Asia-Pacific confab on Catholic response to HIV-AIDS

MANILA–Priests, religious and lay partners in health and social work as well as representatives from the HIV-positive community took part in the 6th Catholic Asia-Pacific Coalition on HIV-AIDS (CAPCHA) Conference last November 13-18 in Bayview Park Hotel, Manila.

“Be merciful as the Father is merciful” [Lk 6:36] was the conference theme, in line with the universal Church’s celebration of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy.  It also served as an expression of the Church’s way of responding to the HIV-AIDS issue–bringing the mercy of God to people living with HIV and strengthening greater commitment towards this advocacy.

Participants came from around 11 countries in the area (Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Japan, South Korea, India, Bangladesh, Australia, etc.), where already there are existing Catholic organizations and networks providing efforts at prevention, care, treatment and support of people living with HIV-AIDS and their affected families.  Catholic youth ministry in the Philippines was represented through youth ministers coming from selected regions.

Ms. Teresita Marie Bagasao, Country Director of the United Nations Program on HIV-AIDS, reported that from the 2015 UNAIDS data, there are already 5.1 million people in Asia and the Pacific living with HIV.  More than 90% increase of PLHIV and new infections from 2000 to 2015 and high HIV prevalence among key populations were noted in 12 Asia-Pacific countries, including the Philippines.  People who inject drugs (PWID) contribute to the rapid spread of the virus; as well, rates among males having sex with males (MSM), the largest group in the at-risk population, are rising.  HIV affects more young people, as there are now 600,000 PLHIV among youth ages 15-24 in Asia-Pacific as of 2015.

How the Catholic Church in the Philippines, through the Philippine Catholic HIV-AIDS Network (PhilCHAN), works in promoting the cause against HIV-AIDS was also showcased in the conference.  The participants visited selected schools and treatment-care and support centers where the advocacy is at work.  On the other hand, participants also had sessions to report on their respective country situations, challenges and existing programs and interventions.  In addition, issues related to HIV-AIDS–homosexuality, prostitution, human trafficking and drug abuse, among others–were presented and discussed in a series of plenary sessions.

A conference highlight was the prayer and reflection led by Fr. Jerome A. Ponce, OFM, a “missionary of mercy” appointed by no less than Pope Francis for the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy.  He highlighted the significant role of people serving the PLHIV, becoming fully immersed in their misery and pain, restoring their dignity, and becoming living signs of God’s merciful love to them.

The conference, aside from broadening knowledge on the HIV situation in Asia-Pacific and deepening the understanding of the theologico-pastoral response of the Church, also challenged countries and local churches to work more closely together in developing and strengthening Catholic networks which seek to address the issue from a genuine Christ-centered, ecclesial perspective.

Furthermore, as more youth are affected by HIV-AIDS through sexual activity and drug injection, the youth ministry of the Church is strongly challenged in the education of the young: not only towards prevention, but in providing integral formation on human dignity and sexuality rooted in authentic Catholic teaching.

The Chairman of the CBCP-Episcopal Commission on Health Care, Most Rev. Julito B. Cortes, DD, during the Opening Eucharistic Celebration, said: “I pray, that through the work that we do, we make our sick brothers and sisters, as well as those disadvantaged by other circumstances, retrieve their lives, retrieve hope, retrieve their enthusiasm for life.”  The 6th CAPCHA Conference served to renew the commitment of the Catholic organizations present to the United Nation’s goal of having zero HIV infections, zero stigma and discrimination, and zero AIDS-related deaths by 2030.  The participants continue the mission of becoming channels of God’s merciful love to those affected by HIV-AIDS and of engaging more Catholic groups and communities to be part of this advocacy.

CAPCHA 6 participants with Dr. Paulyn Jean B. Rosell-Ubial, Department of Health Secretary

CAPCHA 6 participants with Dr. Paulyn Jean B. Rosell-Ubial, Department of Health Secretary

Selected participants reporting on their country HIV-AIDS situation

Selected participants reporting on their country HIV-AIDS situation

Groups of participants sharing their experiences

Groups of participants sharing their experiences

The youth minister-participants to the CAPCHA 6 with Fr. Dan Cancino, MI, Executive Secretary of the CBCP-Episcopal Commission on Health Care (center)

The youth minister-participants to the CAPCHA 6 with Fr. Dan Cancino, MI, Executive Secretary of the CBCP-Episcopal Commission on Health Care (center) (From left to right) Mr. Ariel Allorde (of Filipino Youth with a Mission, for the Federation of National Youth Organizations), Ms. Louise Antonette Salando (for the Military Ordinariate of the Philippines), Ms. Maria Lea Dasigan (for the ECY Secretariat), Mr. John Kit Estuya (of the Diocese of Iba, for the Central Luzon Region), Mr. Inaque Shaquille Garlet (of the Archdiocese of Cebu, for the Central-Eastern Visayas Region), Mr. Ivan Conrad Pinto (of the Archdiocese of Manila, for the National Capital Region) and Mr. James Bontia (of the Archdiocese of Cebu, for the Central-Eastern Visayas Region)

PhilCHAN General Assembly

The members of the Philippine Catholic HIV-AIDS Network gathered for its second General Assembly held in the Vincentian Hills Seminary last 26-28 May 2014. Most of the participants are engaged in the care-support of PLHIV and their affected families and with the aim of reaching an HIV free society.

