Interview with Flora Gualdani, founder of Bethlehem House, a place of welcome, formation and prayer
I met Flora Gualdani at Casa Bethlehem House. A group of cottages in a park outside Arezzo that Flora has had built and where women and children in difficulty are housed and given initial assistance. But today Bethlehem House is not only a place of care for difficult maternities but it is also a place of training. This training comes from Flora Gualdani herself, who has for years, worked as a midwife, who has travelled the world to better understand maternity and newborn life, who has got to know hospitals and missions, and has started a training initiative; an intensive disclosure on the value of life, responsible procreation and on bioethics. Around her she has formed a group of collaborators who support and accompany her with her work. Without aid, and in a poverty of with which she is proud, focusing solely on volunteer work she moves forward day in day out in what she calls a "sanctuary of life".
Could you tell us about how, decades ago, you started your work on behalf of motherhood and life?
I was a midwife and I travelled the world. I lived through the passage from old-fashioned midwifery up to its modern equivalent. When I started, women gave birth in country houses where there was no running water, telephone, sometimes even without electricity. Ultrasound and ambulances did not exist at the time.
How was the idea of Bethlehem house born?
I was upset after meeting women flown abroad to have abortions. In 1964, in the grotto of Bethlehem, I was overwhelmed by an intuition. When I returned to Italy, in a hospital I found a woman dying of cancer, who decided not to abort. I stayed close to her, and a beautiful girl was born who I kept with me until the courageous mother recovered. I thought that this matter had ended there; God, however, had a plan. That child was the first of a long series. Then the single mothers began to arrive. The house began to fill up, I asked my father for my part of the inheritance: an acre of land where I built cottages to accommodate mothers and children. In this sanctuary of life I have joyfully spent all.
And now what is the objective of your work?
To transmit the Gospel of life as a testimony of the harmony between action and contemplation. To assist difficult cases of motherhood and spread the teaching of bioethics: we combine charity with the "splendour of truth," providing training. The Rule is Ora, stude et labora , cantered on the contemplation of the mystery of the Incarnation and the exaltation of Mary's maternity.
I would Imagine that you have encountered difficulties. What specifically?
The tribulations of a young secular woman who starts up on her own. And having to renounce public funds. The choice of poverty could be considered crazy but it educates you in the prayer of self-abandonment. If the “bearer” is not poor, the "instigator" is not the protagonist, I’ve learned that its only possible to stay on your feet if you remain on your knees.
Today are women helped or hindered by society in their desire for motherhood?
Our society is afraid of life. Years ago it was written that it was only the demented and the poor who produce children. They are the ones who lead the way.
If - as I think – nowadays society does not support maternity, who should be held responsible?
It is caused by insufficient family policies. By moral indifference and distortions: generation has become granted by technology. I am concerned about the pressure on diagnosis, on eugenics that comes from France, where children with down’s syndrome are no longer born. I have seen omissions not only in the wards but unfortunately also in the sacristy: the fear of being unpopular does serious damage and is the result of a decline in faith.
What remedies do you, a person who has made the battle for maternity and life your aim, suggest?
While helping pregnant women in the midst of war and the dispossessed, I compared how motherhood is treated motherhood in different geographical and cultural contexts. I saw the poor being more capable of giving welcome. The Western woman today has to rediscover the value of good motherhood, which is a constitutive element of her nature. It is in maternity, physical or spiritual, that she fully realizes herself. Every woman must learn to rejoice in feeling female, mother and wife: nuns as well, foe being capable of tenderness and self-sacrifice. Motherhood is joy achieved through suffering, in a fruitful path of love. Only a woman can reach certain summits of self-giving, it is she who, like Mary at Cana, has a mother's intuition to understand in advance what is needed. Hers is the capacity to resist the harshest trials. It is to the woman that the keys of life are given, in cycles of fertility: this is the other wisdom which has to be recovered, by means of natural methods. The Church has understood this in advance.
We know that Italian women are falling back less and less on termination of pregnancies, but this remains common among non-Italians. What are the causes that lead to abortion?
