God, AIDS, Africa & HOPE

pensées of a Catholic priest

Advent – Year of Mercy begins in Africa

Year of Mercy

The year of Mercy – beginning in Africa – holds also a message of hope for those thorn apart by stigma, sickness, hopelessness – it is a great entry for the day, we celebrate on the 1st of December: World Aids Day. A celebration that we are all called to turn stigma into blessings, like we are called to turn hate into love and war into peace. It is at the end all interconnected and it appeals not only to Christian but to all people of goodwill.

Sunday 29.11.2015 – Bangui CAR
The Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy has begun. It began more than a week ahead of the opening of the Holy Door of St. Peter’s Basilica. Pope Francis opened the wood and glass door of Bangui Cathedral in CAR just a short while ago. Before opening it, he spontaneously explained the significance of his gesture.
“Today Bangui is the spiritual capital of the world,” the Pope said. “The Holy Year of Mercy begins earlier in this land that has suffered for many years as a result of war, hatred, misunderstanding and a lack of peace.”
“This land of suffering is a reflection of all countries around the world that have experienced the cross of war. Bangui is the spiritual capital of prayer for God’s mercy. Let us all ask for peace, mercy, reconciliation, forgiveness and love. Let us ask for peace and reconciliation for Bangui, for the Central African Republic and for all countries afflicted by war!”
The Pope said we need to “free ourselves of divisive notions of family and blood in order to build a Church which is God’s family, open to everyone, concerned for those most in need. This presupposes closeness to our brothers and sisters; it implies a spirit of communion. It is not primarily a question of financial means; it is enough just to share in the life of God’s people.” He reminded the faithful that one of the most important duties of a Christian is “the love of our enemies, which protects us from the temptation to seek revenge and from the spiral of endless retaliation. Jesus placed special emphasis on this aspect of the Christian testimony. Those who evangelize must therefore be first and foremost practitioners of forgiveness, specialists in reconciliation, experts in mercy.”

“In every place, even and especially in those places where violence, hatred, injustice and persecution hold sway, Christians are called to give witness to this God who is love. … Thus what the pagans said of the early Christians will always remain before us like a beacon: ‘See how they love one another, how they truly love one another’.”

“God is stronger than all else…” … “This conviction gives to the believer serenity, courage and the strength to persevere in good amid the greatest hardships. Even when the powers of Hell are unleashed, Christians must rise to the summons, their heads held high, and be ready to brave blows in this battle over which God will have the last word. And that word will be love!”

“To all those who make unjust use of the weapons of this world, I make this appeal: lay down these instruments of death! Arm yourselves instead with righteousness, with love and mercy, the authentic guarantors of peace.”

 

Filed under: Africa, Catholic Church, General, HIV and AIDS, Religion and Ethics, Society and living environment, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Blessings for so called “irregular” or same-sex relationships?

After writing about my expectations on the synod related to the questions of family I was asked about my stand on blessings for e.g. same sex couples or divorced-remarried ones. Should the church bless such relationships? This is indeed a question most of us priests try to avoid to answer in public because it can bring us into trouble with the authority and also with those claiming to know every aspect of the will of God since eternity.
But I believe we can not run away and not dealing with such questions and as I believe that there is always a good hint coming your way if you in trouble (this time with a question) there it was before starting to write this blog:

Reading the “Paulinus”, the weekly newspaper of my home diocese, I came across a short note about the meeting between Pope Francis and Bishop Galliot from France. Quoting the newspaper “Le Figaro” it says that “mit Blick auf die Segnung von wiederverheirateten Geschiedenen oder homosexuellen Paaren habe der Papst gelächelt und gesagt: „Der Segen Gottes ist für alle da.“
Translated it says: “looking at the question of blessings for divorced remarried or same-sex couples the pope smiled and said: “God’s blessing is for everybody”.”
And I personally think this is indeed the answer: There is no way that you can deny somebody made in the image of God his blessing. Even the German “Benedictionale”, the book of  blessings has at the end a blessing “for anything” – and if you can bless anything, you can also bless a person.

A blessings means that we speak out and confirm that God and his unconditional love is with a person – and especially when there is love and commitment, who would dare to say that God is absent?
If only those refusing to bless would understand that the measurements of God are so different in mercy, love, forgiveness than what our small little mind can comprehend.

