Photo: Felix Carroll
'The New Pentecost'
To mark the annual 40 Days for Life pro-life campaign that began Sept. 25 and runs through Nov. 3, the following is the first of a four-part series that looks at the message of Divine Mercy and life issues. In part 1, read an excerpt from the latest Marian Press title Loved, Lost, Found: 17 Divine Mercy Conversion Stories by Felix Carroll.
In a crowded assembly room at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Phoenix, a kindly, young medical student clicks on the wireless microphone to introduce the guest speaker. Reading carefully from a cue card, she says the talk is titled "The Hypocrisy Factor."
"We hope this will be a valuable discussion," she says. "Nothing is off-limits in terms of topics of discussion, so please open up your hearts and minds, and hopefully this will be a topic everyone will learn from."
Meanwhile, the guest speaker, Dr. John Bruchalski, is in the background pacing like a football coach who wears a headset taking advice from his offensive coordinator high up in the booth. In a manner of speaking, Dr. Bruchalski is on the offensive, and he does receive his direction from on high — from Jesus, the Blessed Mother, and the Communion of Saints. But this is definitely not the venue to go into any of that. Suffice it to say, he's pacing, and he's sipping bottled water and clearing his throat as the kindly student cites his credentials: He's an obstetrician/gynecologist. ... University of South Alabama College of Medicine. ... Eastern Virginia School of Medicine. ... Founder of the Tepeyac Family Center and chairman of Divine Mercy Care in northern Virginia. A father of two boys ...
As he awaits his turn at the microphone, Dr. Bruchalski — dressed in a blue blazer and a pair of khakis that could have used an ironing — looks equal parts nervous and exhausted. He's just flown in from the University of Texas in Houston, where he delivered a similar talk, and before that, Indiana for the same reason. He's still getting used to the fact that his audience these days is not comprised mostly of elderly, pro-life Catholics who pretty much already know the gist of what they will hear: a powerful conversion story, a bold effort to care for the disenfranchised, and an indictment of the nation's medical industry. Instead, they are mostly young, idealistic, well-learned, book-bag toting, curious, thoughtful future doctors, many of whom are sitting attentively and wondering what in the world they will hear from this visiting doctor whose pro-life views precede him.
When he does take the microphone and begins, he knows for certain the words he will not utter. He will not say the words God, Jesus, Holy Spirit, Our Lady, Divine Mercy, or salvation. He might not even say the word compassion. He's a God-loving, God-fearing man — and he's also not stupid. By framing an argument in those terms to a crowd with a course load that includes such subjects as systems-based histology, or left ventricular dynamics and pathophysiology, chances are fantastically high that he would instantly be dismissed as a "religious fanatic" with a "religious agenda." What would be the point? Religion has been marginalized in this country.
Besides, he doesn't need to use those words to get his point across. He's not here to convert them. He gladly yields to the Holy Spirit on that score. He's here to speak to these students in "their language," as he puts it, using data, reason, even left-leaning journalism, and, of course, firsthand experience.
Dr. Bruchalski is a former abortionist. His speaking tour was arranged by National Med Students for Life, a group that by all accounts has not been marginalized on medical college campuses. With a future that will likely include scalpels and all manner of invasive surgery as well as fearful and emotional patients, these students seem to take nothing for granted.
"I've been on both sides of this issue," Dr. Bruchalski tells the students. "I initially went into residency to liberate women from the chains of their fertility. I was politically pro-choice. While I was in my residency, I had a change of heart. Now, this issue is so polarizing, so politicized, we really have to try to move beyond this. We have, from the pro-choice side, people like Merle Hoffman, a staunch defender of abortion rights, telling us how abortion is the most moral choice a woman can make. And the pro-life group 40 Days for Life is saying women deserve better than abortion and that abortion is the killing of a human life. We want to beat each other over the head with sound bites, and there's very little actual conversation. That's why I'm here: trying to create conversation."
Which he does for the next hour.
Days later, he's still on the road, this time in Cromwell, Connecticut, in his room on the third floor of a Courtyard Marriot. His suitcase is open. His dress shirts are halfway out of the bag as if reluctant to be hung in the closet, so as not to get too comfortable in this room that is not home.
