Monday, December 24, 2007


In our world today the celebration of Christmas has moved from being a religous festival to a secular and fun filled time of joy and celebration. In all the glitz and glitter, there is a tendency to forget the deeper meaning of the festival. Let me describe what I think are three stages that people reach in their celebration of Christmas time…They can be described from some of the well-known Christmas songs:

The first stage is the “Silver bells and Jingle bells” Christmas where we are all moved by the shopping, the bells and sleighs, the tinsel and the tree, the gifts and the sweets, the stars, holly and ivy. The hero of this stage of course is our very own Santa Claus. Many people mistakenly think that Christmas is actually Santa Claus' birthday. At times he is even used to frighten children into being good. They are are told: “You better watch out…or Santa will have no gift for you…”

The second stage is the “Silent Night and Joy to the World” Christmas where we have moved to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ - a historical event that took place about 2000 years ago. We recall in our hearts the beautiful first Christmas, a silent and holy night in which joy came to the world and all the faithful sang songs of “glory to God”. This is a good place to reach but we can go further.

In the third stage we literally reach the heart of Christmas which is the “Christmas of the heart” for “Christmas isn’t Christmas till it happens in your heart”. Some of you have perhaps heard that song before. It was part of the repertoire of many choirs and the words are:

“Christmas isn't Christmas 'til it happens in your heart. Somewhere deep inside you is where Christmas really starts. So give your heart to Jesus you'll discover when you do that it's Christmas, really Christmas for you.”

Another carol that seems to epitomize this “heart Christmas” is entitled “The Meaning of Christmas”. After commenting on people Christmas shopping and buying fancy presents, bright colours for the party, bright dresses on parade…The chorus goes “But Christmas is for those who have a heart, those who take a part in bringing joy and happiness, Yes Christmas is for those who dare believe in a world of peace and love”

When we search for the meaning of Christmas we can reach any of these stages…of course the higher stages include the lower ones. We could remain locked up with the Santa Claus Christmas…holly, ivy, Rudolph and his fellow reindeer, or we could go beyond and reach the crib and the manger, the beautiful liturgy, the magnificent choir, the well-decorated Church and believe me that is a good place to reach. BUT our search will truly end when we find God in our hearts. We renew and open ourselves to peace and love, to sharing and to forgiving. If we find God in our hearts we will never lose Him …it will be Christmas for us always…

Saturday, December 15, 2007



New, more accurate estimates of HIV indicate that approximately 2.5 million (2 – 3.1 million) people in India were living with HIV in 2006, with national adult HIV prevalence of 0.36%. Although the proportion of people living with HIV is lower than previously estimated, India’s epidemic continues to affect large numbers of people.

The revised estimates are based on an expanded and improved surveillance system, and the use of more robust and enhanced methodology. The inclusion of the results of the recent national household survey - the National Family Health Survey 3, conducted in 2005–2006 - in the estimation process contributed significantly to the revised estimates. Over 100,000 people were tested for HIV in the survey which was the first national population based survey to include a component on HIV.

In addition, India has expanded its HIV sentinel surveillance system in recent years with the number of surveillance sites increasing from 155 in 1998 to 1120 in 2006. Data from pregnant women attending antenatal clinics, people attending sexually transmitted infections clinics and population groups that are at a higher risk of exposure to HIV are included in the surveillance.

Prevalence trends in India vary greatly between states and regions. Even in the four southern states (Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu) where the large majority of people living with HIV are residing, HIV prevalence varies and the epidemic tends to be concentrated in certain districts. Reported adult HIV prevalence in six states included in the recent national population-based survey varied from 0.07% in Uttar Pradesh, to 0.34% in Tamil Nadu, 0.62% in Maharashtra, 0.69% in Karnataka, 0.97% in Andhra Pradesh, and 1.13% in Manipur. Prevalence in all other states together was 0.13%. An earlier analysis of sentinel surveillance data also showed that HIV prevalence in southern states overall was about five times higher than in northern states in 2000–2004. However, pockets of high HIV prevalence (mainly among population groups at high risk of exposure to HIV) have also been identified in states where overall prevalence is generally low, warning against complacency.