Well, I hear already those who say: Well, yeah, he is with a person, but blessings a relationship? After a failed marriage or in a same-sex relationship?
Well, my answer would be similar to what Cardinal Schoenborn from Austria said in an interview recently: Let’s not come from a formal side telling people directly all what is wrong. “We should look at the many situations of cohabitation not just from the point of view of what is missing, but also from the point of view of what is promised, what is already there.After all, the Council points out, that although there is always real holiness in the Church, the Church is nevertheless made up of sinners and is advancing along a path of conversion.”, he says.
And once again: If there is love, if there is commitment, if there is responsibility, isn’t there God present? Are we not promised that God is with us unconditionally? I believe this is indeed the “scandolon” also for the church, that God’s unconditional love even shows that church teaching has to be developed, brought to a deeper level again and again.

So coming back to the question of a blessing: A blessing is no sacrament, a blessing does not undermine any dogmatic teaching of the church – it re-affirms simply that the unconditional love of God is present and that the yearning for people to be whole, to be taken seriously in their quest to have a fulfilled life and to find joy and happiness is a valid one, seen and mercifully acknowledge by God.

Let me finally say:

For me a blessing is indeed a non-sacramental, but still an intimate and personal act of devotion between God and those being blessed, it is a divine communication making grace and mercy tangible and opens up for the spirit to work. And God’s good spirit at work in the lives of people – isn’t that wonderful?

Filed under: Catholic Church, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

How the Ball of HOPE came into existence…

Many times I was asked how the Ball of HOPE came into existence and here it is: the story of the Ball of HOPE.

Being appointed chaplain to the German-speaking Catholic Community way back in 1997 I felt not a lot of willingness to raise money for the community via a bazaar, selling all the stuff nobody wants and thereafter give away for the next event of this kind. So I resolved to have a dinner – dance – booked the Mount Nelson, invited Archbishop Desmond Tutu – who to my surprise agreed to come and talk – and simply started with 70 people attending the first such event. In 2000 a young woman called at that time Anja Spandern moved to Cape Town to open the office of the SA-German Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Being her first customer – in need of some donations – a common plan was hatched to turn the dinner – dance of the Mount Nelson into a real ball. As in 2001 also HOPE Cape Town came in to existence, the Ball of HOPE was born.

The venue moved in 2003 to the Westin Hotel after having had the honor to bless the hotel during the opening ceremony together with the late Archbishop Lawrence Henry and other religious leaders of different faith.

Ever since that day the Ball of HOPE, HOPE Cape Town and the Southern African – German Chamber of Commerce are interlinked with the Westin Hotel, and I hope that this event of fundraising, but also entertainment, good food and a fabulous vibe will remain on the social calendar for many more years to come.

HOPE Cape Town is grateful for all the support rendered via the Ball of HOPE in the last years – and to talk numbers. I started in 1998 with a proceed of 20.000 Rand in total – in the last years the proceeds going to HOPE Cape Town were in the range of 150 000 – 200 000 Rand. Every cent of this money went straight and without deduction into the work of the organization, every cent was transformed into hope for a child, a family suffering from the consequences of HIV, AIDS or related illnesses.

This years Ball of HOPE is once again sold out – and if you want to know more about HOPE Cape Town or want to contribute towards the good cause, visit our website: http://www.hopecapetown.com

1998 Dinner Dance with Archbishop Desmond Tutu

1998 Dinner Dance with Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Blessing of the Westin Hotel 2003

Blessing of the Westin Hotel 2003

Filed under: Africa, Catholic Church, HIV and AIDS, HOPE Cape Town Association, HOPE Cape Town Association & Trust, SA-German Chamber of Commerce & Industry, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

HIV – curse or blessing?

