Consecrated Doctors and Nurses, on the Front Lines

President of Women´s Medical-Missionary Association

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VATICAN CITY, MAY 17, 2001 ( Grappling with AIDS and malaria patients in poor countries is all in a day´s work for the Women´s Medical-Missionary Association.

The association of lay consecrated doctors and nurses lives out its mission among these «plague-ridden» peoples of Africa and Asia, often with few health-care resources.

The group recently remembered their late founder, Adele Pignatelli, by inaugurating a new department of intensive therapy in the St. Albert Hospital of Zimbabwe. For the past two months, the association has also been carrying out a program for pregnant and seropositive women there.

In this interview, Dr. Elena Sangiorgi, president of the association, explains how her companions see and live their mission.

–Q: It could be said that you are frontline missionaries of humiliated humanity.

–Sangiorgi: Yes, we live in the front line because the association´s communities are at the service of missionary dioceses, specifically, in hospitals and rural structures. Hence, we must face the most dramatic health problems of the moment, especially in some countries of Africa. As is known, one of the most important is the problem of AIDS. In Zimbabwe, where we are, the rate of seropositives is 26% and rises to 40% among pregnant women.

–Q: In how many countries do you carry out your work, and what is the health situation in those places?

–Sangiorgi: At present, we are in Zimbabwe, India and the Philippines. We are now thinking of a foundation also in Peru. In all the countries where we work, especially in rural areas, the situation in the field of health is really terrible, especially in regard to infant and maternal mortality.

We have many cases of very young mothers who die in childbirth, because they live very far from the hospital and, when they arrive, the possibilities for surgery are practically nil, also because structures and equipment are lacking.

–Q: Your Association, however, is not limited to medical-health care.

–Sangiorgi: No, we also work in the social field. Generally, along with our health projects we create small projects that extend from micro-credits to small agricultural projects. At present, with funding from the Italian episcopal conference and the European Community, we have obtained in Zimbabwe the possibility of establishing agricultural exploitation, which will serve both to give work to people as well as finance the hospital and provide food for patients.

–Q: Lay women, professionals, wholly dedicated to the mission — from where does such a radical choice stem?

–Sangiorgi: The association was founded 50 years ago by Adele Pignatelli, who was a doctor in Rome and who, in those years in which much thought was given to the laity and the missions, had the inspiration of this charism: to give life to an association of consecrated, but lay, life, with people who work for development in the missions.

Adele Pignatelli was supported and encouraged by a priest called Giovanni Battista Montini, who later became Paul VI.

–Q: What did Paul VI think of all this?

–Sangiorgi: Adele Pignatelli was a spiritual daughter of Monsignor Montini. Later, Pope Paul VI continued to be her director. She wanted to go to the missions alone. The year was 1941, and it seemed an impossible dream because the war soon deprived her of two of her relatives.

She asked Monsignor Montini´s advice, and he answered that perhaps the Lord wanted something different from her, that is, that she not go herself to the missions, but that she send others.

When Paul VI proposed this to her, our founder answered: «I am neither a saint nor crazy, and I really don´t think I am able to do that.»

Monsignor Montini then said to her: «God asks something not only of saints and mad people, but also of the humble. He asks it in the name of the Church.» These were, more or less, the first words from which our association was born.

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