'Holy Family with the Lamb' by Raphael via Wikimedia Commons

Where are You?

Valentina is a gynecologist who used to do research in England, and now finds herself working in family counseling centers. She has to reckon with many problems: the pill, artificial insemination, sex. Here is what she is discovering.
Davide Perillo

The hand was her own. She was writing hurriedly, trying to finish as quickly as possible while asking routine questions to a woman she’d barely even greeted, the last patient of the day. Illnesses? Problems? Family history? “At a certain point, I looked at my shaky hand moving across the paper almost hysterically. I annoyed myself. I stopped and thought: Vale, where are you now? I looked up, I saw this woman. Who is she? She is a person, a piece of Being, a woman I didn’t know before but who is now in front of me. It was only a moment. Nothing important. But it was there that my life was opened again.”

It is a simple story, this testimony of Doctor Valentina Doria, but it can help us better understand the challenges in front of us, which were unthinkable until only a few years ago. It can reveal how fruitful such occasions can be for those who decide to face them. This is what Pope Francis means when he speaks, like he does in Evangelii Gaudium, of a Church that “accompanies humanity in all its processes, however difficult they may be.” Or when he asks Christians to “find ways to communicate, with a language that is comprehensible, the perpetual novelty of Christianity.”Because, he says, “it is necessary to be realistic,”and“many times it is better to slow down, set aside anxiety and to look people in the eyes and listen to them, or give up other urgencies to accompany those who remained on the side of the road”–a point he made to us in his message to the last Meeting of Rimini.

Valentina is forty years old and boasts an impressive resume, which includes six years of PhD work in London studying the neural networks of fetuses, and in projects that took her to Stockholm to present her research to the Nobel Committee. Something was missing, though. “Research is beautiful, but I missed the contact with a living reality and I wanted to go back to the clinic.” In her case, the clinic is the Niguarda Hospital in Milan. She began working in 2010 and has spent three years there. Then, because of budget cuts, she finds herself without a job. She begins looking for work where she can find it, in outpatient clinics and in family counselings. It is a search burdened with the weight of doubt inflated by the voices of her colleagues:“Counseling centers are considered second-class compared to hospitals. I asked myself if I had wasted all of my years of studying, but that was the reality–there were no jobs in the hospitals. I was trying to read the signs of reality.”She is helped by a spark from a conversation with a friend. “He told me, ‘Look, Vale, we don’t build anything in life if we try to carry out our own projects. You do medicine, then you specialize to become a gynecologist, then you complete the PhD. But, everything must be for true charity. We build something only if we respond to someone in the present. Now, doing what you’re doing, what are you affirming? What do you love? Think about it…’”

The question remains with her while her week fills with things to do: along with the first clinic in Bergamasca, a second one is added, then a job in an outpatient clinic, then others. Her days become filled with challenges, powerful right from the start. “The hardest thing was working with the adolescents. I remember that on the first day a mother came with a 13- or 14- year old girl and almost threw her at me, saying,‘Doctor, you take care of it. Explain everything to my daughter because I don’t want any problems.You understand, right? The pill...’

They come like this continuously, accompanied or even alone. And a simple and dramatic thing happens to Valentina: she has a crisis.“I’ve been working for fifteen years, I know what the Church says, I have read Humane Vitae a thousand times. I thought I was prepared.”And instead?“I realized that these girls speak a different language. I was refusing to put them on the pill because I am certain that it is not right and that it breaks the human person in half. I tried explaining what love is, what responsibility is. I had a list of quotes from Fr. Giussani to try and move them. Nothing. It was a dialogue with deaf people. There were no words that we had in common: love, happiness, fullness, responsibility. Every value that I wanted to bring out was reduced and misunderstood. I couldn’t reach them. And I couldn’t live life myself just trying to make another person understand values. It wasn’t enough.”

Her days become dry, and not because of the work schedule, the 20-24 visits per day, the few minutes per patient, or the hours of moving between one clinic and another.“I was insecure. I would get to work, pick up the list of appointments and figure out what was going on: ‘This one’s in menopause, okay, there are no problems. Oh gosh, this one is young, I wonder what she wants...’ In short, I had not even started and had already cataloged my day between ‘pains in the ass’ and ‘things to avoid.’ It was a frenzy.”

A Total Revolution
“After a while, I found myself thinking: maybe it isn’t so true that Christ answers every need, and if He can’t answer them, why should He answer me? It was a point of total conversion. I remember one night I told my friends, ‘Either I let myself be turned inside-out, like a sock, or I lose myself.’” To turn her inside-out, a woman arrived without even saying a word.“It was a hard day, I had already seen so many patients. She came in. I fired questions at her so I could go home as soon as possible. At a certain point, I began to have a huge desire to be present. I looked up, I saw her. I don’t think she understood all my inner turmoil, but it was something extremely intense for me. What clicked was the desire to live reality in the way that it presents itself. It was there that I began to understand that I don’t want ways to run away. It was a total revolution, even in my relationship with Christ.” In what sense? “Instead of starting from good intentions of living with Him at the center of your life, suddenly you say: ‘But if He isn’t present in reality now, in the whole list of patients, not only in the ones I want, in the end who is He? He’s no one. I reduce Him to my thoughts.’In realizing this, the ground trembled under my feet.”And the need to understand multiplies.“I began to ask for help, concretely. I asked colleagues and gynecologists, both Catholic and non-Catholic, families, young people, priests...” One of them changes her perspective again, stretching her: “He told me,‘Valentina, first of all you have to do your job. And what is the first job of a doctor? The history: asking questions. You have to learn to ask questions.’ So I slowly started to ask my patients real questions–actual questions, not fabricated ones to which I already knew the answer.”

