This job is just a mission

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by RITANNA ARMENI

22 February 2020

The Ospedale Pediatrico Bambino Gesù could be described as a river in flood. I had asked the president of the hospital, Mariella Enoc, for an interview for “Women Church World” because she is one of the few women who matter in the Vatican. She runs a children’s hospital that is 150 years old and is at the forefront of care and research. The hospital has 607 beds, 28,000 admissions every year; 290,000 surgeries or interventional procedures, 339 transplants; 22,000 day hospital cases; 84,000 emergency room accesses and over 1,900,000 outpatient services. And then there is the research into rare and ultra-rare diseases that have provided treatments to 50% of the patients who have needed them. In addition, there are 700 scientists and experts engaged in research.

The woman I have in front of me is therefore “powerful” (even if, I realize immediately, she does not like this definition) since health facilities in Italy and in the world depend on her and she manages millions of euros. This is the reason why I did what is customary before an interview with a woman who matters and who is very busy. I sent her the questions I wanted to ask her before, I made the appointment for the interview well in advance and I found her answers ready “so as to have a basis for discussion”, she says. The beginning is cordial, but formal.

“Do you feel like a powerful woman?” She smiles. “I feel like a woman with a great responsibility, I feel the need to always be very cautious, to be careful. I am aware that this hospital, which is so important for the care of children and for the thousands of people who work here, should not suffer any adversity, and this needs constant vigilance. I am not interested in power. I believe in authoritativeness, not authority”.

Then, after a formal beginning, everything changes. In a few minutes the interview becomes more conversational and the formal atmosphere is done away with by a jovial mood and the desire to recount by this seventy-six year old woman, with a cheerful and lively eyes and a green dress. “I have never dressed like a man. I know, when women become managers, they go to boards of directors and they dress like men, I do not, I always wear dresses, perhaps bought on a stall, but dresses”.

“A job, or is it mission?” I ask her. “For me, a job, and this job in particular, is just a mission. I keep asking myself: What is my purpose? What motivates me to commit and dedicate my life? Then there are the severe and sometimes painful decisions, but these are also part of my mission”.

It does not take me long to realize that the questions I have prepared are quite ideological and inadequate when confronted with the realities that Mariella Enoc is ready to talk to me about, and her passion. In a few minutes she breaks with the usual format.

 “Don’t you know? They tell me I look like Pope Francis’ sister”. “You do resemble him”, I reply.

I know very well that the president of the Bambino Gesù is not referring to the physical resemblance, even if there is a little bit of it, but to the spirit with which she conducts her mission, to the stubbornness with which she demolishes rites and officialdom, while going to the substance of the matter, to the sick children who must be healed in Italy and in other parts of the world where the great institution of the Bambino Gesù tries to reach, in search of a Church that is of those who suffer.

The relationship with Francis is a close one. “When the Pope comes to visit us he does not want an official welcome and we try to obey his request. The visits take place as he wants them. I do not compromise on a single commitment. Before visiting a ward he must wash his hands thoroughly and then do it again before he goes on to another. He caresses and kisses many children. On the most recent occasion he got tired of these procedures. “I’m not afraid of contagion”, he said. “I’m not doing it for you, but for the children”, I replied.

All right, Francis is Francis, a left-field pontiff, but let us also talk - I ask her - about the rest, about power and roles, the men who possess it, about the marginalization of women. “I am interviewing you because there are very few women in the Vatican who matter and you are one of them. Have you ever wondered why there are so few women? Is it misogyny? Is it discrimination?”.

“No, it is not misogyny or discrimination. Women are a new voice and what is new is accompanied by fear, fear of returning to the origin of the Christian community. I could speak of a defensive attitude, for this is what prevents the Vatican from admitting women to roles of responsibility. This defensive approach also applies, generally speaking, to the laity. When problems emerge, the Church of the institution defends itself and thinks only of keeping those who did not create them [problems]”.

With a confession accompanied by joyful satisfaction, Mariella Enoc was chosen for her professionalism and competence which has always resulted in being offered important positions. She has always been “the first” and has found herself in roles that had never previously been occupied by a woman, but she has never experienced discrimination. “Anyway, I have always had good collaborators”, she adds.

 “Male or woman collaborators? Do you have women by your side?”. “In over forty years I couldn’t find women who wanted or could put themselves on the line with me. Maybe my approach to work is too all-encompassing or maybe not the right circumstances. Women are extraordinary doctors, full of professionalism and self-denial, but perhaps they are not available for a managerial job that is so life encompassing like mine. I view their absence as a weakness throughout my professional life. I have thought about it”.

 “And what conclusions have you arrived at?”. “When I started working I thought that the quotas for women were nonsense, then I realized that there would be very few women on a board of directors if there was not a law, and so I changed my mind”.

The president of the Bambino Gesù has no qualms about criticizing or even of being self-critical. She is not interested in power, and hates - as is evident -the usual formalisms and rituals. She admits that passion is the foundation of her work, and is not shy in declaring it.

“If there was a man in your place, would he behave like that?”. “The way I run the hospital expresses who I am as a woman. Man and woman are different, they are different in the way they think, in the way they make decisions. The most important thing is always to be yourself. However, women are quicker in making decisions”.

She is certainly very quick, she identifies the problem, examines it, discusses it with  staff and acts. If the goal is to care for children in Ngouma, a village in the Central African Republic, the Bambino Gesù hospital creates a health point there. “When I arrived I realized there was the center, but there was no road. How could they take the children there? Someone told me that the construction of the road was not up to us. Maybe, I thought, but it was necessary. So I found another million euros and had it built. And then I also bought an engine for the barge that crossed the river which was until then still being rowed”.

Africa, Syria, and Ethiopia are present in the projects carried out by the Bambino Gesù and many other countries, too. The hospital goes where there is a need and identifies new needs in society. “Today we should invest in territorial structures capable of intercepting and managing mental distress. Do you know that the number of adolescents who come to our Emergency Room for acts of self-harm or suicide attempts is increasing every day?”

I am sure that Mariella Enoc will have to confront  this problem too, and will resolve it. The engine of passion is unstoppable. We are in her studio, which is simple, without frills and valuables. On the walls there are photos of Pope Francis to whom the president of the Bambino Gesù is constantly referring. Episodes, stories of her meetings with him. “He once reported a case to me. I specify: he pointed it out to me, he did not order anything. He concluded his note with this sentence: ‘Read, weep, decide’. I read it, I decided for the best of the child. No, I didn’t cry, I do not have the gift of tears”.

 

Caption: With Pope Francis during his visit to the Ospedale Pediatrico Bambino Gesù in Palidoro (5 January 2018)

Caption: Bambino Gesù photo