Data from the expanded 2006 sentinel surveillance show stable or declining prevalence among pregnant women in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh, but high HIV prevalence among sex workers, and rising HIV prevalence among injecting drug users and men who have sex with men in a few states. Outside of the north-east of the country, where the use of contaminated drug injecting equipment is a key risk factor, HIV appears to be spreading mainly as a result of unprotected sex between sex workers and their clients, and their respective other sex partners. Prevention programmes focusing on sex workers show some success and HIV prevalence is on the decline among sex workers in areas that have been the focus of targeted prevention efforts, especially in Tamil Nadu and other southern states. However, prevention efforts are often complicated by the varied nature of commercial sex.

[1] UNAIDS. AIDS Epidemic update: December 2007. Geneva: UNAIDS, 2007, 21-23.

Saturday, December 8, 2007




Today's feast is one that places Advent in perspective – Mary is being prepared to be the mother of the Saviour and this is done by ensuring that from the first moment of her conception she is kept free from all sin – she is all-holy. In the Constitution Ineffabilis Deus of 8 December, 1854, Pius IX pronounced and defined that the Blessed Virgin Mary “in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin.”

For those of us who are part of the Salesian family this feast recalls the pivotal moment in the development of our charism. On 8th December 1841 Don Bosco encounters Bartholomew Garelli and this signifies his movement from intention to action. He now begins to make his dream - of serving the poor and abandoned - a reality.

I want to focus our attention this morning on the IC in the light of the recent encyclical of our Holy Father released 30th November entitled “Spe Salvi” on Christian Hope. It is my firm conviction that the entire life of Mary is a parable for us of Christian hope. At this moment I invite you to listen to all the readings of our liturgy today from the perspective of the hope that God offers us in sending us his son born of Mary.

It is always hard to preach on a Marian feast that is so well-known. It is harder still when this feast follows a triduum of sermons, and it becomes almost impossible when one has not had the opportunity to hear all that was said in the triduum. So you will pardon me if I repeat something said during the triduum.

Running through the readings of our liturgy today is the theme of hope. The IC stands as a symbol of Christian Hope. It is God’s sign that he has not given up on sinful humanity. Even after man and woman sin in the garden God promises to send the seed of the woman to crush sin and the devil (First Reading) He sends his Son to save us – a part of his eternal plan of salvation - and Mary is the instrument of the Incarnation (Second Reading). And God prepares Mary for this great mission by ensuring that she is sinless so that she can be a fit dwelling place for the Sinless Son of God. Mary’s Fiat is her acceptance of this mission which the Angel Gabriel announces to her (Gospel). Her presence on earth is therefore a harbinger of hope – a clear statement that God still loves the world.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the mass we make the focus of our reflection the recent encyclical of our Holy Father “Spe Salvi” on Christian Hope (19,000-word encyclical). It is my firm conviction that the entire life of Mary is a parable for us of Christian hope. In fact the last two articles of the encyclical are subtitled – Mary, Star of Hope. Allow me to share with you some of the key contents of this section before we move to some of the practical ways proposed in the encyclical to build up hope.

Allow me to cite the words of our Holy Father himself, they are so beautiful and poetic I would hesitate to paraphrase them for fear of destroying their meaning...

Mary, Star of Hope

49. With a hymn composed in the eighth or ninth century, thus for over a thousand years, the Church has greeted Mary, the Mother of God, as “Star of the Sea”: Ave maris stella. Human life is a journey. Towards what destination? How do we find the way? Life is like a voyage on the sea of history, often dark and stormy, a voyage in which we watch for the stars that indicate the route. The true stars of our life are the people who have lived good lives. They are lights of hope. Certainly, Jesus Christ is the true light, the sun that has risen above all the shadows of history. But to reach him we also need lights close by—people who shine with his light and so guide us along our way. Who more than Mary could be a star of hope for us? With her “yes” she opened the door of our world to God himself; she became the living Ark of the Covenant, in whom God took flesh, became one of us, and pitched his tent among us (cf. Jn 1:14).