In asking, she also makes another discovery: Teen Star, a method of emotional education created by Pilar Vigil, a Chilean doctor, that is very popular in Latin America.“It is based on John Paul II’s Theology of the Body,” explains Valentina.“It restores full dignity to the whole body.It puts the person at the center. And, most of all, it begins from experience.Because you can’t teach teenagers anything if it does not have to do with what they live.”For example?“If you tell an adolescent, ‘You are not only your body, you are also spirit, so don’t use each other,’ it is very likely that it goes in one ear and out the other. Pilar instead makes them do an exercise. She tells them,‘Look the person next to you in the eyes for 40 seconds.’ They laugh, they can’t do it, it’s very hard. But in the end she asks them, ‘What happened?’ ‘No, it’s a mess...’Why? A girl jumps up and says, ‘Because behind the eyes, there is something else.’ Do you understand? You can’t force anything on another person and the next time you start from here.”

Very Clear Ideas
It is there, in what happens, that Valentina begins finding a path. “Think about natural family planning methods. A lot of times you talk about them and it falls on deaf ears. I thought that I was missing a true understanding of doctrine, or full professional skills, to say the right thing at the right time. Also, the Church speaks about them in the context of marriage; my patients are almost never married. I would tell myself, They’ll never be able to understand. But after a while, Grace enters in.”This is the (fictitious) name of a Nigerian girl, about 25 years old.She is a prostitute. One afternoon, she rushes into the clinic and says to her: “Doctor, for my job, I have men use condoms.” It is an awkward moment.“But with my man, I don’t want to use one, because we have to understand that there is something different.” There is another pause.“But we already have two sons and now we can’t have any more. Can you teach me about natural family planning?” Valentina still smiles telling the story. “I had her repeat it to me three times. I thought I hadn’t heard her right. Instead, she had very clear ideas. That girl was God’s answer to me. It was Him saying, ‘You think that today’s man can’t understand? Good, I’ll show him to you where you least expect it.’ For me it was fundamental.”Why?“It is the method of the Incarnation. You see in action what you have always desired with nostalgia. Suddenly it happens and you understand that it is what you desired... it is as if the ‘I’ suddenly touches reality. You touch something and that thing changes you, it’s like a vaccination. From then on, you have new instruments.It happened.I don’t knowhow it will happen in the other women, but for me it is enough to say, ‘It is not true that they cannot understand.’ The interesting thing, then, will be to discover the path, the steps to take together.”

In the meantime, she and Grace have become friends. And the same has happened with other prostitutes, Nigerian and Romanian.

The Right Questions
But did this path solve all of her problems? The pill for young girls, for example, what do you do? What changed? “I am more certain in proposing an alternative. Before, I always said it, I always talked about other possibilities. But it wasn’t a true proposal. It was like saying, ‘This is how I do it. If you don’t want to do it this way, go somewhere else.’ But it seemed like something intellectual.”And now? “I’m not rewriting Humane Vitae and I haven’t developed any case studies for the proper way of doing things. The peak of the mountain remains high and wonderful, but one on the path must be patient. And it’s not like if I lower the peak, man will be happier.” But you, are you more serene? “I’m never okay, I’m in constant tumult. But I realize that slowly, slowly I am reaching those girls. And that I, too, am making some real steps. Every time a young woman enters the clinic that I think wants the pill, I try to understand the context in which she lives, her story, how far I can go.” Family history, the right questions.The kind that touch the heart of the Tunisian woman who comes into the clinic seeking an abortion because “We already have three kids and we can’t do it.” She now has a fourth daughter, named Doria. “She told me, ‘I can’t name her Valentina ,it is a Christian name, but I want her to be as happy as you are.’ She didn’t say good, she said happy...”Or the kind that bring to the surface the hearts of the couple who knocked on her door a few weeks ago. “Two very simple people: he a worker and she a housewife.” They can’t have kids, and another clinic has convinced them to try artificial insemination. “They came to us already having tried everything. And I said,‘Well, then, why are you here?’ ‘To understand.’ ‘Understand what?’ ‘If it’s right or wrong.’ But what? I could see that he was growing ever more insecure, until finally he burst out, ‘Doctor, I want to understand what is right, what is human, what can make me not feel so bad. Because I am furious. I feel like a sacred space that I share with my wife has been usurped.’”And you? “I was shocked. He understood it on his own, through his experience. It is incredible to see a heart that is discovering something about itself. I didn’t encourage him saying, ‘The Church says...’ Everything was already there. It was happening. Afterwards, we read together some parts of Humanae Vitae and Donum Vitae, because I always have them in my purse. And this enlightened their hearts, it helped them judge.”

Are You Happy?
Enlightening the heart, and accompanying someone in the rediscovery of the human, from the field of experience. That’s what Christianity does, in any circumstance. “Last week, a young Indian couple came to me. To communicate with foreigners, we have big books containing essential phrases in 145 languages. It didn’t have theirs. He is a cook, she stays home. A very tiny woman, 4’7’’, she weighed 73 pounds and was pregnant. They were completely lost because she was throwing up a lot and very worried. ‘First child?’ ‘Yes.’ We scheduled tests, I calmed her down as best I could, speaking to her via her husband who knew a little bit of Italian. Then, at a certain point I asked her, ‘But are you okay? Are you happy?’ and he answered, ‘Yes, she is happy.’ This happens a lot: you ask the woman a question and the man answers for her. I insist, No, let her answer. Have you ever asked her?” And him? “He was surprised. Then he turned to her and asked her: ‘But are you happy?’ I can’t describe their faces, it was incredible. As if they looked at each other for the first time.” As if someone had looked at them for the first time.