Helping Those Infected With AIDS Recover Their Dignity

Missionary in South Africa Reflects on What Will Stop HIV

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ROME, MARCH 2, 2012 ( Consolata Missionary Bishop José Luís Ponce de León considers South Africa his home, though he is actually from Argentina.

As the bishop of the Vicariate of Ingwavuma, he is the pastor of one of the regions of the world most affected by AIDS.

Bishop Ponce de León says that bringing the AIDS pandemic to an end is much more complex than simplistic programs; education is the key.

Mark Riedemann for Where God Weeps in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need interviews Bishop José Luís Ponce de León, the Apostolic Vicar of Ingwavuma in South Africa, a region with the highest percentage of HIV/AIDS infection in the whole world.

Q: Your Excellency, you were born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1961. When did you have your first experience of God? 

Bishop Ponce de León: I think that it started with the family. I would not say that my family was a religious family where we prayed during meals or prayed together every day, but certainly, the thing that we did was go to Mass together on Sundays. It was always the four of us; it was a small family with just two kids, my sister and I but the four of us always going to Mass. Then, when I was 13 or 14 years old, I was invited to join a youth group. I think it was then that it became really a personal experience of God. 

Q: You entered the seminary at a very young age. When did you know you wanted to become a priest?

Bishop Ponce de León: I was 18 years old and in the youth group I came to know the Consolata Missionaries. Through meeting the Consolata missionaries, we came to discover something that we had never seen before, which was the missionary work of the Church. It made me think of the possibility of becoming a lay missionary. I remember it as a special day. It was in April and a Sunday, we were praying for vocations and for some reasons I remember that I was in my room thinking, maybe God is calling me not to be a lay missionary but a priest. My call was a kind of a package: a religious, a priest, and missionary priest — the three things together. 

Q: You went to South Africa in 1994. Was it a place that you chose or were you sent by the Consolata Missionaries? 

Bishop Ponce de León: Both. At the end of our formation, just before ordination, we are asked to indicate three places where we would like to work. I wrote, South Africa, Ethiopia, Mozambique and available to go to Asia. I did not know yet where at that time.

Q: So you wanted to go far away. It didn’t matter where but far away. 

Bishop Ponce de León: As Consolata Missionaries we are to proclaim the Gospel where it is not known and so Asia was something we were looking forward to. I was sent to Argentina, back home, back to Argentina. 

Q: Was it a disappointment? 

Bishop Ponce de León: I knew there was a need there because there had not been an ordination for a number of years, but after six years I wrote the Superior General saying, time is passing and I fear that I will never learn a different language, never be able to go. Please send me somewhere else. Sure enough, he did. He offered South Africa. 

Q: What was it like for you — a Latin American arriving to Africa? What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome? 

Bishop Ponce de León: You know it is said that it is easier for people from South America to go to Africa because of the way we relate to people. The challenge, probably is that we do not have the financial resources behind us and so we are unable to write back home, to organizations in our countries or anyone we know for financial help unless you’ve studied and worked in Europe or North America. The other challenge was arriving, a white person within the context of the end of apartheid. The Catholic Church is only 4% and so not everyone knew that I was a priest. Their first impression was that I was a white person, the one with power, the one with money, and one of those that was running everything until yesterday in South Africa. 

Q: So there was an instinctive distrust? 

Bishop Ponce de León: Initially it was, but fortunately the first thing I did and still do is to say something in Zulu and that changes completely the whole thing. 

Q: Your first diocese was Dundee [South Africa] and as you mentioned you learned the language Zulu. You became a South African citizen. Is this now home for you? 

Bishop Ponce de León: Yes. When I joined the Consolata Missionaries I never thought that I would go to a different country only for a few years. For me it was for life. But then I was transferred to Rome. A year later, I became the Secretary General of the Consolata Missionaries. I thought this the end. I will never go back to South Africa … until I got this funny phone call from the Apostolic Nuncio in South Africa saying: «Congratulations the Holy Father has appointed you Bishop of Ingwavuma.»

Q: And you said «No»! 

Bishop Ponce de León: I lost two kilograms (4.5 pounds) in one week. I was completely in shock. I never met the Nuncio and I did not know him. It was completely unexpected and in fact I said I did not know what to say and he said: «Just say yes.» 

Q: And you said yes? 

Bishop Ponce de León: I was very much confused. You know, I am very much in favor of a local Church with local priest and local bishop in charge. I was a religious, a foreigner in a Zulu context; it did not make sense and at the same time I said: «Well it is a vicariate and not a diocese. There is work to be done so it will become a diocese, maybe that is why I am being called being a Consolata Missionary so we are there to develop the local church and move somewhere else.»