50. So we cry to her: Holy Mary, you belonged to the humble and great souls of Israel who, like Simeon, were “looking for the consolation of Israel” (Lk 2:25) and hoping, like Anna, “for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Lk 2:38). Your life was thoroughly imbued with the sacred scriptures of Israel which spoke of hope, of the promise made to Abraham and his descendants (cf. Lk 1:55). In this way we can appreciate the holy fear that overcame you when the angel of the Lord appeared to you and told you that you would give birth to the One who was the hope of Israel, the One awaited by the world. Through you, through your “yes”, the hope of the ages became reality, entering this world and its history. You bowed low before the greatness of this task and gave your consent: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). When you hastened with holy joy across the mountains of Judea to see your cousin Elizabeth, you became the image of the Church to come, which carries the hope of the world in her womb across the mountains of history. But alongside the joy which, with your Magnificat you proclaimed in word and song for all the centuries to hear, you also knew the dark sayings of the prophets about the suffering of the servant of God in this world. Shining over his birth in the stable at Bethlehem, there were angels in splendour who brought the good news to the shepherds, but at the same time the lowliness of God in this world was all too palpable. The old man Simeon spoke to you of the sword which would pierce your soul (cf. Lk 2:35), of the sign of contradiction that your Son would be in this world. Then, when Jesus began his public ministry, you had to step aside, so that a new family could grow, the family which it was his mission to establish and which would be made up of those who heard his word and kept it (cf. Lk 11:27f). Notwithstanding the great joy that marked the beginning of Jesus's ministry, in the synagogue of Nazareth you must already have experienced the truth of the saying about the “sign of contradiction” (cf. Lk 4:28ff). In this way you saw the growing power of hostility and rejection which built up around Jesus until the hour of the Cross, when you had to look upon the Saviour of the world, the heir of David, the Son of God dying like a failure, exposed to mockery, between criminals. Then you received the word of Jesus: “Woman, behold, your Son!” (Jn 19:26). From the Cross you received a new mission. From the Cross you became a mother in a new way: the mother of all those who believe in your Son Jesus and wish to follow him. The sword of sorrow pierced your heart. Did hope die? Did the world remain definitively without light, and life without purpose? At that moment, deep down, you probably listened again to the word spoken by the angel in answer to your fear at the time of the Annunciation: “Do not be afraid, Mary!” (Lk 1:30). How many times had the Lord, your Son, said the same thing to his disciples: do not be afraid! In your heart, you heard this word again during the night of Golgotha. Before the hour of his betrayal he had said to his disciples: “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33). “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (Jn 14:27). “Do not be afraid, Mary!” In that hour at Nazareth the angel had also said to you: “Of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk 1:33). Could it have ended before it began? No, at the foot of the Cross, on the strength of Jesus's own word, you became the mother of believers. In this faith, which even in the darkness of Holy Saturday bore the certitude of hope, you made your way towards Easter morning. The joy of the Resurrection touched your heart and united you in a new way to the disciples, destined to become the family of Jesus through faith. In this way you were in the midst of the community of believers, who in the days following the Ascension prayed with one voice for the gift of the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 1:14) and then received that gift on the day of Pentecost. The “Kingdom” of Jesus was not as might have been imagined. It began in that hour, and of this “Kingdom” there will be no end. Thus you remain in the midst of the disciples as their Mother, as the Mother of hope. Holy Mary, Mother of God, our Mother, teach us to believe, to hope, to love with you. Show us the way to his Kingdom! Star of the Sea, shine upon us and guide us on our way!

