Saint Gianna Beretta Molla
By Monique Marshall
Many of us would do anything for our loved ones – even risk death. Would you choose death to save your unborn child? That is exactly the choice St. Gianna Beretta Molla made when she became pregnant with her fourth child.
Giovanna Francesca, lovingly known as Gianna, was born on October 4, 1922, the Feast of St Francis of Assisi, in Magenta Italy. She was one of 13 children born to Alberto and Maria Beretta. Hers was a very devout Catholic family, following the third-order Franciscan way of life. Gianna attended daily Mass with her mother and siblings; her father would attend an early mass before heading off to work. Gianna was raised in faith from an early age. At the age of three, Gianna and her family moved to Bergamo, seeking the fresher air of the mountains to help her older sister’s health. It was here in Bergamo on April 4, 1928 that Gianna would receive her First Holy Communion. The Eucharist became her daily food, sustaining and inspiring her throughout her life. This strong faith would help Gianna face her many trials and sufferings.
One of these trials occurred when, at 14 years of age, Gianna lost her older sister to tuberculosis.
After her sister's passing, the Beretta family moved once again, this time to Genoa, Italy. This move allowed the family to remain close while the children attended university. Gianna's faith continued to grow and mature and during a school retreat, she was introduced to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. She began to keep a spiritual journal of prayer and memories; writing things like “Jesus, I promise you to submit myself to all that you permit to happen to me; make me only know your will.” This deep spirituality helped Gianna while she participated in Catholic Action, a group that helps members follow Christ by emphasizing prayer, service and sacrifice.
When World War II broke out, the stress of the bombings and raging war was too much for Gianna's mother, so Gianna's family moved back to Bergamo. It was here that Gianna would face yet another trial – the loss of her parents within 5 months of each other. After the death of her parents, Gianna and her siblings moved back to her birth home in Magenta.
Gianna's desire to care for people, body and soul, led her to enroll in medical school. Upon graduation, she specialized in pediatric medicine and opened an outpatient health center. She also helped her brother Ferdinando in his medical practice, as well as continue to volunteer at her parish, work in Catholic Action and pursue her hobbies. In 1952, Gianna completed her pediatric training. She enjoyed caring for mothers and babies, the elderly and the poor. This led her to consider a medical missionary in Brazil with one of her brothers, Fr. Giuseppe. Her frail health was a concern to her spiritual director so she took it as a sign from God that He had other plans for her.
On December 8, 1954 Gianna attended the first Mass of a newly ordained friend and met a man named Pietro Molla. They spent time together and grew to love each other. They became engaged on Easter Monday, April 11, 1955 and were married on September 24, 1955. They happily lived their faith filled lives and by 1959 had been blessed with 3 children. Gianna continued practicing medicine while juggling motherhood. She felt fulfilled and joyful in her callings of marriage, motherhood and medicine and her faith enabled her to balance all three with ease.
In September of 1961 Gianna was once again expecting a child, and it was also at this time that doctors discovered a benign tumor in her uterus. The doctors explained that in order to save her life, Gianna required surgery. Ultimately, the doctors suggested they remove the uterus, the unborn child and the tumor leaving Gianna unable to bear children. This was not an acceptable option for Gianna. The doctors offered two more options – remove the tumor and unborn child and leave the uterus allowing Gianna to bear more children or remove only the tumor and spare the unborn child. Gianna took the third and riskiest option and placed her trust and the life of her unborn child in God's hands. The surgery was a success and after a brief recovery, Gianna was back practicing medicine and caring for her family. She continued to pray for the well being of her unborn child. Gianna knew the risks of this pregnancy and delivery, especially with the complications of the surgery. She spoke to Pietro about the issues and made him promise that if anything should happen and he was required to choose between the child and herself, to choose the life of the child. Ultimately Gianna wanted her baby saved.
On April 20, 1962, the afternoon of Good Friday, Gianna went into labor. She tried to deliver the child naturally but to no avail. So on Holy Saturday, Gianna delivered her fourth child and third daughter by Cesarean Section. Shortly after surgery, Gianna developed complications. She suffered quietly and without the aid of medicine so she could remain lucid and able to pray and join her suffering the Christ. She received Jesus in the Eucharist one last time and passed away one week after delivering, on Saturday April 28, 1962. She was 39 years old. Her exemplary life of faith, maternal love and the choice of saving her daughter led to her beatification by Pope John Paul II on April 24, 1994. Ten years later, on May 16, 2004 Pope John Paul II declared Gianna Beretta Molla a saint. She was the first saint to have her widow and her children present for the ceremony. Her feast day is celebrated on April 28.
Many of us can see ourselves in St. Gianna. She was an ordinary woman living an ordinary life. She was a faithful spouse, a loving parent and a career woman but most importantly she was a devout Catholic who devoted her life to helping her children and others embrace their faith. She was an example to all of us of what true love is – giving your life for that of another. How many of us can say definitively that we would, or could do this? The words from the liturgy of Gianna's feast say it best - “She was a serene woman full of joy. She loved everything that is true, noble, right, pure, amiable, honorable, virtuous and praiseworthy.”