Q: Your Excellency it is a beautiful area but it is also an area of suffering. South Africa has one of the highest AIDS rates in the world and I believe in your area it has the highest rate within South Africa itself. How do you work in this context? 

Bishop Ponce de León: I came to know the area because of Hlabisa where the Cathedral is. It is famous because it is said to have the area where they have the highest percentage of AIDS in the world, I didn’t know where it was. Later on I found myself there in the Cathedral. I really believe that the Bishop Conference had a brilliant idea in the year 2000 when they decided to coordinate all the projects from Pretoria, from Khanya House, from the main office of the South African Catholic Conference Office in Pretoria because this was a pandemic and it would have been extremely difficult for anyone of us to run alone what we are doing today. 

Q: What is the number that we are talking about in KwaZulu Natal? 

Bishop Ponce de León: In our area, it is said that between 30% and 40% of the people are HIV positive, which means that there is not a single family that is not affected by this pandemic. I remember years ago when a mayor of a town was saying one in every three and he said: «Look to your left and now to your right: one of you is positive.» And it’s as simple as that. Moreover, it affects people between 15 and 40 years old. In the year 2000, I was 40 years old at that time, in the mission where I was working 50% of the people I buried were younger than I. There was no discussion of saying: «We feel that many people are dying.» We knew that they were dying and we knew that they were very young.

Q: What was the answer?

Bishop Ponce de León: Education is the answer. The government chose the policy of ABC (Abstain, Be Faithful and Condom). Practically, though it was the CBA (Condom, Be Faithful, Abstain). It did not work. The pandemic did not stop and the government began wondering what went wrong. Some people believe that they have the right answer for the pandemic of AIDS in South Africa as if there is an easy answer to the pandemic. I say come and stay for a while in South Africa and then you will understand that it is a difficult problem and there are many reasons why the pandemic is still going o

Q: Is the government reflecting again on its program? 

Bishop Ponce de León: It is and now they always involve the Church in their plans. It is said that we, the Catholic Church, are the largest care providers in South Africa. We were pioneers in many aspects. When the government would struggle to make decisions or take steps, the Catholic Church did it. We saw that an anti-retroviral program was essential for us and we could not afford it. So the AIDS Relief Consortium came to our rescue and that is how we started.

Q: There is another challenge which is recently arising and that is violence, xenophobia against refugees coming from other countries particularly Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Can you tell us a little bit of what’s happening now in South Africa? 

Bishop Ponce de León: It is something new for us this violence against foreigners. We are used to this tension between racial groups in South Africa, between blacks and whites, but this is a reaction against black foreigners. When Mandela became President we started talking about the new South Africa, the rainbow nation. Everyone in the continent saw South Africa as the promised land, a place where you could build a better future and it was fair to feel like that. 

Q: Economically it was justified as well. 

Bishop Ponce de León: Compared with the other nations, yes. Also we had this amazing transition from apartheid to the new government. We were expecting a civil war in 1994, a real civil war, which never happened. It was a miracle. Something happened three weeks before the election that changed the South African history. 

Q: If we take a little diversion, can you put a «spiritual finger» on it? 

Bishop Ponce de León: During apartheid one of the things the churches did was a prayer campaign for peace. I think this was the fruit of these prayers for so many years. I just arrived and I couldn’t believe it. South Africa seemed to be on a path of civil war and nothing could change that future. Yet, three weeks before the election the IFP decided to join the election process and that changed completely the future and, certainly having Mandela as President as the people were with him. 

Q: What is your greatest need now in South Africa? 

Bishop Ponce de León: I think especially in our case it is always in the field of HIV. My main fear is: The anti-retrovirus program is excellent. We even have, in my Vicariate, a rural area, two shipping containers that have been transformed into a laboratory for blood tests. We follow up with the patients in the Vicariate so we do not have to send their blood vials to Johannesburg to see what is going on. 

Q: So, the parish becomes the hospital, the clinic?

Bishop Ponce de León: …everything is done there; we fully look after the person. And we have seen how people who are dying are able to recover their dignity. They stand up again. They are able to go back to work again to look after their families. But the anti-retrovirus only prolongs their life and only as far as we can provide the anti-retrovirus and this is my greatest fear, to run out of funds and not be able to support the people anymore. It is not only the ill but also their families. It is a whole generation, the future of this country, and we need to make sure that they can go to school, that they can prepare themselves better and that they can look to the future with hope. That is the main thing for us.

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This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for «Where God Weeps,» a weekly TV & radio show produced by Catholic Radio & Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

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