For most people, on first side a pandemic is surely seen as a curse translating into sickness. In the case of HIV- without treatment – it turns into full-blown AIDS and consequently death. Who does not remember the eighties: a quick and cruel death for young people, killed in the prime of their lives.
HIV also means evolution: a small little bug jumps onto a different host and kills the host. Not intentionally of course and it will take a quite some time, maybe a couple of hundred years to develop into a symbiosis which lets bug and host live peacefully together. Otherwise it’s a dead-end for evolution and will at a certain point cease to exist.
HIV is a challenge: In the 1980’s the scientific world raced to find an answer what causes the syndrome. To isolate the bug, to find anti-bodies and consequently a test to determine infection and last but not least to develop first medications working to prevent full-blown AIDS took its time and toll. But HIV is also a challenge for every human being: transmission via bodily fluids means it touches on one of our strongest drive and urge: sexuality. And who controls this desire controls humans – just look into the history of religion and the significance of the control of sexuality via faith.
HIV mixes categories normally separated in society: youth and death. Death is anyhow so often hidden in modern society; now associated with youth and radical eradicating the beauty of it destroys the unspoken view how society works and develops. It changed the rules of engagement on that level dramatically and still does it in developing countries.
HIV means to open up to people living and loving in same sex relationships. Coming from the dark and hidden corners of social life gay people suddenly stood in the limelight of society. HIV and AIDS was part of a sometimes cruel outing process. In our days HIV is globally not anymore associated with homosexuality but the pandemic, almost as a side effect, opened up society to look at different life styles. And without any doubt the solidarity in gay circles in the beginning of the pandemic for their infected friends and partners was an impressive show of compassion and left traces which transformed into signs of normality and acceptance for gay love in the Western hemisphere. Obviously this triggers an antidote from the radical – fundamentalist side of society, mainly coming from the USA in an evangelical form even telling Africans what African culture means in Africa.
HIV is clearly a challenge for politicians and it was HIV which was put on the agenda as the first medical condition dealt with by the UN. This opened doors for other discussions on a global base like on Malaria or TB or all the other forgotten sickness of Africa and South America. We were reminded that they also kill millions a year and that they are in need of being addressed properly. The Global AIDS Fund was a first instrument of tackling a medical challenge on a global scale and not via bi-lateral negations which normally don’t’ see the full picture and are rather small –minded.
HIV means a challenge for society. While in Germany the campaign “Give AIDS no chance” with the commitment of the entire government prevented the pandemic to get into full swing, other countries and governments did not wake up to respond to the treat timely. The bible is right, that the sin of the fathers, in this case the sin of neglect comes onto the children and grandchildren. South Africa, but also Swaziland, is an example of failure with the result of hundred thousands of death and a generation born and plagued by HIV. What a challenge for the social coherence of society.
HIV translates into a challenge for religion, for our faith. Just a look at Ronald Reagan, who refused to act on the first reports of the new disease as it seemly “only” targeted gay people. His faith told him that they anyhow did not live according to God’s moral code; somehow no real action was needed. It reminds us also in this context of all those clerics calling the HIV pandemic the punishment of God for Sodom and Gomorrah in our times.
HIV is not a punishment but a clear sign of the time to reflect on our Christian theology – it has shown clearly that answering new questions with old answer do not serve humanity. The opposite is true: it endangers life. The question of protection cannot be answered with the reply given by authorities quite some time earlier on the question of procreation.
And how about the single human being infected with the HI Virus?
The challenges and reactions are as different as people are different: shock, disbelieve, despair, give–up mentality, defiance, hope….
What is indeed an almost general rule I discovered with people living positively is that after the balance in life is found again, there is a new sense for health and the value of life. HIV has shown how fragile life is and treatment has given almost the opportunity for a second chance in life. People infected mostly have a peace treaty with their boarder – always present even when tested undetectable. There is also the sense of gratitude and somehow, even if it sounds absurd, it changes from being a personal curse into a blessing. And I strongly believe that church should be and could be promoter of this transition, personal and in communities where stigma could be transformed into a blessing. The Catholic Student organisation of South Africa maintains in one of their publications that people living with HIV cannot live life to the fullest as stipulated in John 10.10.
They are wrong: God is giving everyone in his unconditional love the possibility to life their life to the fullest – for him, sexual identity or preference is not a hindrance nor is race or income or any other ability or disability or HIV or AIDS.
You will be a blessing for others – this promise of God applies to everybody who lives and loves with or without HIV.

Filed under: Catholic Church, General, HIV and AIDS, HIV Prevention, HIV Treatment, Reflection, Religion and Ethics, Society and living environment, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Gloves are off?

