Leo Pessini: A bioethics of friendship!

Pablo González Blasco Uncategorized 1 Comment

On July 24, the Order of the Ministers of the Sick, the Camillians,  lost their Superior General in office. Bioethics lost one of the leading figures of recent years. I lost a great friend. A friendship of almost 40 years, which began in the early 80s, when Father Leo Pessini began his ministry as chaplain of the Hospital of the Clinics of the University of São Paulo Medical School.  His was a newly ordained priest, and I was a young doctor just graduated.

We met frequently in the corridors of the Hospital, in the Chapel – decorated with the paintings of Fulvio Pennacchi, a famous painter who later became my patient and who I had the privilege of taking care of him  until the last moments of his life. And, of course, we agreed next to the bed of the sick. The classmates remember how we asked for their support to bring the Anointing of the sick, to which he always attended solicitously. It was a special “request for consultation” that became frequent and set in unforgettable stories. The patient who improved greatly after the anointing and one of the most positivist doctors  asked if he could not be administered daily ….. Or the other who at night asked the nurse to call the chaplain, and the good lady answered: “But if you say you are not a believer, how do you ask me this?” And the doctor: “That I am an atheist has nothing to do with the sick; please call the chaplain. ”

A few years later, Father Leo projected himself as a figure known throughout Brazil. In 1985, Tancredo Neves, president of the newly elected Republic, was transferred from Brasilia to the Hospital of  Clínicas in São Paulo, where he would die weeks later. The newscasts accompanied the outcome daily, the doctors’ statements, the exams that were getting worse, and the figure of that young chaplain who attended to the president and his family. Years later, I think It was  during a meal, Leo told me: “I was little more than 30 years old, and that situation surprised me without experience. I went to snack several times at the house of the Cardinal Archbishop of São Paulo, who was the one who ordered me to be a priest, to get some advice. He told me: ‘Leo, limit yourself to spiritual assistance; don’t get into political  issues. It helped me a lot, because there was even a corresponding foreigner who came to offer me money to take pictures. ‘Hey, I’m the chaplain, not the photographer. And I keep silent ex officio’. It seems to me that it was at that time, during the long agony of Tancredo, and in the ethical challenges, where the seed of the taste for Bioethics took root in Leo’s heart.

As time went by, our paths separated, although we agreed from time to time, and we renewed our dreams to improve medicine, and to inject humanism in health care that, at the rhythm of the always seductive techniques discovered, seemed to be on a weird trajectory in which     the main protagonist was forgotten: the patient. I remember that we met once at the airport in São Paulo: “I am going to Brasilia, we are going to open a Medical School” I looked surprised, and I mentioned something about the suspicions that medical councils pointed to the indiscriminate growth of medical schools. “It is true; but after eighty years taking care of health in Brazil, and with more than 40 hospitals, if anyone has the right to open one it is us. It is not a whim; It seems to me a duty. ” Definitive and courageous argument, when Leo was already at the head of the Institution of S. Camilo in Brazil.

Years later I told him: “Leo, now you have the medical school, other University centers for the training of health professionals, all excellent, how are you going to get your students to enter your hospitals, and be the managers and directors? That is, how to make the people you train responsible for the assistance in your Institution? He replied smiling: “Joining education and assistance is a huge challenge. You have to convince each other. ” And then he put me in check: “What if you were the director of our Medical School l”? I felt the blow, and replied smiling: “We know that this articulation does not depend only on us. Leo, we are friends for more than 30 years. If I assume a managerial position in your Institution, in two weeks we will be disagreeing. We better continue drinking coffee, and projecting our humanistic dreams. ” With a gentle blow to the shoulder, he settled the question: “You are right, you are an outsider. You better stay where you are, because getting into a faculty is going to limit you. So, on your own, you get to work with everyone who wants to call you to collaborate. ”

The many new obligations moved Leo Pessini away from the academic scene. But he was always attentive to opportunities to improve his management. We agreed in an academic congress in Guanajuato, the Mexican city that they claim to be the most Cervantine ….. It was by my side, when a professor from our medical education group presented the initial results of her research on the erosion of empathy in medical students. Leo whispered to me during the presentation: “Is she saying that students leave the faculty worse than they enter, less empathic?” I nodded affirmatively. “That interests me a lot; I want to know what happens in our faculty. ” I introduced her to the teacher, and Leo opened the way for her to complete her research at the Camillian Institution. And when the Doctoral Thesis was presented, a couple of years later, there was Leo on the board to appraise the Ph D research.

Father Leo Pessini, understood each other, opened doors, uncovered possibilities, encouraged to dream. Always willing to listen. He  did not agree with everyone, but everyone attended, also when he had to take disciplinary action. He once told me that he had asked a teacher to leave the teaching staff. He maintained a scandalous relationship with another teacher and warned him: ‘I have nothing to do with your personal life, but here in my Institution, you will understand that I cannot passively attend this situation that has been made public. What would you do in my place? ”He generously compensated him, cordially invited him to leave his post, but he did not water the wine, he maintained the charisma. I remembered what another friend of mine, by the way a wonderful professor,  Jewish himself, who studied with the Jesuits in Loyola (Chicago) once told me: “If you are going to study in  Loyola, you know what you are going to find. You can agree or not with the rules. But it would be naive to try to change them.”

