by Stefan Lechner
It’s Friday afternoon in Vienna, Austria. In the tramway, my neighbour’s main concern is to get to a swimming pool as fast as possible. This week the heat has been impressive and today is the hottest day we’ve had in Vienna this year until now, 36 degrees Celsius in the shadow (97 degrees Fahrenheit).
For about 100 participants from more than 23 countries, however, there will be no possibility to cool down in a pool. They are meeting at the Kardinal Koenig Haus in order to attend the Catholic networking sessions organised by CHAN, the Catholic HIV and AIDS Network and financed by various Catholic organisations. As I get there, I immediately notice a colourful mix of nationalities and languages.
Dr. Kanani Prince Bosco, a participant from Rwanda, asks me if temperatures are always that high in summer. I tell him that continental climate winters are usually cold here and summers might be hot, but that today is definitely not what I would call an average Viennese summer day. We get a glass of water.
I’ve been assigned by Caritas Internationalis to work as communication officer during these Catholic networking sessions and the XVIII International Aids Conference that is going started on Sunday, and so I wonder if I could ask him a few questions on Caritas’ work in Rwanda. He immediately agrees to do that at some later moment of the networking sessions. As a matter of fact networking sessions are starting right now, it’s 3:15 pm.
Msgr.Robert Vitillo, the special advisor on HIV and AIDS for Caritas Internationalis, welcomes participants from all over the world and Franz Kueberl, the President of Caritas Austria, points out that these sessions are a unique opportunity to share experiences across nations and continents and to contribute to improving the support to those living with HIV and AIDS.
In fact, there must be amazing know-how and experience to share in this room as Catholic organisations deliver around a quarter of the help provided worldwide for people living with HIV and AIDS.
Then Lesley-Anne Knight, Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis, shares her thoughts for the upcoming events in a keynote speech. Trying to envision the characteristics of a Catholic approach, she talks about 3 concepts she calls the 3 Cs: Compassion, Communion and Conscience.
Compassion – true solidarity that moves us to action
She emphasizes the role of poverty in the HIV pandemic as it is both a cause and consequence of HIV infection as well as the need to develop realistic solutions that will be effective in these diverse, difficult and complex contexts.
Communion – the sharing of thoughts, beliefs or feelings – the purpose of these networking sessions and the forthcoming International Conference.
Lesley-Anne: “We have thousands of workers all over the world whose experience, gained over many years of tireless work in the field, can be of invaluable help in the planning of new strategies and interventions. We are proud to have some of those people with us today, and participating in the main conference. It is important that your voices are heard.”
Conscience – the moral sense of what is right and what is wrong that guides our thoughts and actions.
Lesley- Anne: “The world of HIV/AIDS is a highly complex one that presents many moral dilemmas. Listening to our conscience is not always easy; it often requires us to confront uncomfortable truths, to challenge our prejudices, to accept criticism, to move out of our comfort zones.”
She ends her speech saying, as we continue our work, may we be “Driven by compassion, to ease suffering and to tackle all its causes; Open to learning and the sharing of ideas and feelings, in communion with others; Guided by our consciences, so that we “act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with our God”. (Micah 6:8)”.
There is a short break in order to decide which workshop to attend to. We have three options: “Moving from end-of-life-care to promotion of positive living with HIV and AIDS”, “HIV and Addiction” and “Spirituality and Pastoral Care”. For sure I am not the only one here that would like to attend to more than one. But, compared to the choices we will have to make at the conference itself, this task is quite easy.
A high rise in HIV infections in Eastern European countries is going to be an important topic at the conference and I was told that its main cause is drug abuse. So I decide to join the workshop on “HIV and Addiction”.
As different workshops end, participants meet again and each group shortly summarizes orally what they’ve been talking about. In all workshops various local approaches were presented and discussed and many participants’ feedback was that it was very informative to get to know different local realities.
After dinner – the temperature gauge is still at 30 degrees Celsius – there is one more speech. Msgr. Robert Vitillo invited Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, General Secretary of World Young Women’s Christian Association, to join the networking sessions and share her experience and fortunately she could make it.
Her speech is passionate and she presents her “daughter” Maria who is HIV infected. Maria, whose real mother died of AIDS, shares her experience with the audience. Her very personal testimonial accompanies us on our way home.