The clock is ticking and the preparations for the synod of the bishops to discuss family and marriage matters are in full swing. Some churches publish their findings on the questionnaire, others treat it as a sort of highly secretly exercise. Some parts of the hierarchy asked frankly those called the laity, others compiled answers without elaborating on the ways how they did it. In Germany it seems that the topic is highly contested. Cardinal Marx from Munich made it very clear that in the question of divorced and remarried couples, the church must be able to consider all their options. This was in answer to soon-top-be Cardinal Mueller in Rome, who insisted already upfront that nothing can be changed at all. Only to be reprimanded by an South American Cleric in the same rank that there is more to it than just dogmatic insistence. The Diocese of Freiburg published a guideline for the possibility in some instances for a blessing of a second marriage and communion for those who are divorced and remarried. Which obviously drew flag from Mueller in Rome again, who insisted that people living in a second marriage are living in sin and therefore are excluded from Holy Communion.
Such debates are not new – I remember that  then Bishop of Rottenburg – Stuttgart and now Cardinal Kasper, then Bishop and now Cardinal Karl Lehmann from Mainz as well as Archbishop Oscar Saier from Freiburg published a letter to the faithful on the 10th of July 1993 declaring that in case of a remarried divorce, the priest must find out in a talk “whether that, what is right in general, also applies for the situation of the couple concerned”. It’s the simple question of oikonomia, one of the acknowledged traditions of the Orthodox church through all ages till today which is in principle also recognized in the Roman-Catholic Church, but not for marriage cases. Oikonomia means that there is a law (like the marriage is for ever) but it acknowledges that humans can fail and for the greater good of the people involved and because of the unconditional love of God to be experienced through the church, there is a solution to start anew without denying the general rule.  The Orthodox church requires a time of penance and acknowledgement of failure before allowing the new marriage. And I think it’s right so: Couples tend to think that love never ends when they get married and it is for most horrible to experience failure and the ceasing of love. There is need for a time of reflection, soul-searching before restarting life again. So saying that there is only the Roman Catholic alternative of being faithful to the letter of the law is cheating the people of alternatives which have proven their value through 2000 years without compromising faith. In 1993 the reaction of then head of the department for doctrine, Cardinal Ratzinger was sharp and direct: He found the Bishops being unfaithful and in opposition to the teaching of the church and that was end of the story. Thanks God times have changed and at least it is allowed in church now to think again – at least in most parts of it.

Bishop Ackermann from Trier, one of the younger bishops in Germany made his standpoint quite clear in a series of interviews. After the German Bishops Conference published parts of the finding of the laity for the synod, the Bishop was asked about sex before marriage, contraception, same-sex marriage and the question of divorce and remarriage. He stated that not every sexual act before marriage can be considered a great sin, the question of distinguishing between “artificial contraception” and ‘natural contraception” is in his opinion artificial itself. Even on the question of same-sex partnerships he clearly stated that there is no way of conducting a marriage as understood by the church, but he admitted that he would not refuse to  bless a same-sex couple, if they would come up for a blessing in one of the services dedicated to couples and their love ending with a personalized blessing for each couple. I guess it is a sensitive answer, it shows that there is acknowledgement of love between to people independent from their sexual orientation, but it makes at the same time clear, that there is a difference how church and theology defines marriage and the state defines it. Same sex partnerships are not a marriage in a sacramental way as understood by the church – I often think if the church would put all the energy it takes to fight the state on same-sex partnerships instead would put into supporting marriage and family life in parishes it would surely look better on this side.  Church and state are different entities with different definitions of certain aspects of life which indeed can be lived next to each other without fighting. I read once a quote from Cardinal Napier which stated that civil partnerships have nothing to do with the church. Right so, if that is the case don’t fight them. But I also have to admit that I still don’t like the word “same-sex marriage” – same rights yes, but create another word, less burdened with a long tradition leading, yes asking for debates dividing people unnecessarily.

Following the internet debates on all those topics it seems that the gloves are off and all parties concerned are anxious to get their message through. It shows how divided the church is on that topic and that in the last 30 years the rift was covered up through tough measures against anybody even asking the right questions. Academic theologians were to scared to research freely as they had to fear not to get into teaching with the blessing of the official church. Doctrine was everything – but times have changed and as a bishop in South Africa put it: “We are allowed to think again and to debate questions without fear”. This is indeed a step in the right direction and I only hope that all this debate ends up not with winners and losers but with the unconditional love of God being personalized in those leading the church so that everybody can see and experience that faith is an assistance to life and not a constant headache.

Filed under: Catholic Church, General, Politics and Society, Reflection, Religion and Ethics, Society and living environment, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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