AFRICA/ZIMBABWE - Luisa Guidotti Mistrali: "I want to go on mission as a doctor, leave forever, remaining lay among the laity"

Wednesday, 22 March 2023 missionaries killed   cause of beatification  

by Stefano Lodigiani

Mutoko (Agenzia Fides) - "An Italian lay missionary, Dr. Luisa Guidotti, 47 years old, originally from Modena, who for more than ten years had been directing the medical center of the mission, about 150 km north-east of Salisbury, where guerrilla warfare is ongoing, was killed on July 6, 1979, following an incident with Rhodesian troops. She belonged to the Women's Medical Missionary Association." This was the meager statement published by Fides News Agency, which informed of the tragic death of the "missionary doctor", which occurred in Rhodesia, a former British colony, now Zimbabwe, under circumstances that have not been fully clarified.

Pope Francis authorized the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints to publish on December 17, 2022 the decree concerning the recognition of the "heroic virtues of the Servant of God Luisa Guidotti Mistrali, consecrated laywoman of the Female Medical Missionary Association, born on May 17, 1932 in Parma and killed on July 6, 1979 in Mutoko (Rhodesia)".

Born in Parma, Luisa Guidotti moved to Modena with her family upon her mother's death, welcomed by her aunt, who later adopted her (this is why Luisa added her aunt's surname, Mistrali, to her surname Guidotti). Her spiritual formation began in the Catholic Action in the parish of St. Domenic in Modena, which she attended for nine years, during which she held the position of director of the Girls' Youth and became a member of the diocesan council. After scientific high school, she studied Medicine and Surgery at the University of Modena. She graduated in 1960 and in the same year she asked to be admitted to the Women's Medical-Missionary Association (now the International Health Association) established by Adele Pignatelli with the support of Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini, the future Pope Paul VI.

Members of the Association, doctors and paramedics, after a period of training, take vows of obedience, poverty, chastity and missionary life. Their life and apostolate are based on Sacred Scripture and the sources of Christian spirituality. They carry out their missionary activities in small communities working exclusively in the health field, preferring peoples and nations suffering conditions of poverty and hardship. Those were the years before the Second Vatican Council. The years, Luisa would later write, "the time when we were becoming aware of the function of the laity in the Church." And again, "I wanted to go on mission as a doctor, to leave forever, remaining a lay person among the laity".

In August 1966, having received the missionary crucifix from the Archbishop of Modena, Luisa left for what was then Rhodesia, destined for Chirundu, where the Association ran the Paul VI Hospital attached to the mission. The African country was experiencing the bloody years of civil war, which lasted from June 1964 to December 1979, which saw the forces of the government - in the hands of the white minority - against Robert Mugabe's rebels. The conflict, which resulted in at least 20,000 deaths, ended with the Lancaster House Accords and the 1980 elections, which saw Mugabe's victory, independence and recognition of the country's new name, Zimbabwe.

In February 1967 Luisa moved to the government hospital in Salisbury to gain better professional training. In the same year she returned to Europe. In early 1969 she left again with destination the "Regina Coeli" mission hospital, Njanga disctrict, on the border with Mozambique. In December of the same year she was transferred to Mutoko, to work in the mission hospital, All Souls. At the same time she served at the leper colony in Mtemwa and the emergency room in Chikwizo.
From 1972 to 1975 she was again in Europe, and returned to Rhodesia in February 1976. On June 28 she was brutally arrested by the police on charges of treating a boy, an alleged guerrilla, without informing government authorities. Released at the end of August, she was able to return to her hospital where she resumed her activities amid hostility from the authorities.

Despite the increasingly tense situation, Luisa did not want to leave the country, so as not to abandon the sick and needy. On July 6, 1979, while she was returning alone in an ambulance from the Nyadiri hospital, where she had accompanied a woman in labor at risk, she was hit with a burst of machine gun fire by a patrol of government soldiers. She was transported to Mutoko public hospital, she arrived there lifeless.

"The choice made by Luisa was never questioned, even in the most intricate and dramatic situations", tresses her biographer, Marzio Ardovini, "remaining always a convinced assertor of her specific role as a lay missionary, although consecrated to the Lord by private vows. Understandable misunderstandings in mission lands about the lay configuration of the group (they were called the "Pope's Doctors"), will lead Luisa to claim secularity as a founding characteristic of the Institute, as she wrote to the foundress: 'I ... struggle to bear the constant "SISTER"...; I was very keen on the lay character of our group because it is LAY, even if consecrated to God: it is my personal vocation. Now our whole lay character is linked to the dress, a dress that we now share with many nuns who have left the religious habit ... I am writing these things to you because I care a lot about my lay vocation and because you, as central leader, have the right to know how the Institute is currently being presented in Africa'."

Luisa wants to emphasize the specificity of the lay vocation, which cannot be relegated to a qualification (sister) or to wearing or not wearing a dress... What matters is the discovery of secularism as such, without the privileges or preferences of one's professional status, explains Ardovini. Here returns, in all its virtues, the doctrine of the Vatican II which Luisa, internalized and lived in person, and will apply consciously and consistently.

"Her attachment to the most genuine secularity in an institute approved by ecclesiastical authority led her to an increasingly conscious understanding of a supernatural solidarity with every creature to be loved as she is loved by God. Therefore she feels the need for the consistent Christian witness realized not only by proclamation but by the example of mutual love, most effective for the African culture, as the first chapters of the Acts of the Apostles teach...Authentic witness, insofar as it is based on love, becomes intelligible to all those with whom Luisa comes into contact, no matter whether educated or simple people." She writes, "How good is the Lord to have given me the opportunity to be his witness in such a simple way and intelligible by the learned and simple children."

The personal experience of imprisonment (June 24/26, 1976) will dramatically bring out the theme of faithful witness, the fruit of a gift that only the Holy Spirit can give. Reflecting on that period, Luisa wrote to a friend, "The Lord has helped me so much in these two months; what now remains is an increase in Charity. So many write to me and the poor people here still come to give me their congratulations ... so many are those who feel they are my brothers these days. It is good to love, but it is also good to feel loved. It is really touching to see how I am loved. I truly feel shona with the shona as St. Paul said, Greek with the Greeks, Roman with the Romans".

The Servant of God feels, in her secularism, "Shona with the Shona", Ardovini points out, because "it is God Himself who, by the gift of adoption as sons in the outpouring of the Spirit, makes her able to cry out this affirmation by being their supernatural sister (Rom. 8:15-16). Citing, moreover, Pauline doctrine on the subject (1 Cor. 9:19-23) further strengthens the interpretive rightness of the passage in question."
On the subject of missionary activity, Ardovini adds, "An authentic missionary vocation is recognized by its full and conscious adherence to the Kenosis (Phil. 2:7), that is, in the profound imitation of Jesus in his Incarnation: to be a missionary therefore means to incarnate oneself, like the Savior of the world, in a culture, in a very specific people. The Church chooses, in missionary activity, the same path as the Master in his universal redemptive work. This doctrine, revolutionarily Catholic, is authoritatively recommended by Paul VI (encyclical "Ecclesiam Suam", no. 10) and by Vatican II (Decree Ad Gentes, n.10) in texts certainly known to the Servant of God".
(Agenzia Fides, 22/3/2023)