Saint Gianna Beretta Molla: Wife, Mother and Physician
On May 16, 2004, our Holy Father declared Gianna Beretta Molla a saint of the Church. Saint Gianna was a wife and mother, and a physician, who died on Easter Saturday, April 28, 1962, following the birth of her fourth child. On April 24, 1994, Pope John Paul II had declared her Blessed. I was working in the Roman Curia at the time, was deeply impressed by the story of her life and holiness, developed a certain devotion to her, and confided to her prayers the intentions of young couples.
After I was installed as bishop of La Crosse on February 22, 1995, I met a number of young couples who desired very much to have a baby but were experiencing difficulties in conceiving a child. A number of couples had experienced repeated miscarriages or stillbirths. They approached me, on the occasion of a visit to their parish, to ask for my blessing and my prayers. One can understand readily the deep concern of these couples who were without child, for children are the "crowning glory" of marriage.1 Saint Gianna is a saint of our time, who is an especially powerful intercessor regarding all matters of human life and the family, and I write to you about her in the hope that you may also find inspiration in her life and seek the help of her prayers.
Intercession of Blessed Gianna
Frequently, in addition to giving a blessing and adding their intentions to my daily prayers, I recommended to young couples that they pray through the intercession of Blessed Gianna. In the meantime, I discovered the Society of Blessed Gianna Beretta Molla, headed by Joseph W. Cunningham, an attorney in Philadelphia. The Society provided me with prayer cards and medals for the couples who were invoking Blessed Gianna's help.
Through my correspondence with the Society of Blessed Gianna Beretta Molla, I also began to correspond with Pietro Molla, Blessed Gianna's husband. Mr. Molla is a most devout and humble man who is totally dedicated to bringing the spiritual help of Saint Gianna to the many who are in need, especially couples who are experiencing any difficulties with childbirth. The profound love of his saintly wife is transparent in the way he writes about her. If you wish to have a glimpse of the deep love of husband and wife in the life of Pietro and Gianna, I recommend reading Love Letters to My Husband.2 It is a fitting book of spiritual reading for married couples and for individuals who desire to deepen their appreciation of the vocation to the married life.
After Pietro learned of my devotion to Blessed Gianna, he kindly sent me a relic of Gianna, a small piece of her wedding dress, which I lent to couples who were praying to conceive a child or had conceived a child and were praying for the healthy delivery of their baby. It was most edifying to witness the effects of prayer, through the intercession of Blessed Gianna, in the lives of these young couples. In fact, she proved to be a most powerful intercessor. In several cases, couples who seemed unable previously to conceive a child were blessed with the conception and birth of a healthy child. Some couples have had a second baby and hope to have more. They very much credit the prayers of the now Saint Gianna for the great gift of the conception and birth of their child. Some couples have given their children the name of Gianna in recognition of her help.
Her Early Life
Blessed Gianna was born in northern Italy to Alberto and Maria Beretta on October 4, 1922. She was the second youngest of 13 children. Eight of the 13 children survived to adulthood.
The Berettas were a most devout family. They never failed to express their faith in God and their gratitude to Him. The Rosary was prayed daily in the home, and the father and mother, together with the children, strove to participate in daily Mass as often as possible. The parents had enthroned the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in their home and, every evening after praying the Rosary, the family members renewed their consecration to the Sacred Heart. After prayers, there was time for parents and children to visit and to deepen their understanding of the faith and its practice.
