While she was growing up in her native Brazil, Mother Zelia Andrighetti says she dreamt one day of caring for lepers. A humble task for which, at the age of fourteen, she entered a convent in São Paulo, and chose to consecrate herself to the Daughters of Saint Camillus. This is the congregation with the particular charisma of remaining close to the sick even at the cost of their own life. Following a period of study at the Pontifical Lateran University and the position of Mother Superior Provincial of Brazil, Mother Zelia became the Mother Superior General in charge of more than one hundred facilities spread across four continents, all with a specific mission in the health sector. A position she has held since 2014.
Therefore, every day of the year and every hour of the day, Mother Zelia carries on her slender shoulders the task of administering hospitals, dispensaries, maternity centers, homes for the elderly, home care communities and nursing training schools spread across 23 nations. Each of these locations has a specific profile and therefore with unique needs and problems that she knows personally. After all, among the duties of the Mother Superior General is to visit each facility at least twice during each assignment in order to be able to make decisions that have been thought through. This is an enormous responsibility that Sister Andrighetti relays to me in simple and not at all fatigued words, where there is no trace of pride or ambition. “Really, as a young woman, I would never have imagined assuming this role”, she recounts from the generalate house in Grottaferrata, a stone’s throw from Rome, from where she sets off on her long intercontinental journeys. One of which she has just completed, which took her once again to the Philippines and Poland. This was a second visit as she was re-elected in 2020 at the end of her six-year term, so this is her second (and last, she stresses) assignment.
She really did not think, repeats Mother Andrighetti, that from her small Brazilian town she would come to organize such a vast network of goods and properties but above all, people. “[This is] because the first in my prayers are my sisters” who have to survive economically so the institute, which is one for the whole world, must first of all plan its budget with extreme caution. In so doing, those who have more can help those with less, in a system of communicating and generous vessels that Mother Zelia must handle thanks to her degree in Economics and Commerce. Her expertise is not far removed from that of the manager of a multinational company whose objective is not profit but assistance. “Yet my first mission is to enliven in service”, she explains. A way of saying that the religious of the order engaged in the apostolate need first of all a spiritual guide capable of being close albeit at a distance.
The hundred facilities all turn to Grottaferrata and the four councillors at the Mother Superior General’s side to submit a problem, and to give an account also of the delicate relations with the politicians wherever that may be. In addition, no place is the same as another. “In Africa it is mainly benefactors and philanthropists who enable us to keep our works alive, while in other places like the Americas we support ourselves with our work”, explains Mother Zelia. “Nothing is given to us; we have no salary so everything is instead used for the facilities. That is why the most frequent requests for help are about managing money so as to give the most to the poor, the sick and the elderly. What remains is always aimed at the apostolate”.
When she received the responsibility for this immense managerial undertaking, Mother Zelia realised, “That it is God’s will, a special grace in which I must constantly listen and never think I know the solution a priori”, especially when she has to make painful decisions, which are many, unfortunately.
“For me, it is very important to involve the people who are the protagonists in the story on which we are called to imagine a new path. I have to make them understand that there is an objective, I have to be able to direct them towards the good that is not that of one but of all our works as a whole, and this is not easy. It would be easier to make a decision and that’s it, but leading is not good. It is necessary that people all express their point of view and then arrive at a common point. And when we reach this common point I feel an immense peace because I feel that God is above my decisions”.
This soft yet effective approach, Mother Zelia further explains, is especially necessary in very hard times, when a facility is facing closure. There are many reasons that lead to such a decision, from the scarcity of nuns prepared for the task, to the fact that many daughters of St Camillus in a given country are elderly and sick, or it could even be political instability. In these situations, “Before God, we cannot lose”, Sister Andrighetti repeats, meaning that what may appear to be a defeat is actually the safeguarding of energies to be devoted elsewhere. The sorrow, however, is enormous. “I realise and feel the suffering of my sisters when we come to the closure of a project that had many beneficiaries. It is also the suffering of the local people who would like our presence”. It is the moment of criticism, which comes like arrows. Mother Zelia knew the weight of her role, so she is not surprised, “To please everyone is easy”, she comments.
Then of course, there is the good news, such as the opening of a mission on a very poor island in the Philippines, and the upcoming trip that will take her to Spain, Mexico and finally Peru. Despite the fact that Covid has significantly affected the general house in Grottaferrata (when at one point almost all the nuns were positive with the virus and even the Pope had mobilized forces to get groceries to them), Mother Zelia finds a positive approach, for example in the video calls that allow her to be close to the daughters of St. Camillus who are engaged over the distance. “When we see each other via Zoom it’s a joy, and that didn’t used to happen, we just used the telephone”, she says. Sister Andrighetti, on the other hand, always feels “as if I were still at school. Even when I have learnt about issues then I take them up, I study them, I observe, I want to talk to those who live in contact with certain situations”.
At times, the issues border on anthropology, the relationship of that particular population with illness, death, or funeral rites. Therefore, it is a continuous intersection of spirituality, economics, personnel management, geopolitical knowledge and a highly honed diplomatic skill that is especially useful in mediating with laws that in some countries might be hostile to the congregation’s mission. A management ability that elsewhere would find a ramification of roles and that in Grottaferrata, also for budgetary reasons, is concentrated in just a few sisters led by Mother Zelia. In the evening quiet of her room, she finds strength in the parable of the well in the Gospel of John, when Jesus unexpectedly turns to a Samaritan woman who has come to fetch water. “Jesus says to her: I have spoken to you, go and do the same thing”, reports Mother Zelia, “and these are the words that give me light and strength. They tell me that before facing any situation I must first confront myself with Him”.
by Laura Eduati
An example of management
The Daughters of St Camillus were founded in Rome in 1892 by the Camillian priest Luigi Tezza (1841-1923) and Giuseppina Vannini (1859-1911). The Institute was civilly recognised by royal decree in 1936. The fields of activity that it has historically been involved are hospitals, dispensaries, homes for the elderly, facilities for physically and mentally handicapped girls, home care, leprosy hospitals and missions. Over the years they have expanded to include the homeless, AIDS sufferers, street children; and in developing countries to nutritional centers, palliative care, and medicine distribution. It has a set of internal policies and procedures, which are constantly updated, for the regulation of its activities. These guidelines follow specific principles; first, the formation and implementation of the Institute’s decisions must be characterized by the utmost transparency and sharing among several parties. Second, technical-operational functionality must be kept separate from accounting and managerial activities. Third, internal procedures, where possible, must also be characterised by the separation of roles, with particular reference to the exercise of control functions, which must remain separate from decision-making and operational functions, therefore safeguarding traceability of processes that must be guaranteed. Forth, the principle of transparency must be implemented, consisting both in the visibility of internal procedures and the completeness of the rules governing them, and in the duty of communication and information on relevant decisions between the various functions.