Gianna Beretta Molla was a pediatrician, wife, and mom of four children. She was also a skier and mountain climber who also enjoyed concerts and theater. She is known for giving her life for that of her unborn child, and is now a Catholic saint.
As I’ve read her biography, I’ve been amazed by her story and character. She died twenty years before my birth, yet I feel we could have been best friends. St. Gianna Beretta Molla truly is a saint for modern moms.
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Raising a Saint
St. Gianna’s story begins with her parents. Elio Guerrerio devotes only a couple chapters to Alberto and Maria Beretta in Saint Gianna Molla: Wife, Mother, Doctor, yet I feel this remarkable couple—like St. Therese of Lisieux’s parents—deserves canonization themselves.
Maria considered a religious life before marriage, as Gianna did. She took her children to daily Mass before school. The family also prayed a rosary every evening. Gianna followed both of these habits with Pietro and their children after her marriage.
Alberto and Maria had thirteen children, three of whom died during the Spanish flue and two during infancy. Gianna was the second youngest. Like Cardinal Martini,
“I am impressed by the fact that Gianna and her siblings all achieved prestigious professional qualifications: two engineers, four physicians, a pharmacist, and a concert pianist. These results certainly reward the intellectual gifts and the conscientious efforts of each of them. They also reflect the family’s financial resources and prudent administration. But I believe that the determining factor was the parents’ way of listening to their children.”
Gianna’s childhood wasn’t easy. She struggled at school and was kept home from school for one year because of ill-health. Her older sister died when she was thirteen. She also lived through World War II in Italy.
She was deeply involved in Catholic Action, just as her mother was. For a time, she considered becoming a missionary, but her poor health prevented this, and she discerned God calling her to marriage instead.
“I make the holy resolution to do everything for Jesus. All my works, all my disappointments, I offer everything to Jesus…” ~ Gianna
Marriage & Motherhood
Gianna’s parents died within months of each other in 1942. She and her siblings scattered to their studies and professional pursuits. Gianna graduated in 1949 with a degree in medicine, and then earned a specialty in pediatrics. She met Pietro Molla in 1954 and they quickly fell in love.
Gianna and Pietro were married in 1955, with all the joy and expectation that a young couple faces. Gianna continued her medical practice, while Pietro worked at a nearby factory. She still enjoyed skiing, rock climbing, and hiking whenever she could.
Their first son was born a year after their wedding. Two more children followed, then a couple of miscarriages. Pregnancy and labour weren’t easy for Gianna, but she loved being a mom.
“Gianna was a joyful person, but when a child was born, her joy was full and perfect. Nothing was lacking. She was radiant. From the beginning of our marriage she prepared herself with prayer to create the most welcoming, the most serene environment for our children.” ~ Pietro Molla
In 1961, Gianna was again pregnant. This time, however, complications developed when a fibroid tumour was discovered on her uterus. She had three treatment options: abortion and surgery to remove the tumour; a complete hysterectomy; or surgery to avoid only the tumor so she could continue her pregnancy.
She chose the latter option. Guerriero says, “She understood the risk she was taking, but her vocation as physician and mother was to support life, not to threaten it.”
When I first heard Gianna’s story, I thought she died from this surgery. However, the surgery to remove her fibroid in September was successful. Gianna continued her pregnancy with no further complications, and her daughter was born in April. Gianna’s first three children had been born at home, but (likely because of the fibroid) her fourth was born in the hospital.
“Another of Gianna’s traits was the great importance she gave to the children’s birth. The arrival of the children was the grace par excellence. There, although she was a doctor, she would say to me that it is good for children to be born at home within the family. So it was for the first three children. The doctor and the nurse were there, but the birth occurred at home.” ~ Pietro Molla
After her daughter’s birth, Gianna developed septic peritonitis, an infection that could have likely been treated with modern antibiotics. She died on April 28th, 1962, during Easter week, at the age of thirty-nine.
Gianna Beretta Molla’s Canonization
Because Gianna was a doctor and very involved in Catholic Action, she was well-loved and well-respected in her community. Within a decade of her death, her cause for canonization was begun.
Pietro and his children were understandably reluctant to have their private lives exposed to the public in this way. They agreed to the process because Gianna in life had always been willing to help others. Now, she would be a model to inspire women around the world.
“[T]here is a theme that recurs in letters from so many mothers that I receive… All those mothers write that they turn to the intercession of Gianna because as a mother she must have faced their same problems and so is able to understand them and help them.” ~ Pietro Molla
The miracle for Gianna’s beatification happened in the hospital in Brazil founded by her brother, Father Alberto. In 1977, a young mom was recovering from an infection she received after having a C-section to deliver a stillborn baby. She was to be transferred to another hospital for a dangerous operation. A nurse asked others to join her in requesting Gianna’s intercession for the young woman’s healing. The next day, the doctors discovered she had recovered and no longer needed the dangerous operation.
Her canonization miracle occurred in 2003. A mother-to-be experienced a tear in her placenta when she was 16 weeks pregnant. She lost all her amniotic fluid and was told that her baby couldn’t survive. She asked for Gianna’s intercession and resisted doctor’s recommendations to terminate her pregnancy. She gave birth to a healthy baby girl whom she named for Gianna.
Gianna was canonized during Easter season the following year, just forty-two years after her death. Pietro died on Easter Saturday in 2010, after attending his wife’s beatification and canonization masses and testifying to her faith and love.
“Gianna Beretta Molla was a simple, but more than ever, significant messenger of divine love. In a letter to her future husband a few days before their marriage, she wrote: Love is the most beautiful sentiment the Lord has put into the soul of men and women. Following the example of Christ, who “having loved his own… loved them to the end” (Jn 13: 1), this holy mother of a family remained heroically faithful to the commitment she made on the day of her marriage. The extreme sacrifice she sealed with her life testifies that only those who have the courage to give of themselves totally to God and to others are able to fulfill themselves. Through the example of Gianna Beretta Molla, may our age rediscover the pure, chaste and fruitful beauty of conjugal love, lived as a response to the divine call!” ~ Pope Saint John Paul II on Gianna’s canonization
St. Gianna’s Example for Modern Moms
Gianna Beretta Molla was a remarkable woman who managed to juggle motherhood, faith, work, recreation and volunteering. While she is known best for her heroic sacrifice for her youngest daughter’s life, her entire life is a model of faith and virtue. Despite the suffering and hardships she faced, she chose over and over again to submit to God’s will and to live a life full of love and joy.
“Mothers today face all sorts of challenges, from managing finances so there’s food on the table to carting children to play dates and sporting events. It seems there’s just never enough time for anything, including our children’s formation. Sometimes, we forget that we inform our children’s faith by our actions when we do our jobs or our volunteer work or our family service, no matter how difficult, with the love of Christ in our hearts.” ~ Melanie Rigney, Sisterhood of Saints: Daily Guidance and Inspiration
St. Gianna Beretta Molla is the patron saint of mothers, physicians, and unborn children. Her feast day is celebrated on April 28.
Photo credit: the Society of Saint Gianna.