Gianna loved nature and the outdoors, and struggled very much with her studies in the first years of her schooling. When she reached the age of 15, she experienced a conversion of life. Her oldest sister, Amalia, whom she loved very much, died suddenly at the age of 26. Some time after Amalia's death, Gianna made a spiritual retreat that had a profound effect on her life. After that time, she began to live more intensely the consecration to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She showed the greatest possible dedication in studying her Catholic faith and living the virtues, especially modesty and purity. She found great help in an association of young Catholics called Catholic Action, which stressed three essential aspects of our life in Christ: Eucharistic devotion, apostolic action and heroic purity.3 Saint Maria Goretti's canonization in 1954 greatly inspired Gianna. Inspired by the saint's life and death, she urged the young women who she was guiding in Catholic Action to imitate Saint Maria Goretti's purity: "Purity is a virtue which is the result of much effort . . . Purity becomes beauty, and then strength and freedom. The one who is able to struggle and to stand firm is free."4 Gianna herself was a source of inspiration and strength for her peers and for the younger members of Catholic Action, who looked to her as a role example.
Coming into her adult years and having completed her medical studies, Gianna struggled to know her vocation in life. Her brother Enrico had become a Capuchin friar and was a missionary in Brazil. Her younger sister Virginia became a doctor and a religious sister, serving as a missionary in India. Her brother Giuseppe studied engineering before responding to the call to the diocesan priesthood.
Gianna was a beloved physician who cared especially for the poor. As a physician, she had a profound reverence for the gift of human life, and she urged priests to preach and teach about the respect for human life and the evils of abortion and the abandonment of the seriously ill and elderly.
However, her life remained incomplete. As a devout young Catholic, she prayed to God about her vocation. She seriously considered the call to the dedicated single life, hoping to serve at the side of her priest brother in the missions of Brazil. With the help of her spiritual director, she came to understand that God was calling her to the married life. Thanks to the life of faith in her home and the religious education and formation that she received, she had a deep appreciation of the vocation to the married life. About her vocation, she wrote, "Everything has a specific end; everything obeys a law. God has shown each one of us the way, the vocation, and the life of grace that lies beyond physical life. Our earthly and eternal happiness depends on following our vocation without faltering. What is a vocation? It is a gift from God it comes from God Himself! Our concern, then, should be to know the will of God. We should enter onto the path that God wills for us, not by 'forcing the door,' but when God wills and as God wills . . . "5
Gianna knew that God has a special plan for each of us our way to give our life completely in love of Him and of our neighbor in the married life, the dedicated single life, the consecrated life or the priesthood. Through prayer and with the help of her spiritual director, she heard God's call to marriage.
Through Catholic Action, Gianna met Pietro Molla, a devout young Catholic gentleman who was an engineer. She was impressed by his courage and dedication in living the Catholic faith. He knew that God was calling him to the married life and believed that Gianna was to be his bride. Pietro and Gianna were engaged on April 11, 1955, and were united in marriage before the altar of God on September 24, 1955. When Gianna walked down the aisle of the church at the beginning of the Wedding Mass, the congregation applauded. They loved her very much because of the exemplary manner of her practice of the Catholic faith, especially as a physician, and they rejoiced that she had heard God's call to the married life. Reflecting upon her vocation to marriage and preparing for her wedding day, Gianna wrote to Pietro on September 13, 1955:
"With God's help and blessing, we will do all we can to make our new family a little cenacle where Jesus will reign over all our affections, desires and actions.
"My dear Pietro, our wedding is just a few days away now, and I feel very moved to be so near receiving the sacrament of love. We will be working with God in his creation; in this way we can give Him children who will love Him and serve Him."6
Her consecration to the Sacred Heart of Jesus had grown even deeper. She prayed that Christ might reign from His glorious Sacred Heart in their hearts and in their home. Because of her deep love of Christ and her communion with Him, she recognized the special grace of the married life the grace of total and lifelong love, and of cooperation with God in the generation of new human life.
On November 9, 1956, Gianna gave birth to their first child, Pierluigi. Gianna suffered severe physical pain after the birth and Pierluigi had medical difficulties. However, the couple were overjoyed to have received the gift of their first child and loved him very much.
In December 1957, Maria Zita, their second child, was born. The time immediately following the birth of Maria Zita, who was nicknamed Mariolina, was difficult. Pierluigi had further health difficulties, and Maria Zita was not sleeping at night. These trials did not take away any of the joy from the Molla home; instead, Pietro and Gianna grew in their love of each other and of their children.
