Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

A Mother Who Sacrificed Her Life For Her Unborn Child

by Fernando Da Riese Da Riese

Descriptive Title

Life of Gianna Berretta


Short life of Gianna Berreta, beatified by Pope John Paul II.

Larger Work

L'Osservatore Romano

Publisher & Date

Vatican, March 11, 1986

The life of Gianna Beretta Molla is a series of fascinating events, so fascinating in fact that most readers who come to know her only through her biography edited by Orizzonte medico, Citta Nuova, published by the Daughters of St. Paul, are under the impression the Gianna is more of a legendary figure than a historical person.  Gianna, however, was a real person; she lived and worked in a concrete geographical setting, the Lombardy plain (Italy), between the years 1922-1962. 

Born at Magenta, on 4 October 1992, she had her primary education at Bergamo and attended Grammar school on the Ligurian Riviera (at Genoa-Quinto al Mare and Albaro). She then attended university courses in Milan and Pavia, reading medicine and surgery.  She obtained her doctorate on 30 November 1949 and was nationally registered as a medical doctor.  She ran her own surgery at Mesero, where she practiced her profession until death in a generous service to children—she had specialized as a pediatrician—and to old people.

Gianna is remembered as a truly fulfilled, authentic woman, by those who knew her.  Just a little sketch of her character and her interests.  Gianna love mountaineering and was actually an expert in rock-climbing on the Alps; in winter she was a good skier on the snow fields.  She had a deep interest in traveling, in a desire to know people and countries.  She loved culture and artistic expressions, with a particular bent for music and painting.  She could play the piano and loved to go to concerts and to the theater.  When on her journeys, she would bring with her brushes and paints and fix on canvas landscapes and Madonna figures.  She led with her personality, with her delightful smile, with her strong convictions.  Her life was an uninhabited synthesis of faith and culture which exercised a powerful influence on those who came into contact with her.

Her most noble passion, however, that which sublimated her life, was to love God in people and to serve them for the love of God.  While a university student, residing at Magenta, she was active in Catholic Action. in which she also held posts of responsibility.  She held meetings and gave talks, awakening in young people the desire and the commitment to live for Christ and for the Church.  She drew some Catholics Action members into the St. Vincent de Paul's Conference, with the aim of training them to help the poor, the sick, to offer a smile and a helping hand to elderly people who lived alone in the scattered country houses of the Magenta countryside.

Gianna had dreamed of offering her services, in her capacity of medical doctor and surgeon, as a lay missionary in Brazil, to help her Capuchin brother, Fr. Alberto Beretta, himself a doctor and director of a hospital in the Maranhao region.  God, however, wanted her as a missionary in her own family, at the service of life.

On 24 September 1955, she married engineer Pietro Molla, industrial director of the Saffa of Milan, and transferred to Ponte Nuovo di Magenta.

"Save my baby"

Gianna, now Mrs. Molla, wanted children to whom to give herself as a mother.  She did have three, a boy and two girls, all lovely and happy children.  She was very fond of them and would give herself totally, transmitting her joy, her sense of purpose in life, her Christian faith in a concrete way.  After two months of a new pregnancy, she was affected by a large fibroma in the womb.

As a doctor, Gianna was fully aware of the seriousness of her case and consciously faced the dilemma whether to save her own life or that of her baby in the womb.  Her Christian faith, which she had imbibed in her own large family (she was the tenth of thirteen children, among whom two priests and a nun) decided  her choice: to sacrifice herself to save her child.  This Gianna asked of her husband, this she demanded of the doctors, before submitting herself to an operation, at the Monza hospital, to remove the fibroma.  Her often repeated plea was unmistakably clear: "save my baby!"