You can hear the traffic on Interstate-91, a perfect sound-track to an itinerant life. Through the window, you can see a line of fast food restaurants and chain stores — a homogenized landscape replicated throughout the country. In other words, this could be anywhere. And for a man who never imagined he'd be doing this much travel and this much talking, this feels like anywhere but home. He's tired. He misses his family. He misses his patients at his OB/GYN clinic in Virginia. He'll be heading home this afternoon.
But he's absolutely psyched (his word) about those conversations created at all those medical schools he's visited and all those bright-eyed, future doctors to whom he's spoken.
"It's not speaking to the choir," he says. "The choir already is against abortion. They already know. What this is doing at the med schools is advancing the topic forward, decoupling it from politics."
In an hour, he'll be speaking to "the choir" — a couple dozen people from a right-to-life group in a convention room down on the first floor. It's an election year. They're wearing campaign pins in support of GOP candidates. They are galvanized in their opposition to President Barack Obama, an abortion-rights advocate who champions Planned Parenthood, the nation's largest abortion provider.
Their average age is probably about 65. Dr. Bruchalski will probably thank them for all their hard work and sacrifice over the years. He'll probably tell them he knows that he is standing on the shoulders of giants — they being the giants, they being the generation who refused to stand down when the right to abortion became the law of the land back in 1973, with the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision.
He'll certainly agree with them that abortion has been the greatest injustice, the greatest tragedy, to befall this nation. He'll probably tell them about the not-for-profit OB/GYN clinic he founded in 1994, financed largely through fundraising. Its founding principles are to practice excellent medicine, serve all women — many of them poor, many of them in crisis pregnancies — and to see in them the face of Christ, and to follow the teachings of the Catholic Church with regards to biomedical ethics.
Similar to his talks to college medical students, there are things he will decidedly not mention, out of respect. He will not mention his belief regarding the future of abortion rights — that despite all the efforts of the pro-life movement, abortion will probably always remain legally available to women in the United States. He will not bring up the fact that despite efforts of the pro-life movement during the past 40 years, 1.3 million abortions are still performed each year. He will not mention he has friends who perform abortions — that without a one-on-one personal, civil, respectful relationship with the "opposition," few things will ever get accomplished. He will not mention it's unrealistic to believe that putting certain pro-life politicians into office can resolve the abortion issue, or that fighting it in the courts will change things. He won't say the only solution is changing hearts the way the Lord and His disciples did, through mercy. He will not mention what he believes is obvious — that, for the vast majority of Americans, the bishops no longer hold sway.
He won't mention these things because he only has about an hour and because he could pick any one of these sensitive topics and talk for two days about each. Also, he's helping to lead a new front in the pro-life movement, a different tack from this first generation's, and he's sensitive to the great risk that he might put his foot in his mouth.
He figures that once he's down in the convention room, as with the med students, he'll tailor his message to the crowd — in the language of Christian morals and social outrage. Maybe he'll say something like this:
"In my profession of OB/GYN, they want you to push contraceptives on kids and hormones to older women. They want to put IUDs into teenagers. They want us to abort children. They want us to selectively reduce twins and triplets to get them to single babies because of the risks of in-vitro fertilization. We are truly in the slop."
He's said that before to pro-life crowds. He believes it just as much as he believes in the data he shares with med students.
Still, in his room, an hour before he's to take to the podium, he has just plopped down on the couch and breathed a heavy sigh.
"These are wonderful people," he says of the crowd he will speak to. "They come out here on a Saturday out of love for the cause and a determination to change things for the better. It's amazing."
He sounds a little discouraged. He made a promise to the Blessed Virgin Mary years ago in the midst of his conversion, and the promise was he would do everything within his power to help transform medicine so as to help transform the world. He's fairly certain the Courtyard Marriot is not where the battle needs to be waged. It's being waged in his clinic, one patient at a time, in med schools, and through relationships with people he disagrees with. That's become the key for him: Engage with people he disagrees with and whom disagree with him.
But with the heart of St. Paul, he wishes to "become all things to all men" so that by all possible means he might save some (1 Cor 9:22). In that way, he's bilingual. He can speak to the converted and speak to med students in the same native tongue, with no contradictions, but just a slight tweak on emphasis.
