Catholic New World: Newspaper for the Archdiocese of Chicago

HIV/AIDS ministry network meets one last time
As NCAN closes doors, members pledge to
keep moving forward

By Michelle Martin
Assistant Editor

Twenty years after it began, the National Catholic AIDS Ministry Network held its final annual conference July 27-28.

Members of the network spent much of their time reflecting on its accomplishments and looking for ways to move forward to continue HIV/AIDS ministry in the Catholic Church.

The network’s board of directors announced in January that it would close this summer because of a lack of funding. The network, based at Loyola University Chicago for the last three years, has held its annual conference at Loyola for more than a decade. Father Robert Vitillo, the president of the board, told members that Catholic Charities USA and Catholic Relief Services would take over some the network’s initiatives. CRS has pledged to continue training college leaders in HIV/AIDS ministry, and CCUSA will work to help parishes do HIV/AIDS ministry.

Father Bryan Massingale, a professor of theology at Marquette University in Milw a u k e e , preached on the conference’s theme, “Be Not Afraid” at the opening prayer service July 27.

Massingale encouraged participants to name and confront their fears, and offered a list of eight different fears he thought were present among the participants, including a fear of stigma, and a fear of futility. The last one he named was a fear of “our own power and possibility.”

If people accept that they have the power to change the world, he said, then they have the responsibility to do it. And as the network ends as a formal organization, that responsibility will fall on the shoulders of individual members.

“Where is the church now?” asked Dr. Chris Reyelt, a Sister of Charity and medical director at the Comprehensive Care Center for AIDS at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Paterson, N.J. The church doesn’t say a lot publicly, but our pope has made some good statements. I don’t hear a lot from the pulpit locally, but the church is there in a lot of people who are working in HIV/AIDS ministry. I work for a Catholic institution, and it was one of the first to provide HIV care in our city. The church is there institutionally, the church is there individually. The question is, where are you? ... It is believing Catholics and other people of good will who see a need and are reaching out to fill it. This is sharing in the mission of Jesus Christ.”

The network’s closure comes at a time when the HIV/AIDS pandemic is still spreading, with 39.5 million people around the world believed to be infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, at the end of 2006.

According to UNAIDS, about 4.3 million people were newly infected in 2006; about 2.9 million people died of AIDS-related causes last year. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates that about 1.1 million people in the United States were infected with HIV at the end of 2003, the last year for which it reports that statistic. It also estimates that about 40,000 new HIV infections occur every year.

There have been significant successes in AIDS treatment with introduction of antiretroviral treatments that have allowed many people diagnosed with HIV to live for years without becoming ill. Another success has been the reduction of HIV infections of children by their mothers in childbirth. Now fewer than 1 percent of the babies of mothers with HIV are infected; before pregnant women were treated with AIDS drugs, the rate was about 20-25 percent, Reyelt said.

Also, new categories of drugs could become available soon, helping people who do not respond to older drugs.

Challenges include higher rates of infection among African Americans and Hispanics in the United States.

Reyelt also said more work is needed to address the other health problems suffered by people infected with HIV, and to provide equitable and adequate access to therapy.

Vitillo, who serves as special advisor on HIV/AIDS to Caritas Internationalis, said that for every person receiving antiretroviral treatment for HIV around the world, six more are newly infected.

Vitillo also criticized those who say the Catholic Church should not have a role in AIDS ministry because of its stance against condoms.

“The fact is, even in those parts of the world where the Catholic Church does not have much influence at all, condom use is low. In areas where we have made progress on reducing the rate of infection—in East Africa, Uganda and Kenya, progress was not made when there was availability of condoms. Condom promotion alone is not going to lick this epidemic.”

What has worked, Vitillo said, is promoting responsible sexual behavior for women and men: abstinence until marriage, faithfulness within marriage. That message is taking hold, he said.

“I do hear public health people talking about responsibility and sexual behavior,” he said. “Our message is actually good public health policy.”

In the United States, Vitillo said, Catholics can put pressure on the government and other world leaders to keep HIV/AIDS as a priority, and on pharmaceutical companies to make inexpensive drugs available.

One problem is that drug manufacturers don’t produce their medications in formulations for children, and when they do, they can cost up to eight times as much as the adult formulations, he said.

Vitillo acknowledged a sense of failure that the network was not able to generate enough funding to stay afloat, but said that it had fulfilled its mission for the last two decades.

“I believe this network has worked courageously and faithfully to present a visible and corporate response to HIV/AIDS,” he said. “We will carry forth in dioceses, in parishes, in religious orders, which have always done the most in responding to pandemics.”

Gwendolyn Currin, a pastoral counselor in Chicago, compared the situation of Catholic HIV/AIDS ministers now to the early days of AIDS.

“It was very, very bad,” said Currin. “We had to learn the hard way because we didn’t know which direction to go. We have more of a challenge now.”

Currin, an African American octogenarian, encouraged everyone involved in AIDS ministry to learn about the cultures of the patients they meet, even if they are different from their own, and approach them with sincerity.

“You have to remember they are human beings like all of us here,” said Currin, speaking to an audience made up of about half minorities. “And they need us. You have to know where they come from. ‘Those people’ are God’s people. Do not be afraid.”