I would first state that we should include recent drugs that induce early abortions, otherwise we only see the tip of the iceberg. The obstetrician’s out-patient clinic is a particular type of confessional, and after half a century I am aware that the woman is induced to abort does not so much for economic reasons, as for the fear of feeling herself to be alone.
How can you help a woman who wants or expects a child and who cannot afford it for economic reasons?
It is necessary that the woman feels loved and precious because of the importance of her pregnancy for the whole of society: we ought to genuflect before an expectant mother grateful for the value of that gift. Sharing her suffering, personal dedication, promptness in concrete help: this is our style, made effective by prayer. It has saved hundreds of children, giving back to as many women the freedom not to have an abortion. The most dramatic stories have passed through here, and no one has returned regretting having accepted the child: neither the pregnant eleven year old, nor a prostitute, nor the victim of violence.
The Culture of Life: Do you believe that we live in a world where this is in short supply And how do we fight this cultural poverty?
An education in values and bioethical literacy. At Bethlehem House we provide counselling, workshops and training courses to form our instructors. Around Italy we have been engaged for years in an itinerant apostolate, using among other things, artistic language. People remain fascinated because the Bethlehem charism of harmony manages to reconcile faith and science, the creature with the Creator. It helps women who carry with them the trauma of an abortion to reconcile themselves with their child; it accompanies the healing process using the eyes of transcendence. Jesus is the only drug that can cure that wound: He loves.
What do you mean by the Bethlehem charism of harmony?
Bethlehem House wants to be a small university of love. My lessons speak of the two altars that exist on earth: one is the nuptial bed. I teach the sanctity of life but also the act that consents to it. I outline an embodied science that combats both materialism and angelism: since God has not given us wings (Italian: ali ) but genitals.(Italian: genit ali )
Did you feel supported by John Paul II. How did the Pope help?
His theology of the body has strengthened my faith, helping me to face the martyrdom of ideas and of the heart. But I also have reverence for Paul VI who pointed out the main lines of our mission: he said that Christmas is the true reason for happiness; it was he who decided the exaltation of Mary's motherhood on January 1, he had the courage to sign Humanae Vitae, leading him to "displease everyone so as not to lie to anyone."
In your work you rely on Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Lisieux. Why this choice?
These are my gigantic friends. Francis for the joy of poverty, Catherine for her apostolic fire, Teresina for the greatness of spiritual childhood. This combination has given the spiritual rule to Bethlehem House: prayer, sacrifice, joy.
Starting from your own experience what do you ask of the Church today?
I would ask certain currents to rediscover the authentic theology of the Incarnation, going back to the lowly cave of Bethlehem. And always to believe in the educability of man redeemed by Christ, as John Paul II repeated so often. The message of Humanae Vitae is capable of being put into practice among the people of today: our school is a witness to that. Today we are a growing fellowship of families and individuals who passionately dedicate themselves to this modern apostolate. Lay people who live by means of their own work.
You are a woman who has given so much to the Church. What do you think the main role of women in the Church should be?
John Paul II speaks of the feminine genius and of a new feminism: you women – he explained - have the duty of being "sentinels of the invisible". Returning from the Vatican II my bishop instructed me to keep the Eucharist in Bethlehem House, saying, "As long as you live, wherever you are, the Eucharist must be there" A well-known gynaecologist claims that ours is a religion which is “inexplicably hostile to women”: in reality, the Saviour, both coming onto the earth and departing from it, chose a woman. In fact, the Word took flesh from the womb of a young girl, a virgin who gave such a wonderful informed consent. And then he asked another woman to proclaim that he is Risen: a prostitute whom he had already given, in his wounded flesh, the experience of resurrection.
Born in Arezzo in 1938, Flora Gualdani has been a midwife since 1959. She worked until the nineties in public health, with personal experiences abroad. In 1964 she founded Bethlehem House, taking in dozens of young mothers from all over the world. A place of worship, a shelter, a centre of education on the theology of the body and responsible procreation, her initiative has become the subject of his dissertations and, since 2005 it has been a public association of the faithful. She published her first book under the pseudonym of Letizia of the Child Jesus.
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