Still, he's got the med students on his mind. He's got the Acts of the Apostles on his mind. He has concern that some in the pro-life movement have circled the wagons rather than going out into the world as the apostles did. He knows the only way to advance the cause is by understanding and engaging people through mercy and love and example.
He doesn't know what he's going to say yet to that crowd downstairs.
Dr. Bruchalski was first drawn to accept the invitation to speak here in Cromwell because it is home of Holy Apostles Seminary, which always meant so much to his late mother who supported the institution.
"I came here to think of my mom," he says.
She and his father never minced words regarding the importance of a Catholic upbringing. They dedicated him to the Blessed Mother at a young age.
"I grew up in a great Polish family in New Jersey," Dr. Bruchalski says in an interview in his hotel room, "and every morning, we said a decade of the Rosary for the conversion of Russia. We asked for the intercession of many saints, and it just so happened that Jezu, ufam Tobie!, the Polish version of 'Jesus, I Trust in You'— a phrase so tied in with the Divine Mercy message, which Jesus begs us to repeat throughout our lives, particularly in times of distress — was a common phrase around our house."
As a boy, his family doctor was his role model because he was "simple, straightforward, and busy helping people get well," Dr. Bruchalski says. That's what Dr. Bruchalski wished to emulate. He wanted to help people, and to tie faith to action and action to faith. He had no clue how complicated that would become as of Monday, January 22, 1973, when he was 12 years old and shooting hoops in his driveway. He recalls how his father arrived home from work.
"Before he exited his VW Bug, he told me, 'Johnny, it's Black Monday. The Supreme Court legalized abortion, the killing of innocent babies. We will be punished.'"
Even when he grew into his teen years and became luke-warm in his faith, and even in college when he came to the conclusion his father had been wrong, Dr. Bruchalski would remember that day. It was his George Washington/cherry tree moment. That is to say, he knew he must not tell lies, particularly to himself.
"I simply bought the entire argument that humans would be better off economically and socially by controlling their fertility through chemicals, barriers, plastics, and surgery," he says. As he advanced in his schooling, he says, "I felt the Church had lost touch with regular people and was wrong on the point of women's issues and reproductive freedom." In med school, he would build intrauterine devices (IUDs) to prevent pregnancy, provide contraceptives, and learn sterilization. Then, when a professor suggested he could earn extra money by performing abortions, he began doing that, too.
"I would just do the procedure, and I didn't think much about it," he said. "At first, I was dealing with pregnancies that were early on — five or six weeks. But when I started to get into pregnancies that were further along, I'd see body parts, and it started to bother me. It bothered me greatly."
Here's the first question Dr. Bruchalski raises with the med school students:
"Why is it that the number of Americans who identify themselves as pro-choice has been steadily declining? They're now the minority."
The polls bear that out. Gallup announced in May 2012 that only 41 percent of Americans now identified themselves as "pro-choice," down from 47 percent a year prior. Meanwhile, 50 percent now call themselves "pro-life."
That's not to suggest all people who call themselves pro-life want abortion banned. But it does suggest Americans are increasingly questioning the morality of abortion and recognizing the humanity of the fetus.
One student at the University of Arizona raises her hand and suggests the reason for the trend could be the introduction of the ultrasound that now allows the opportunity to view the fetus.
"I agree," Dr. Bruchalski says. "The fetus now becomes real to people. I believe that's the prime reason."
Here's the second question he poses, "Why is it that while 97 percent of family doctors report having encountered patients seeking abortion, only five to 15 percent will perform abortions?"
"It's a hassle," one male student says.
"Why is it a hassle?" Dr. Bruchalski asks.
"There's too much political and social stigma attached to it," the student responds.
"But why is there this stigma?" Dr. Bruchalski asks. "Why do many doctors who perform abortions feel professionally shunned? Why is that? Because they feel like they have to look over their shoulder in case some 'pro-life nut' decides to kill them? That's part of it, I'm sure. But that's not all of it."