The encyclical gives us 3 settings for learning and practicing this Christian theological virtue of hope – prayer, the acceptance of suffering and the Last Judgement. I would like to comment on the first two as practical means we have to build up hope.

1. A first essential setting for learning hope is prayer. When no one listens to me any more, God still listens to me. When I can no longer talk to anyone or call upon anyone, I can always talk to God. When there is no longer anyone to help me deal with a need or expectation that goes beyond the human capacity for hope, he can help me. Prayer opens me continually to God and to his assurance of hope. Mary is a model of prayer. She meditates on the key events that she cannot understand and in time she sees that they are all part of God’s ways of leading her deeper into the mystery of the incarnation.

2. Suffering is an essential part of our day to day lives. We can try to limit suffering, to fight against it, but we cannot eliminate it. In the tradition of the church there is the idea of “offering up” the minor daily hardships that continually strike at us like irritating “jabs”, thereby giving them a meaning. In this way, even the small inconveniences of daily life could acquire meaning and contribute to the economy of good and of human love. Maybe we should consider whether it might be judicious to revive this practice ourselves. Mary was a woman of suffering – a sword pierces her heart many a time. It is her firm faith and hope that enables her to transform these painful moments into the joyful awareness that Easter follows Good Friday.

As we continue with our Eucharistic sacrifice on this beautiful feast of hope, we pray that Mary the star of our hope may continue to lead us in times of discouragement and despair. May prayer and our acceptance of suffering enable us to experience God’s closeness and love to us in our daily lives.

And a Happy Feast of the Immaculate Conception to all of you!!!

Friday, December 7, 2007


(Source: UNAIDS. AIDS Epidemic update: December 2007. Geneva: UNAIDS, 2007, 4-6.)

Every day, over 6800 persons become infected with HIV and over 5700 persons die from AIDS, mostly because of inadequate access to HIV prevention and treatment services. The HIV pandemic remains the most serious of infectious diseases to challenge public health. Nonetheless, the current epidemiologic assessment has encouraging elements since it suggests:
- the global prevalence of HIV infection (percentage of persons infected with HIV) is remaining at the same level, although the global number of persons living with HIV is increasing because of ongoing accumulation of new infections with longer survival times, measured over a continuously growing general population;
- there are localized reductions in prevalence in specific countries;
- a reduction in HIV-associated deaths, partly attributable to the recent scaling up of treatment; and
- a reduction in the number of annual new HIV infections globally.

Examination of global and regional trends suggests the pandemic has formed two broad patterns:
- generalized epidemics sustained in the general populations of many sub-Saharan African countries, especially in the southern part of the continent; and
- epidemics in the rest of the world that are primarily concentrated among populations most at risk, such as men who have sex with men, injecting drug users, sex workers and their sexual partners.

In 2007 the estimated number of persons living with HIV is 33.2 million [30.6–36.1 million] which is greater than ever before. But it is important to note that there are two opposing influences acting on this figure. In the first place good prevention efforts reduce new infections; and, secondly, treatment scale-up reduces deaths among people with HIV.

Global HIV prevalence has been estimated to be level since 2001. Downward trends in HIV prevalence are occurring in a number of countries, where prevention efforts are showing results. Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya and Zimbabwe have all seen declines in national prevalence. In South-East Asia, the epidemics in Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand all show declines in HIV prevalence.

The estimated number of deaths due to AIDS in 2007 was 2.1 million [1.9–2.4 million] worldwide, of which 76% occurred in sub-Saharan Africa. Declines in the past two years are partly attributable to the scaling up of antiretroviral treatment services. AIDS remains a leading cause of mortality worldwide and the primary cause of death in sub-Saharan Africa, illustrating the tremendous, long-term challenge that lies ahead for provision of treatment services, with the hugely disproportionate impact on sub-Saharan Africa ever more clear.

