everyone who ministers with that fervour that only prayer can maintain. Through this the promise, the Advent promise, will be fulfilled. Then, with all the friends of Jesus, we too can be amazed when we see such faith.