And this is when he tries to make his case using an article published by the Washington Post, a publication no one could accuse of carrying water for the religious right-wing. The article is titled, "A Hard Choice." The reporter follows a 24-year-old University of Maryland School of Medicine student who wants to go into the field of obstetrics and gynecology. The article begins at a lecture given by obstetrician and genetics expert Carol Meyers, who issues tough challenges to young medical students by asking, "How pro-choice are you?" Though she herself is pro-choice, nonetheless Meyers feels it is irresponsible to teach abortion procedures without examining abortion's ethical dilemmas. Because the student being profiled in the piece, Leslie Wojick, is pro-choice, she feels her actions should support her words, so she volunteers to perform abortions. Yet she finds herself disgusted not just by the procedure but by the dehumanization of both the fetus and the mother. Leslie would not be dissuaded from her view that women have the right to have abortions, but she wanted nothing to do with it. She wanted to bring babies to term, not kill them.
"How pro-choice are you?" Dr. Bruchalski asks the students.
He doesn't have to mention the Blessed Mother. He doesn't have to mention Jesus Christ. All he needs to mention are statistics and data: the health risks of abortion; the increasing number of doctors who refuse to perform it; that the more we know about fetal development, the harder it becomes to dismiss the humanity of the fetus. Week three following conception: The fetus has a heart that beats with its own blood. Week five: Eyes, legs, and hands are developing. Week six: The fetus has detectible brain waves, a mouth, and lips.
Those are facts, not religious beliefs.
"So what is the definition of personhood?" Dr. Bruchalski asks. "Is it still subjective?"
A young woman raises her hand and asks to what degree the roles of politics and social stigma played in his decision to stop performing abortions.
"For me," says Dr. Bruchalski, "it was the tactile experience. When you take a K-bar and you jam it up the cervix and it hits a rib, and you torque it into a woman's chest — when you take a cannula, the suction curette, and you enter the uterus and it hits the baby and the curette moves — it moves. That's what began to get to me. And then when they get bigger, you've got to dismember them. You have to place the parts on the table and count the limbs. It's brutal, visceral. It's difficult to watch, and it's difficult to do. You're eviscerating the fetus, and I felt it was eviscerating my humanity. As a physician, you've been sworn to protect life; something just doesn't jibe.
"Then, many of the women I gave abortions to were not happy with it. Their boyfriends still broke up with them. In some instances, things got too casual. I was in a clinic, and a woman comes up to me and says, 'Thanks for the two-fer.' 'The two-fer?' I asked. She said, 'Yeah, I had twins, and you took out both of them.'
"It was coarse and casual. Things like this would start to bother me to the point where I said, 'I can't do this anymore.'" What he doesn't explain to them is the other factor that caused him to stop performing abortions. But he will explain it in his hotel room. He says, "Christ and His Mother came a-callin.'"
At first, he didn't listen to Christ's Mother, the Blessed Mother, when she spoke to his heart in 1987.
"I was studying medicine, and I was trying to discern about residency programs when a friend of mine invited me down to Mexico City. At the time, I was being a typical gynecologist. I believed that contraceptives would liberate women. When I visited the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I very distinctly heard the words 'Why are you hurting me?' It was an internal voice. It was a woman's voice — very loving, very non-threatening. I thought the heat was getting to me. I tried to rationally explain it. But the voice was very clear. I didn't entirely understand it. But I believe that voice was Our Lady of Guadalupe trying to make me see what I was doing. But it would be years before I fully understood the message."
In the midst of his residency, 18 months in which he performed abortions, his mother took him on a pilgrimage to Medjugorje in Yugoslavia, where the Blessed Virgin Mary has reportedly been appearing and giving messages to bring people back to Christ. During quiet prayer time there, it became clear to Dr. Bruchalski that the Mother of God was repeating to him the words she used at the wedding feast in Cana (Jn 2:5) when she ordered the servants to obey her Son, "Do whatever He tells you."
What Jesus was telling Dr. Bruchalski to do was to practice medicine in a way that would maximize his faith. That meant, never to replace the patient with profit. Patients feel used and ignored rather than listened to. That meant never alienating himself from the reasons he went into medicine in the first place. Never allow care and compassion to become buried underneath technology and technical skills that have "turned the art and science of medicine into a mechanic's garage," he says. That meant understanding that while science and technology bring about amazing progress in medicine, "they don't bring redemption. The only person who brings redemption is Christ. So if you can't tie the two together, you're lost."