He was a prolific writer, author of many books and publications, through which he disseminated his ideas and concerns for Bioethics. Whenever we met, he gave me several of his latest books, with stimulating and optimistic dedications that pushed you to be better. “With esteem, to the friend of the bioethical paths, at the service of life, taking care of the Samaritanly of the sick, seeking certainties in a world of uncertainty, always together in the challenges that life places us.” The last book he published he handed to me a couple of weeks before his death, when I last visited him. “Those are reflections for the internal tribe, the Camillian. So, if something happens to me, this remains as a testament. ”

He was a tireless traveler, when Superior of the Order, visited more than 40 countries in recent years to encourage his Community. I received e-mails or WhatsApp from Kenya, Vietnam, India, from all the countries of Latin America, from Canada, from some islands in Indonesia where he found the Camillians seminar with hundreds of seminarians. He breathed happiness seeing the work of his Brothers under the charism of S. Camilo “who wanted to have a thousand arms to take care of the life of those who were victimized and threatened.” But he took time to write, to attend to the friends and the thousands of contacts scattered around the world. When I once let him know that I had been invited to give a conference in Russia, he sent me the book by Henry Nouwen: “The return of the prodigal son. Meditations on a Rembrandt painting ”. I read the book during the flight, before seeing the painting in the Hermitage Museum, in St. Petersburg. I took a picture, sent it to him, and received the answer: “I didn’t know it was so big.” Leo had never been there, but he worried about me, he wanted me to also enjoy the work of the Dutch painter spiritually.

He showed serenity and optimism when things did not go as planned, as we would all like. I remember when I visited him in Rome, returning from a Bioethics Congress in Asia. I felt upset with the arguments that are lost in theories and do not reach the person. “Leo, there are those who live from Bioethics and have not seen a sick person in their life. We do not need stratospheric bioethics but of the ordinary, of everyday life. The bioethics of knowing how to smile and take care of those who suffer, without being distracted by global problems that, although they can be important, end up dispensing us with the commitment to daily care. The ethics of the trench – in the words of a common friend, professor of bioethics and surgery – which is what we have to live at dawn, when the “specialists” sleep peacefully. ” He smiled one more time and downplayed the matter: “In this field, my friend, there are all kind of people. But we are old enough to lose serenity. Do your part, be optimistic. Do not lose the good taste in the mouth for no good reasons. Serenity, at this point, is a necessity for your life. ”

In recent months, when he was having treatment for the fatal disease, he always included in his messages this dimension of peace: “I continue with the therapeutic routine, without news. At the end of January we will see the new control evaluation. Reading, meditating, praying, sleeping, writing … in short, making the new time something interesting. Avanti, with serenity, faith and hope. ” I even received a message that I later understood was addressed to another, by mistake. The explanation soon appeared: “Sorry, I was wrong with the recipient … but, after all, you are my spiritual doctor!”

When I published a book on the Humanization of Medicine, he wanted to write the Preface, despite it being difficult times. He had just lost his brother in an accident and read me the words he had said in the homily of the funeral Mass. Days later I got the draft of the preface to see if I approved it. I was touched, and I felt stimulated – with that stimulus that sometimes we need, when the road is arduous, cloudy, almost sterile. He talked about our friendship and called me “incorrigible romantic with a passionate militancy in the ways of medical humanism.” The truth is that it was he, Leo Pessini, the incorrigible optimist, who managed to get the best version of himself out of people.

At the funeral of Father Leo, chaired by the Cardinal Archbishop of São Paulo, a ceremony co- celebrated by four other bishops, and dozens of Camillians priests, I had the opportunity to be with the Pessini family and I told them something of what I hae written here. The Cardinal’s words, evoking Leo’s memory, invited everyone present to think about what we are doing with our lives. “To spend life weighing on ourselves or, as we learn with Father Leocir, to take care and care for others? Of those who are small, those who seem second-class, elderly and sick, those that Pope Francis says that, according to current culture, are considered disposable. ” And he recalled the charism of S. Camilo, minister of the sick: “Minister is the one who serves, of the Latin minister.” A known consideration, which assumes very timely proportions in the current days: the minister is the one who serves!

It was on that trip that I passed through Rome when we were together in Assisi. “I can escape one day, and we will recycle next to the Poverello of Assisi, and breathe the air of the Porciuncula.” An unforgettable day, where he showed me all the corners and roots of Franciscan spirituality. And in the monastery of S. Damián -where Francesco heard the crucified’s appeal to rebuild his Church- Leo gave me the reproduction of the Song of the Creatures. “To help you in serenity,” he commented. Now I reread the words on the parchment that is framed and they seem to me a good summary of Leo Pessini’s life: “Praise you, Lord, for those who forgive for Your love, and endure illnesses and tribulations. Blessed are those who endure them in peace, for they will be crowned by you, Most High. ”

That was the Bioethics for which Leo Pessini passionately militated. An ethic that contemplated the global, that sought certain paths in times of uncertainty, and that reached people’s hearts because it passed through the Heart of God. A bioethics of friendship!

September, 2nd , 2019.

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