Joseph W. Cunningham is past president of the Society of St. Gianna Beretta Molla, (www.saintgianna.org). He has worked closely with Ignatius Press in the publication of the recent book "Saint Gianna Molla: Wife, Mother, Doctor," by Pietro Molla and Elio Guerriero (2004).
Gianna Beretta Molla is one of the Church's newly declared saints. Pope John Paul II said of her: "What a heroic witness is hers, a true song to life, in strident contrast to a certain pervasive mentality of today." Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan, Italy, called Gianna a "sign of hope for today's families." What can we learn from this young wife, mother and pediatrician who died at age 39 after giving birth to her fourth child?
Gianna was born on Oct. 4, 1922, to Alberto and Maria Beretta, parents of 13 children. Five children died at an early age. Of the eight remaining, four became medical doctors; two, priests; and the others a nun, a pharmacist, an engineer and a pianist.
Gianna's family was imbued with the faith. The mother led her children to daily Mass. They prayed the Rosary together often and consecrated their home to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Rules for Living
At age 5, Gianna received her first holy Communion. When she was 15 she attended an Ignatian retreat that profoundly impacted her life. At that time she wrote down certain resolutions for living. She resolved:
1. To do everything for Jesus -- every work, every trouble would be offered to Him.
2. To avoid viewing movies unless they were modest and not scandalous.
3. To die rather than commit a mortal sin.
Finally, Gianna prayed that the Lord would make her understand how great is His mercy. She also composed a prayer: "O Jesus, I promise You to submit myself to all that You permit to happen to me; only make me know Your will."
When Gianna was 20 and a leader in Catholic Action, a group involved with catechesis of young people, she gave them the following instructions:
· Pray in the morning and evening on your knees.
· Attend Holy Mass and receive holy Communion.
· Meditate every day for 10 minutes and make frequent visits to the Blessed Sacrament.
· Pray the holy Rosary to ask the help of Our Lady.
In addition to her work with Catholic Action, Gianna was active in helping the poor and the elderly through the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
Training and Vocation
In 1949, Gianna graduated from the University of Pavia with a medical degree in surgery with honors. She opened a clinic in Mesero, about 20 miles west of Milan, with her brother Ferdinand. She liked babies, so she obtained a certificate in pediatrics.
As for her vocation, Gianna told the young girls of Catholic Action: "Eternal and earthly happiness depends on the fulfillment of your vocation. Your vocation is one to a material, spiritual and moral maternity, because God has placed in us an inclination to life.
"Each of us should make room for our vocation, for the giving of life. If, perchance, we may have to die while carrying out our vocation, that would be the most beautiful day of our lives."
In 1954, Gianna made a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, to ask Our Lady to guide her in her vocation. Should she become a lay missionary in Brazil and assist her brother, Father Alberto, who was the only physician in the impoverished area of Grajaù? Or should she marry and have a family?
On Dec. 8, 1954, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the young woman attended the first Mass of a Franciscan priest, where she met an engineer named Peter Molla. In his diary that night Peter wrote: "I feel certain I have made a good encounter. The Immaculate Mother has blessed me." The couple was engaged the following April.
In preparing for her marriage to Peter, Gianna chose a wedding gown of the finest quality so that it could be made into vestments for a son if he should become a priest. (Later, a Mass vestment was indeed crafted that incorporated a piece of her wedding dress.) They were married at the Basilica of St. Martin in Magenta on Sept. 24, 1955, by Father Giuseppe Beretta, Gianna's brother.
A Mother's Sacrifice
Gianna wanted to have a big family. She and Peter had a son, Pierluigi, then two daughters, Mariolina and Laura, followed by two miscarriages. In the summer of 1961 Gianna became pregnant with another child.
Within two months, however, the young mother developed a large, painful uterine tumor that threatened her life and that of her developing baby. The surgeon suggested that she have an abortion or a hysterectomy -- the latter, of course, would also have killed the child -- in order to save her own life. Gianna opted instead for a riskier surgery that would simply remove the tumor to protect the baby while leaving her own life at risk.
The operation was successful in preserving the life of the child. But as the months of her pregnancy continued, Gianna had a premonition of what was to come. She was ready to sacrifice her life so that her child could live.
A few days before the baby was due, she told her husband: "If you must decide between me and the child, do not hesitate: Choose the child; I insist on it. Save the baby!"
On Holy Saturday, 1962, after a Caesarian section, Gianna gave birth to a healthy baby girl weighing nearly 10 pounds. The child was named Gianna as well. (Today, "little" Gianna is also a medical doctor, a gerontologist.)
That same day, the mother's condition began to deteriorate. She was dying of septic peritonitis, an infection of the lining of the abdomen -- a result of her choice to preserve the life of her child. Gianna died a week later on April 28, 1962 (now her feast day).
Many saints aren't formally recognized by the Church until centuries after their death. But Gianna's cause for canonization began within three decades after she died. The miracles necessary for the process occurred in a relatively short period of time, so that her husband, three surviving children and siblings were all able to attend her canonization by Pope John Paul II on May 16, 2004.
Perhaps our God is trying to promote Gianna's message of holiness in everyday life to our troubled world at this crucial time, in this culture of death.
"Mother of the Family"
Today, St. Gianna's husband and children emphasize that their wife and mother was canonized with the title "Mother of the Family" because she lived her whole life as an exemplary Christian witness to the Gospel. Her holiness is not so much the result of a single heroic deed as the fruit of daily perseverance. This brave mother's importance to the Church is her witness to the Gospel of Life, her faithfulness to everyday activities, and her dedication to her husband and children.
Gianna is the first married laywoman physician to be canonized. She is an exemplar for the many mothers who face circumstances similar to hers. Numerous individuals throughout the world testify that they have sought this saint's intercession and received special favors -- physical, spiritual and emotional.
The Society of St. Gianna has established the first shrine to her in the United States at the Church of the Nativity of Our Lord, Warminster, Pa. The shrine consists of a large framed photo of St. Gianna, accompanied by a pair of her gloves, which visitors can touch and venerate. Many of the shrine's visitors, especially women seeking to become pregnant, report that their prayers have been answered. St. Gianna Beretta Molla, pray for us. TCA