By Rev. Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo, Caritas Internationalis Special Advisor on HIV and AIDS
The news of Elizabeth Taylor’s death brings back vivid memories of the day that she visited Caritas Rome’s “Villa Glori” residence for people living with HIV and AIDS.
In the late 1980s, Caritas Romana was among the first organizations in Italy to set up such a residence. It was a time when people living with AIDS were feared and rejected, often by their own family members. Fear and rejection were not within the vocabulary – or heart – of Msgr. Luigi Di Liegro, then- Director of Caritas Romana.
One night I accompanied “Don Luigi” on a walk through his neighbourhood to check on the street people who camped out near his house; he knew each by name and was interested in what they might need and encouraged them to go to the shelter, another service maintained by Caritas Romana.
On this particular evening, Don Luigi informed me that “Liz” was coming to visit the Villa Glori residence and invited me to be present, since I had helped to set up and organize the residence. Ms. Taylor was accompanied by a famous Italian fashion designer; he stayed only a few minutes, but she made it clear that she had come to visit and remained for almost two hours. As soon as she started to speak English, Don Luigi realized that he had not provided for translation – she he shouted across the room to me, “Bob, lo fai tu! (Bob, you do the translation!)” and thus I became the personal interpreter for this famous actress.
At first, I was transfixed by her eyes – they really were lavender in colour! But then I quickly realized that I had to pay attention to her words if I did not want to make a fool of myself but also because she was speaking in such an affirming and caring manner to the residents.
They were well aware of her fame, but they put on no “airs” with her – they wanted her to feel at home, as they truly felt in this residence. Of course, they asked her for autographs. She had no pen with her and borrowed mine (then almost took it away with her, so I had to remind her that the pen was my property!). She showed how comfortable she was with the residents by accepting a plastic cup filled with Fanta and some of the cake that was served on paper plates.
But she also listened with much respect as they recounted their stories of drug use, life in prostitution, and various other personal problems experienced in the course of engaging in risk behaviour that ultimately resulted in HIV infection. Her compassionate, non-judgemental attitude was one that those of us who are HIV educators try to inculcate in trainees preparing to do counselling with persons living with or vulnerable to this virus.
Liz lived long and fully enough to cover several spans of life, but she maintained her commitment to promote the rights and dignity and full access to treatment for people living with HIV. May God take this into account when she faces her Creator and, through God’s loving mercy, may the welcome she received at Caritas in Rome be repeated in eternal life.