By Monsignor Bob Vitillo

“When I discovered I was HIV-positive, I was shocked and asked, ‘Why has God allowed this virus to maim and kill people? Does He still live in me? How?’”

Spoken by a person living with HIV, these are words that caregivers in Catholic Church-inspired organizations have to face wherever we work. In addition to making sure we’re getting lifesaving medicine to the far corners of the developing world, in addition to making sure people are taking the right doses at the right times, in addition to keeping up with the latest medical advances, we have to think about the whole person— including the spiritual dimension of the disease.

At a centre in Nepal, Catholic sisters care for women and children living with HIV. The centre also helps women earn a living by raising livestock. Photo: Laura Sheahen/Caritas

For the past few days, and for the rest of this week, I and my colleagues are focusing on all these questions at the 19th International Conference on HIV and AIDS in Washington, D.C.

Those of us associated with Catholic organizations gathered first at the Catholic University of America for a pre-conference. We know that at the main conference center, we will meet scientists, nurses, HIV experts of many kinds. We’re all fighting a common battle. But we also feel it important to share the Catholic Teaching and values that motivate us in our work and to share lessons learned and challenges still to be faced by our Catholic Church-sponsored programmes.

Often, the first contact people living with HIV have with ART (Anti-Retroviral Treatment) is in a remote clinic near their village. Sometimes the clinics are run by governments or other organizations. Sometimes they are run by faith-based organizations (FBOs) like Caritas.

There’s a lot of good news here at the conference. Over 8 million people are receiving ART; Catholic organizations are responsible for successfully getting these medicines to many of them.

There is more good news. In the past, the virus often was passed from mother to child during pregnancy or birth or even during breastfeeding. Now we know how to minimize the risk of transmission, and thanks to the efforts of NGOs and funding made available by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria; PEPFAR; and others, there’s been a 24% decrease in mother-child transmission during the past 2 years.

When people do contract HIV, they are able to live longer thanks to ART, have fewer serious illnesses, and a better quality of life.

But there is a lot to worry about, too. Finola Finnan of Trocaire (Caritas Ireland), who is Chairperson of the Catholic HIV/AIDS Network – CHAN, spoke of a 63% unmet need for treatment. She pointed out how funding has flat-lined or been sharply cut due to the economic crisis. She mentioned HIV treatment centers in Uganda and South Africa that are forced to turn people away once their quotas are filled.

Joshua Mavundu, a person living with HIV, works as an advocate and activist with Batani AIDS Service organization. He spoke about his own situation in Zimbabwe, and discussed flat-lining budgets, saying that “This is short-circuiting the lives of people – without ART they will die.”

Mavundu also talked about a difference that is quite evident in his country. “The government institutions have collapsed but doctors still are in the faith-based hospitals – the faith-based offer the best and affordable treatment. In government institutions, if you do not have money they will turn you away, but because of the care and love in faith-based institutions, they will not turn you away.”

Caritas is often the only option sick people have. So we will keep struggling to access funding no matter what it takes. But as we focus on getting the resources we need to provide medicine, we don’t forget the spiritual needs of the people we serve.

At the pre-conference, Jesuit father and director of the African Jesuit AIDS Network, Paterne-Auxence Mombé, talked about the experience of a priest who was counseling Kosiwa, a woman with HIV. “Fr. Gilles noticed that from the day she heard about her HIV status, she lived in the feeling that God had abandoned and punished her. She was pessimistic and negative about everything. After listening to her, Fr. Gilles felt the need to propose a spiritual journey, praying with some Scripture readings according to a method of prayer proposed by Saint Ignatius. This spiritual journey helped Kosiwa discover a different image of God, reconcile with Him and others, and retrieve hope and courage to live positively.”

“A listening presence is crucial here; maybe it is the first step of a healing process,” continued Father Mombé. “Sometimes, the role of the Church or of the pastoral caregiver is just to be there and listen.”