Saint Gianna Beretta Molla was a wife, mother, and physician. She lived her life believing wholeheartedly in Divine Providence and with a fervent desire to carry out God’s will even when that required the greatest of sacrifices.
As the family comes under attack in so many different ways, and as the importance of self is elevated, Saint Gianna’s virtuous life is a reminder of the truth of the dignity of the human person, and of marriage and family life.
Saint Gianna’s Early Life
Born on October 4, 1922, in Magenta, Italy, Saint Gianna was the tenth of thirteen children. The family had a deep faith where prayer, sacrifice, service to others, and giving of one’s self permeated daily life.
At the age of 15, while attending a retreat, Saint Gianna made resolutions that would form the basis of her entire life. These resolutions included offering all her joys, disappointments, and sufferings to Jesus, along with a firm hatred of mortal sin and offending God, and the desire for a holy death.
Saint Gianna became very involved with Catholic Action where she taught young girls. She studied diligently and became a doctor, recognising that in this profession she would have the opportunity to serve others and to bring souls to Christ.
Her greatest desire was to join her brother Alberto in Brazil as a missionary. However, this was not God’s plan for her life, instead, marriage was to be her vocation.
Marriage was a vocation she embraced completely. Talking of family life, Saint Gianna remarked:
“You must adapt yourself all the time to family life because you cannot enter into this way if you do not know how to love. To love means the desire to perfect oneself and the loved one, to overcome selfishness, and to give oneself. Love must be total, full, complete, governed by God’s law and it must carry over into eternity.”
Marriage and Children
It was with great joy that Gianna married Pietro Molla on September 24, 1955, at the Basilica of St Martin, in Magenta, just outside of Milan. They moved to the town of Ponte Nuovo, living in the house provided by the company Pietro worked for.
Gianna longed to begin a family with Pietro. Their first child, Pierluigi was born in 1956, Mariolina in 1957 (she later died at the age of six, a short time after Saint Gianna went to her heavenly reward), and Laura came in 1959. Throughout these years Saint Gianna continued to serve the community through her work as a physician. However, she promised Pietro that with the next child, she would give up the medical practice that she loved so much.
In 1961, Gianna and Pietro realised they were blessed once again with a child. However, about two months into the pregnancy, a large non-cancerous growth (fibroid) was found to be growing near her uterus. This fibroid caused Saint Gianna a great deal of pain and it also threatened the continuation of the pregnancy.
Gianna was presented with three options:
- Hysterectomy, which would have removed the fibroid, but also result in the death of her unborn child. This option would mean Gianna and Pietro could never conceive again. Under the principle of double effect*, it would have been morally acceptable in Gianna’s situation to undergo this surgery and the most typical intervention at that time.
- Removal of the fibroid and an abortion. This option would have allowed Gianna and Pietro to try for another child but also would have been a direct attack on the life of the child she was carrying within her – an induced abortion – and always morally wrong.
- Removal of the fibroid through surgery while attempting to save her unborn child and continue the pregnancy. This surgery would hold many risks which would last throughout the pregnancy, including the possibility of a secondary rupture of the uterus, a situation that would put both Gianna and her unborn child in immediate lethal danger.
Gianna’s choice was to have the fibroid removed while attempting to save the child’s life.
In the book Saint Gianna Molla, A Woman’s Life, Ferdinando, Saint Gianna’s brother, also a doctor, recalls discussing the situation with her. He says:
“she listened to me patiently and attentively, but showed one decisive concern: that her baby be saved. And this was the desire that she expressed to Dr. Vitali when she underwent the surgery a few days later.”
Soon after the discovery of the fibroid, Gianna started haemorrhaging. She was treated immediately and the haemorrhaging stopped, but it was decided that the surgery to remove the fibroid should be brought forward.