When he returned from Medjugorje, he eventually joined a pro-life practice in Maryland. But they didn't go far enough, he says. "They didn't serve the underserved. I said, 'There's got to be a better way to do this.'"
Together with his wife, Carolyn, and a few financial supporters, he took a leap of faith in 1994, starting the Tepeyac Family Center — first in his basement, and then growing into a full-fledged clinic in Arlington, Virginia. The clinic's namesake is the hill in Mexico where the Blessed Mother appeared to Juan Diego in 1531. Dr. Bruchalski says. "I put Tepeyac in the name to remind me why I was doing this. I need daily reminders."
The center delivers an average of 750 babies annually — 130 of which are to uninsured mothers. The center's 20-person staff also handles upwards to 25,000 patient visits a year. Tepeyac does this at a time when medical reimbursements have decreased and malpractice premiums and overhead have increased.
"So far, we've remained financially solvent," he says. "People ask what's my five-year plan? The five-year plan is 'Jesus, I trust in You.'"
He doesn't look so tired anymore up there in front of all those students in Phoenix. Clearly, he has their attention, and he's making the most of it.
"So with so few physicians willing to perform abortions," he says, "the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists knew they had a problem and had to do something different, so in an ethics-committee opinion in 2007, they decided to deny its members the right of conscience against abortion. In other words, despite your conscience or beliefs, you have to perform abortions or be complicit in them by finding a willing doctor for the patient."
While this policy has not become federally mandated, he has reason to fear it might be, Dr. Bruchalski says.
A student named Lolita raises her hand and asks, "But what are your thoughts about 'back-alley' abortions — that women will have abortions anyway, regardless of legality? Shouldn't physicians be trained to perform abortions just so it remains a safe procedure?"
He tells her that physicians already are, for all intents and purposes, trained to do the procedure since it isn't much different than performing a D&C, also known as dilation and curettage — a surgical procedure often performed after a first trimester miscarriage to stop bleeding.
"But legality isn't even the point," Dr. Bruchalski says. "The point I'm making is that people like me, we need a seat at the table. If I have a pro-life opinion, what the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists is saying is, 'Don't even bother going into OB/GYN.'"
"What about pregnancies due to rape or incest, or pregnant mothers already convicted of child abuse or on cocaine?" a male student asks. "We hear these heartbreaking stories. What do you do about that?"
"It's a hard question, I agree," Dr. Bruchalski says. He pauses for a moment.
"My approach is to always focus and take care of two patients — the mother and the child."
As much as he would like to finish that sentence with "... and then let the Holy Spirit take over from there," he knows he can't. He tells the students that pro-life physicians and pro-choice physicians should seek to find "common ground."
"But how?" Lolita asks.
"If you believe abortion is a right," he says, "you need to do the procedure. And if you are pro-life, you need to go beyond serving 'just the fetus.' You should spend time working in pregnancy crisis centers. You should look at the mother in her family situation and go beyond 'saving the baby.'"
What he'd like to say, but doesn't, is "... and then let the Holy Spirit take over from there."
"None of this is easy, man," Dr. Bruchalski, in his hotel room, says with a sigh while reaching for his tie.
So here in this hotel room — no med students around, no pro-life activists around — what would he like to scream to the world with a bullhorn?
"The problems in healthcare today center around sinful behavior," he says. "We are aborting innocents. We are promoting dysfunctional families. We are encouraging young people to have sex outside of marriage. We are not serving the underserved. And we are gouging the people who can pay for healthcare. While Washington argues about policy, and while we have the red states and blue states, the Democrats and Republicans, the real issue, the real crisis, is that we're being seduced to move God's mercy out of healthcare. And the answer to the healthcare crisis is to bring God's mercy back into healthcare, and to do it in an integrated, organic way.
