AIDS in Africa is more than a public health pandemic, according to Kenyan Bishop Anthony Muheria. The disease is a "deep spiritual and traumatizing wound," as he sees it, one that can only be healed through “spiritual comfort.”
The World Health Organization says that one in 20 people in Kenya are infected with AIDS or HIV.
And Bishop Muheria told CNA that the pandemic "is real." In his diocese alone there are 30,000 "HIV/AIDS orphans" being cared for by Church agencies. "I don't think anyone, not even the government has any number close to that," the bishop commented.
Bishop Muheria, 47, has been at the helm of the Diocese of Kitui since 2008. Located roughly 100 miles east of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, the diocese is home to about 1.1 million people, 200,000 of whom are Catholics in the majority Christian country.
The Kenyan people, Bishop Muheria said, are "wonderful, generous and open.” But, they also face what he described as “great challenges” — deep poverty, chronic drought, infertile land, widespread illiteracy. And always, the scourge of AIDS and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Bishop Muheria says the Church’s role in providing assistance is nothing short of "amazing." He estimated that at least half of all Kenyans suffering from the disease receive some sort of assistance from faith-based care.
Kenyan Catholic agencies work closely with CAFOD, the Catholic Overseas Development Agency sponsored by the bishops of England and Wales.
With the help of partners across the world, the diocese provides food and water, material and education assistance to the smallest victims of AIDS, those children who have lost both parents to the disease. They often live with relatives who, without the Church’s assistance, would not have the means to take the children in, he explained.
When he visited Africa in March 2009, Pope Benedict XVI described AIDS as a “scourge.” But he drew scorn from many world health officials and political leaders when he insisted that providing condoms was a false solution “lacking in soul,” that risks “worsening the problem."
Yet on the ground in Kenya, Bishop Muheria sees the wisdom of the Pope’s words.
Focusing on giving away condoms, he said, is a “cold approach,” that does not touch the “very big wound” that is being caused by the disease.
AIDS, as he describes it, effects not only the public health, but the soul and the spirit of the people.
For a child orphaned by HIV or AIDS, the "biggest wound" is his difficulty in forgiving and loving both parents, the bishops said.
He used the all-too-frequent case of a child who knows that his mother was innocent but was infected by a father who had been leading a "bad life." When both die, the bishop explained, the child must try to come to terms with the love he should have for his father and the truth that he has been orphaned because of that father’s misdeeds.
"That wound is the one that is much deeper than a lot of the other wounds that we can speak about," he said.
The Church’s AIDS ministry is concerned with far more than the spread of the disease. It also confronts each person's "deep spiritual and traumatizing wound that can largely be healed by spiritual comfort."
That’s why distributing condoms is no solution. With that approach, he said, "we are depersonalizing the issue."
"Today we are talking about an epidemic that demands sacrifices and this is what people don't want to do, make sacrifices," he said.
Bishop Muheria spoke of the quiet "heroism" of wives who stick by their infected husbands. There is even a form of heroism in an infected spouse's decision to abstain from sexual relations for the good of his or her family.
The Kenyan Church is working to respond to the poor and the sick as Jesus Christ would. "But to reach out is not just to cure,” the bishop added. “Christ didn't cure everyone. First and foremost and most important, you must reach out to the wounds of the heart. They must feel Christ touching them, and that's what the Church does and she has done that and continues to do that in Africa in an amazing way."
He said that people come to him with real problems and they cry together. This is a matter of death, suffering and forgiveness, he said, that cannot be minimized to a material questions.
"Those are very serious problems, and you have to bring them to terms, tell them, you can still be holy, even having HIV and AIDS you can still be a saint."
During his in-flight answer in 2009, the Pope said that efforts should be made to renew the person internally, giving spiritual and human strength to a just behaviors involving the body and to be present, "suffering with those who suffer."
Turning back to the 30,000 orphaned children, Bishop Muheria said, "we have to give hope, but real hope to these kids, a hope that forgives, opens up their heart to a new world. And at the same time, they're able to speak about their experience of encounter with Christ, about the cross that they have had to go through."