Twenty years of AIDS care by Caritas Romana
By Rev. Robert J. Vitillo
Caritas Internationalis’ Special Advisor on HIV and AIDS
I read with great surprise the news that Caritas Romana is observing the twentieth anniversary of establishing its HIV and AIDS Services on 5th December. This is an occasion when the words, “It seemed like only yesterday …” at least for my memories of the work of Caritas Romana in this field.
In the late 1980s, I was working at the General Secretariat of Caritas Internationalis in Rome and, very early into my assignment, received the blessing of meeting Don Luigi Di Liegro, the Director of Caritas Romana. Before coming to Rome, I too had served as the Director of a diocesan Caritas organization in the United States, so I identified with the role and challenges faced by Don Luigi.
I quickly perceived, however, that this was no ordinary Caritas director. Every word that he spoke and every action that he took revealed the true meaning of the word “caritas” as it was exemplified by Jesus Himself. Don Luigi was truly a man of “complete and unselfish love”. He treated every person he met, from the highest political or ecclesiastical leader to the homeless person on the street with respect for the God-given dignity they had received as children of God.
Thus it was no surprise that Don Luigi reacted swiftly and with determination to improve the plight of people living with AIDS in Rome during the late 1980s. Many such persons were kept in hospital far beyond the necessary periods of time – mainly because they had no place to stay and no one to care for them.
Many had been abandoned by their families long before they knew that they had contracted this serious illness. Don Luigi decided that Caritas Romana should develop group home situations for such people – two homes for men and one home for mothers and children – all living with AIDS and with little hope of survival (since this occurred during a time when we had no knowledge that combination anti-retroviral treatment could prolong life expectancy and improve quality of life for persons living with HIV and AIDS).
Don Luigi was intensely focused on offering a welcoming, non-judgemental and compassionate environment to the residents of the Caritas Romana residences. He made that clear, in no uncertain terms, to those recruited to staff these residents. He greatly honoured me by requesting my assistance in planning the residences and in developing policies and procedures for their programmes.
Then came the difficult times. Local residents in the Villa Glori (Parioli) area of Rome were incensed that Don Luigi would bring people with AIDS to live in their upper-end area of the city. They protested and even introduced court action to block his plans. Don Luigi remained firm in his commitment to people living with the virus and presented a strong defence in court. Eventually, he, and those who would benefit from the Caritas Romana residences, won the case.
Once the houses opened, Don Luigi learned the painful stories of the residents and never seemed rushed or impatient as they recounted the many challenges encountered in their lives. Instead, he smiled broadly as they told him about the warmth and welcome they experienced in their new homes sponsored by Caritas Romana.
Perhaps most vividly I recall the day when the actress, Elizabeth Taylor visited the Villa Glori residence. She was accompanied by the fashion designer Valentino; 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 Ms. Taylor started to speak English, Don Luigi realized that he had not provided for translation – he shouted across the room to me, “Bob, lo fai tu! (Bob, you do the translation!)”.
I am certain that the love and spirit of Don Luigi’s concern for people living with AIDS remains in the Caritas Romana residence. I know that his inspiration continues to strengthen my own commitment to advocate with and for those living with or affected by HIV.
I display prominently in my office a photo of Don Luigi and I can hear him say the words inscribed on this photo which, loosely translated into English, remind me: “It is not enough to talk about love; we must be willing, as Jesus did, to dirty our hands and put love (Caritas) into action with all whom we serve.”
Happy Anniversary to Caritas Romana and may Don Luigi continue to guide, from his new and heavenly home, the active love that is promoted by Caritas all over the world!