HIV incidence (the number of new HIV infections in a population per year) is the key factor that prevention efforts aim to reduce, since newly infected persons increase the total number of persons living with HIV; they will progress to disease and death; and are a potential source of further transmission. Global HIV incidence likely peaked in the late 1990s and in 2007 there was an estimated 2.5 million [1.8 – 4.1 million] new infections. This reduction in HIV incidence likely reflects natural trends in the epidemic as well as the result of prevention programmes bearing fruit.

A final conclusion concerns the quality and nature of strategic information relating to the pandemic and the effects of prevention efforts. Increased investments in interventions for HIV prevention, treatment and care are showing results. It is hard to adequately define the impact of specific interventions or programmes. This will require special studies in local areas, including assessments of HIV incidence, mortality, programme effectiveness and the burden of HIV infection, disease and death in children.

As the resources committed to AIDS and other major health problems continue to increase, more emphasis is required to strengthen systems to collect and analyse data and to improve the quality of such data to strategically guide programming. Despite the challenges and limitations inherent in data collection, the resources made available to the global AIDS response have enabled good quality statistical information that is superior to many other global disease estimates.

Thursday, December 6, 2007



By Matthew Coutinho sdb

NASHIK, DECEMBER 6, 2007: With the hype building up for the Beijing Olympic Games 2008, Don Bosco School Nashik decided to motivate the athletic squads of five other schools of Nashik - Kilbil St. Joseph, Nirmala Convent, Silver Oak, Sacred Heart and Horizon Academy - to come together and enjoy a bit of the Olympic spirit. The programme titled "Don Bosco Mini-Olympics" was a fitting occasion to showcase the theme "Journeying with the Young". The day chosen for this mega-event was December 5, the day when Salesians all over the world commemorate Blessed Philip Rinaldi.The programme commenced at 11:30 am with the lighting of the torch in Silver Oak School. The torch held with pride by the outstanding athletes of each school journeyed through the various parts of the city accompanied by a police escort and halted at each of the competing schools. At 1 pm, the torch ended its journey at Don Bosco School for the grand opening of the Mini-Olympics. At the stroke of 3, the Chief Guest, Mr. S.N. Sayyed, Nashik Police Commissioner, was escorted to the grounds with the Divyadaan band striking a lively march and the Don Bosco School Scouts presenting him the guard of honour. The chief guest was enthused by the very concept of the programme and requested Fr. Diego Nunes, Principal, Don Bosco School, and the chief organiser to do something along the same lines at the district level and promised support of the police personnel and facilities for the event.What followed was a veritable feast for the eyes and the heart! The opening ceremony began with beautifully decorated floats driven by the guests. The competing schools then creatively presented the motto of their schools. Silver Oak school depicted the vision of their school using the symbolism of a sailboat and won the first place for their float. Next up was the march past, with the various schools in colourful attire swayed to the rhythm with laudable coordination and grace. The torch was then lit and the sportsman pledge was sworn. This was followed by a symbolic gesture by setting the pigeons free and the colourful balloons with the symbols of the Mini-Olympics went soaring up into the evening sky, the sign for the games to begin. The athletic competition brought together the best athletes (boys and girls) of each school, who competed in the track events in three age groups namely under-12, under-14 and under-16. The evening came to an end with the prize distribution ceremony. The Chief Guest for the prize distribution ceremony was Mr. Boraste, Deputy Mayor of Nashik. He, too, was impressed by this novel idea of bringing together different schools in a true sportsman spirit. The best “marchers” were Don Bosco School. The best team was also awarded to Don Bosco School whose budding athletes excelled not only in the individual events but also captured all the three relay events. After the final taps were played, the flag lowered and the prizes collected, it was time to set home. And on everyone’s lips and in their hearts was the desire to return for the next version of Don Bosco Mini-Olympics. Kudos to Fr. Diego Nunes and all the staff members of Don Bosco School for this well-executed event organized with finesse to bring the young together.