Gianna gave birth to their third child, Laura Enrica Maria, on July 15, 1959. Gianna experienced serious difficulties during the pregnancy and worried that she might lose the child. The child was born healthy, and Maria Zita was overjoyed to have a playmate.
Gianna and Pietro refer to their children as their "treasures." One of the especially edifying aspects of studying the life of Saint Gianna and reading her love letters to her husband is to see how integral having children and raising them is to their married life and love.
The Final Test
Early in her pregnancy with their fourth child, it was discovered that Gianna had developed a fibroma, a kind of tumor, on the wall of her uterus. The doctors recommended removing the fibroma and aborting the child or a total hysterectomy, which would also mean abortion. Any option that included abortion was unacceptable to Gianna and Pietro. She chose instead to have the fibroma removed and to bring her child to term. Being a physician, Gianna understood well the danger involved for her. She declared, "This time it will be a difficult delivery, and they may have to save one or the other I want them to save my baby."7
On April 21, 1962, Gianna delivered their fourth child, Giovanna (Gianna) Emmanuela, by Caesarean section. The child was beautiful and healthy, but her birth marked the beginning of a week-long agony for Gianna, which ended in her death on April 28, 1962.
Immediately upon her death, a devotion to Gianna was developed, for the faithful who knew her saw a heroic wife and mother. Those who sought her intercession obtained many graces.
Maria Zita died two years after Gianna, after a brief illness. Pierluigi studied engineering and eventually married. Laura Enrica Maria and Gianna Emmanuela remain at home with their father. Laura Enrica Maria is a doctor of political science, and Gianna Emmanuela followed in the footsteps of her saintly mother and became a doctor. She has dedicated her medical practice to the care of patients suffering with Alzheimer's disease. At the Second World Day of the Family, in October 1997, Dr. Gianna Emmanuela Molla offered the following prayer through the intercession of her mother:
"Dear Mama, thank you for having given me life two times: when you conceived me and when you permitted me to be born . . . My life seems to be the natural continuation of your life, of your joy of living, of your enthusiasm; I discover my life's full meaning in dedicating myself to whoever lives in suffering.
"Dear Mama, intercede always for all mothers and all families who turn to you and entrust themselves to you."8
Indeed, many mothers and families have gone to Saint Gianna in prayer, and have received the help of God's grace through her intercession.
The life and death of Saint Gianna is a powerful witness to the vocation and mission of the married. In a society that has so little respect for marriage and family life, Saint Gianna is a beacon of inspiration and a powerful intercessor for conversion. I hope that you and many others will come to know Saint Gianna and, through your devotion to her, be strong witnesses to the truth about marriage and the family.
In any trial of the family, especially in the desire to conceive and give birth to children, I urge you to pray through the intercession of Saint Gianna. Having lived so fully the life of wife and mother and having known so many trials in remaining faithful to her vocation, she will not fail to hear your prayers.
1 Cf. "Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World," ("Gaudium et Spes") (Dec. 7. 1965), n. 48.
2 Blessed Gianna Beretta Molla, Love Letters to My Husband (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2002).
3 Cf. Ann Brown, No Greater Love: Bl. Gianna Beretta Molla: Physician, Mother, Martyr: The Story of a Mother of Our Time Who Offered Her Life That Her Child Might Live (Kentucky: New Hope Publications, 1999), 11-13.
4 Brown, No Greater Love, 12.
5 Giuliana Pelucchi, Blessed Gianna Beretta Molla: A Woman's Life (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2002), 71-72.
6 Beretta Molla, Love Letters to My Husband, 40-41.
7 Beretta Molla, Love Letters to My Husband, 14.
8 Pelucchi, A Woman's Life, 140.
* Reprinted with permission from The St. Louis Review
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