The surgery was successful and Gianna recuperated, although she still suffered. Her husband, Pietro wrote:
“In the months following the operation, you suffered so greatly without any complaint! You prayed so much that the baby might be born healthy and normal and both your lives might be saved. It was your complete trust in the Lord’s providence, your certainty of the efficacy of prayer, and your abandonment to the will of God that gave you strength and support during that long, anxious wait.
You loved our three precious children no less than you loved the baby in your womb. For all those months you prayed to the Lord, to Our Lady, and to your own mother that the right and guarantee to life for the baby in your womb might not require the sacrifice of your life, that you would be spared for the sake of our children and our family.”
As a physician, Gianna knew that the birth would not be easy. She knew that it might require her to sacrifice her life for the sake of her precious unborn child, so she readied herself for this reality and put her home in order.
She told her brother:
“The greater part has yet to come. You do not understand these things. When the time comes, it will be either he or I.”
Heroically, she told Pietro:
“If you have to decide between me and the child, do not hesitate; I demand it, the child, save it.”
Complete Gift of Self
Pietro accompanied Saint Gianna to the hospital in Monza, on the afternoon of Good Friday, April 20, 1962. There, the doctors attempted to induce labour, although this was unsuccessful. The next day, it was decided to deliver the child by caesarean section. Gianna Emanuela was born at 11:00am on Saturday, April 21.
Soon after the delivery, Saint Gianna’s condition deteriorated significantly. She was diagnosed with septic peritonitis and received antibiotics, blood transfusions and injections. However, her condition continued to decline and she suffered greatly. Despite this, she asked not to be sedated, choosing to stay lucid.
Gianna slipped into a coma on Friday 27 April. Knowing that she would not survive, Pietro had her brought to the family home, where she died peacefully at 8:00am on Saturday 28 April 1962. She was 39 years old.
A Saint for our times
We live in difficult times, where the culture of death is threatening to engulf the whole world. No family seems to be able to escape its evil tentacles. Youth are taught to give in to their desires and passions, leading them into a selfishness that doesn’t understand how to truly love another.
Marriage has been profaned. Only seen as a celebration of “love” (however that is perceived); in many nations, civil marriages are now no longer exclusive to one man and one woman.
Contraception has become the norm for couples whether married or not. Abortion is celebrated by some, and many see it as a necessary evil – even within the Church.
Women are urged to think only of themselves and limit the number of children they have through temporary or permanent sterilisation. Mothers who suffer throughout their pregnancies are given stern warnings when they joyfully welcome another little one into their family.
The world needs the great example of Saint Gianna to show us what love really looks like; that one finds themselves in the complete giving of oneself in love. Her wholehearted abandonment to God’s will and reliance on His Grace as she lived her vocation as a physician, wife and mother reveals that our true strength comes from Him alone.
For those families who are trying to faithfully follow God’s will for them, Saint Gianna is a source of encouragement and consolation in times of difficulty. Her gentle, maternal presence and her intercession before the throne of God obtain for the faithful many graces.
Saint John Paul II pointed out in his homily during the Mass for her canonisation why devotion to Saint Gianna is so necessary for our age. He said
“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 fulfil 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!”
Saint Gianna was a woman of awesome faith, a great defender and protector of life, and a devoted wife and mother who understood the importance of marriage and family. All are now under an aggressive and intensifying attack. She is indeed a saint for our time.
Saint Gianna is the patron saint of mothers, physicians, and unborn children. She was canonised by Saint John Paul II on May 16, 2004. Her feast day is April 28. Click here for devotional prayers.
*Principle of Double Effect – this principle is utilized to evaluate actions that have two effects, one good, and one evil. The principle of double effect has been summarized into 4 basic criteria: 1) the action in itself must be good or indifferent; 2) the good effect cannot be obtained through the bad effect (because then the end would justify the means); 3) there must be a proportion between the good and bad effects brought about (e.g. life against life); 4) the intention of the subject must be directed towards the good effect, and merely tolerate the bad effect. Some say there is a fifth requirement – that there does not exist another possibility or avenue.