The three-day encounter started with a recollection facilitated by Most Rev. Broderick Pabillo, DD, bishop-director of PhilCHAN, which served as a spiritual enrichment to the participants.  It led the participants to reflect on the main identity of PhilCHAN as a faith-based group which aims to reach out and bring Christ’s healing to people living with HIV-AIDS as well as their loved ones.  As a faith-based group, the PhilCHAN continues the mission of our Lord to bring healing to these people who are ill, not only physically, but also spiritually.  We are called to become “Good Samaritans” to these people who are discriminated in our society and bring God’s love to them.

PhilCHAN

Series of talks followed after the recollection.  The participants were given updates on the HIV-AIDS registry worldwide and in the Philippine context by Ms. Bai Bagasao,  Country coordinator of United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and Ms Kaye Ronquillo of National Epidemiology Center (NEC-DOH).  It is alarming how the HIV continues to spread in the country, making us one of the 12 countries contributing to the increased spread of the disease worldwide.  In our country, it is estimated that by the end of 2014, 32,000 people will be affected with HIV, as one person gets affected with the virus every one hour and fifty minutes.  Dr. Ferchito Avelino, Executive Director of Philippine National AIDS Council (PNAC) explained the provisions of Republic Act 5804 – The Philippine AIDS Prevention and Control Act of 1998; while Dr. Toni Evangelista of the National AIDS/STD Prevention and Control Program (NASPCP-DOH) shared the strategic plans of the government in addressing the issue on HIV-AIDS.

The second day of the conference was a day of sharing among the member-organizations and institutions of PhilCHAN.  Fr. Dan Cancino, MI, provided an orientation about the network for the benefit of those participants who attended a PhilCHAN event for the first time.  Following this, the participants were divided into regional groups – Luzon, Visayas, Mindanao for their group sharing on the activities and efforts they have been doing in the areas of prevention, treatment, care and support, social services and enabling environment for people suffering from HIV-AIDS.

Later in the afternoon, the participants revisited the guidelines of PhilCHAN for its member-organizations and institutions.  The said guidelines were ratified; in particular, the old structure was changed into establishing a regional structure for PhilCHAN.  The network is now grouped as Luzon PhilCHAN, Visayas PhilCHAN and Mindanao PhilCHAN.  Within these regions, the members will appoint or elect their Regional Coordinator who will lead the coordination of the member-organizations.  Most Rev. Broderick Pabillo remains to be the bishop-director of PhilCHAN.

 PhilCHAN 2

The participants had a special fellowship during the evening, as they witnessed a heartfelt sharing from the members of the Secretariat for the General Assembly, who belong to the HIV positive community.  Their openness and sincere sharing of their stories and struggles inspired the members to do more to help people like them overcome the difficulties brought by their disease, and promote greater awareness about HIV-AIDS to eliminate stigma and prevent the spread of the disease.

As more and more young people nowadays become infected with HIV-AIDS, it is indeed a challenge for us in the youth ministry to become actively involved in addressing this problem, which is more than just a health issue, but a development and moral issue.  It is a blessing that the ECY has become one of the members of PhilCHAN, which opened the door for us to become involved in this issue that is already affecting many of our youth here in our country.  The pastoral trainings on HIV-AIDS that several youth ministers have received through PhilCHAN empowered them to spread knowledge about the disease to their own settings.

However, there is a need for the ECY to monitor more closely the action plans that the youth ministers have done from their pastoral trainings.  Our efforts to help towards prevention of HIV-AIDS will become more fruitful if the youth ministry offices, especially in key affected areas, will closely collaborate with the social action commission in the diocese to implement these plans and reach out to more young people; encouraging most especially those at risk towards changing their behavior and lifestyle, and educating others to extend compassion and acceptance to people living with HIV-AIDS.  It will also help if the website and Facebook fan page will be utilized to provide relevant information about HIV-AIDS to youth and youth ministers online.

While the problem appears to be getting bigger and worse before our eyes, it is always a consolation for us that we are never alone in facing this issue.  We are facing this challenge together as a Church, with the God of mercy as our source of strength and guidance, enabling us to become bearers of His healing love; His love that will set us free from all fear.