Abortion was proposed to her as the speediest and surest means of dealing with the fibroma.  She rejected it absolutely, recalling God's commandment: "Thou shalt not kill."  She thus bore witness to her faith and obedience to the Christian principle: "It is a sin to kill in the womb".  Repeatedly she declared: "I'm ready for everything, so long as my baby can be saved".  Her "readiness for everything" was based exclusively on God: only in Him did she find the strength to carry out her decision to the end.  She prayed over it with faith and perseverance and insistently asked friends for prayers, that she might be able to say "yes" to life.

With these precise dispositions she underwent surgery on 6 September 1961, and then, with courage and deep trust in God, she continued her pregnancy, living in a state of continuous risk for seven months.  She had the joy of giving to her husband, her family, and to the world, a new infant life, little Giannina, on 21 April 1962, which by a happy coincidence happened to be Holy Saturday.  Seven days later, 28 April, Gianna died at the age of thirty-nine, a martyr of a mother's love. 

On Sunday 23 September 1973, Pope Paul VI, during the Angelus Message, recalled this extraordinary gesture of "a mother of the Diocese of Milan who in order to give life to her baby, sacrificed her own life in deliberate immolation".  In a moving tone he pointed her out as an example to a world which is too ready to kill.

With a petition dated Rho (Milan) 11 April 1978 and signed by Cardinal Giovanni Colombo, Archbishop of Milan, and by 16 bishops, the Lombardy Episcopal Conference asked for the opening of the cause of beatification of this wife and mother, declaring her to be "an example fully relevant to our times in which the right to life is often disregarded and trampled upon".

The Conference of Bishops went on: "This mother is a martyr and has given a sublime example of Christian heroism.  For the love of God and in obedience to his commandment that forbids to kill, she has paid deep respect to life, which is always a gift of God to men, and has sacrificed her own young life to say ‘yes' to the Christian law of love.  It is the shining example of this woman—a wife and a mother—which we archbishops and bishops of the Lombardy region, would like, also in the name of our faithful, to propose today to the entire Church and to society in which, through selfishness and violence, it has become all too easy to kill, whether it is done in an open or in a hidden way.  In this world of ours which is moving towards the legalization of abortion, the Servant of God Gianna Beretta Molla becomes a courageous example of Christian behavior".

The bishops of the Lombardy Episcopal Conference further state:  "This example of lay sanctity, lived out in the marriage state as taught by Vatican II, will act as an encouragement for many Christians to seek God in their married life.  They may be inspired by her and pray to her... Her conscious sacrifice may throw light on the importance of the Christian family, Catholic schools, the Catholic Action for the formation of the Christian personality.  It is in institutions such as these that the young Christian imbibes those Christian principles that will give a direction to his or her life and to which he or she will subordinate life itself, as Dr. Beretta has done with full awareness".

"Truly, heroism in Christian life is like a flower which rises at the top of a stem whose nature God alone knows perfectly, but which nevertheless makes us understand that every Christian vocation lived out according to God has an influence on the whole Church".

To show this, Pope John Paul II, on 15 March 1980, signed the introduction of the beatification cause for this wife and mother who, always wearing her most welcoming smile, built to her life on the gospel, placing herself at the service of all.  Her smile witnessed to the civilization of love.  The inquiry into the heroicity of her life will close in Milan on 21 March: the documentation will then be sent to Rome to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

As Jesus said:  "There is no greater love than this, that a man lay down his life for his friend" (Jn 15:13).

The Servant of God, Gianna Beretta, is a call to love.  She transmitted it, as a doctor, to numerous mothers in difficult pregnancies:  she proclaimed it loudly, by the convincing power of her sacrifice, to our world concerned with progress and "quality of life" as it approaches the year 2000.  Our time is affected by deep-seated ills: by selfishness and violence whereby it has become all too easy to kill: in homes, in the streets, in the football stadium and in the womb.  Gianna is to be seen as a sign of the times to protect, welcome and respect life.

© L'Osservatore Romano, Editorial and Management Offices, Via del Pellegrino, 00120, Vatican City, Europe, Telephone 39/6/698.99.390.


Blessed Gianna Website

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