"You do it by practicing excellent medicine, by serving the underserved, and by following the teachings of the faith. Why? Because God's mercy is manifested in the 10 Commandments. In John 15, the Lord says our joy will be complete when we follow His Commandments. Don't put idols before Him. Don't put money before faith. Do not kill. It's God's mercy, through the Commandments and the teachings of the Church, that tells us who we are and how to live a life of joy and abundance. And what are we doing in healthcare? We are trying to move Christ out of it. That's why we need this message of the Divine Mercy. That's why living the Divine Mercy message and being an ambassador of Divine Mercy is so crucial."
He pauses. A car alarm is honking outside in the parking lot. He looks outside. People are stepping out from cars that have pro-life bumper stickers such as, "Abortion stops a beating heart."
Dr. Bruchalski jumps back onto his train of thought. "The thing is," he says, "young people are still going into medicine because they want to help people. They care about a person who is sick and who is poor. There is still that kernel of hope in their hearts — that desire to serve another in trouble. We have to give them opportunities to do so. In the end, I don't see any real help coming from the government or from a political solution, or from the medical profession. It will come from the ground up, from the grassroots."
He likens it to the message of Divine Mercy, considered "the greatest grassroots movement in the history of the Church" for its being laity-driven rather than clergy-driven. What attracts him to the message of Divine Mercy, as revealed through the Diary of St. Faustina, is the way Jesus stresses its importance for our well-being and our salvation, "Mankind will not have peace until it turns with trust to My mercy" (300).
"Look," says Dr. Bruchalski, "I've performed abortions. The reality is that Jesus can save any one of us. None of us are too far away. None of us are too lost. Yes, Jesus' mercy affected me. He doesn't look back on my past. I have been forgiven."
Knowing that just makes it easier for him to befriend colleagues who perform abortions, one of which, a doctor from Florida, is in the midst of a conversion.
"He's a friend of mine, even though he is murdering babies. You have to become friends with them. You have to form relationships. We talk about being in a 'culture war.' I phrase it as, 'We're fighting principalities and powers. The enemy is sin and Satan.' So for me, the enemy is not 'the other.' It's ourselves. It's our own weaknesses. It's our own lack of conversations with our family and friends. It's our denial that we, too, need the Lord to turn us from hearts of stone to hearts of flesh. We have to love and not judge till the point where our enemies say, 'I want your peace, and I don't know how to get it. I want what you have, and I don't know how to get it.' And all the while we need to keep saying to ourselves, 'Jesus, I trust in You.' Why? In order to believe it."
In 2000, Dr. Bruchalski founded Divine Mercy Care, a not-for-profit organization whose motto is "to transform hearts through healthcare." It serves as the fundraising arm of Tepeyac Family Center. About 40 percent of his patients are Catholic, 40 percent evangelical, and the remaining are agnostic, Jewish, and Muslim.
"What we do is we try to encourage people, if they are not praying or meditating, they need to do that, to get them in touch with that higher power," he says. "You can't slam them over the head and talk to them in a language they don't understand. Over time, God does the hard work. We bring it up, saying, 'We'll pray for you.' Everybody appreciates that.
"Many of the people in our practice have been on the other side of the fence before. We've used contraceptives. We've done abortions. And so we don't throw stones at anyone. In fact, it's God's mercy that brings people around. We grab their hand and say, 'Let's just say a little prayer before we go a little further.'"
He's in the elevator now heading down to deliver his talk. "None of this is easy, man," he says again. But he thinks he knows what to talk about to the crowd.
He will thank them for their work and tell them about his college tour and about Divine Mercy Care.
"I think this is what they need to hear about. They need hope," he said. "I need to give them hope."
He cinches his tie.
"You know, I believe there's going to be a second Pentecost," he says. "I believe we're living in it right now, and I mean this from a very practical, grassroots level. Divine Mercy is the vehicle for the new birth because it's the great equalizer: We're all sinners. We all need mercy. And when we receive mercy from others and from God, it changes everything — everything. This is practical stuff, not 'religious fanaticism.'"
The elevator dings, and the doors open to the first floor.
"I'm in OB/GYN," he says. "I see everything as a new birth."
To order Felix Carroll's Loved, Lost, Found: 17 Divine Mercy Conversion Stories (Marian Press), please visit our online catalog.