This past week was the feast day of a fairly new saint, Gianna Beretta Molla. Although not as well known as many other saints, her popularity and intercession are rapidly growing for many contemporary and helpful reasons.
So, who is this saint? And why is she becoming a “new thing” on the stage of all things Catholic and Christian?
Admittedly, at times, church teachings can seem abstract and removed from daily life. In particular, the questions surrounding life issues, women’s health, family planning, and sexuality are all areas where church teachings can at times appear disconnected from everyday reality.
One of the benefits of the Christian way of life are the narratives of the saints, in that these sacred accounts display for us how church teachings can make our lives better, how following them can give order and meaning to our daily decisions, and how embracing them – especially with a struggling faith – can enhance our own capacity to hope and love.
If we allow them, the stories of the holy ones can strengthen our own trust in God and encourage us to cooperate with his grace in bringing out the best in us.
Incidentally, another blessing that comes with the lives of the saints is the timeliness of their witness. It appears that God will send humanity the saints we need. When we forgot about hospitality, and barbarism was the rule of the day, God raised up St. Benedict. When corruption became acceptable and wealth seemed to dominate the church, God brought forth St. Francis of Assisi.
When we forgot about prayer and the spiritual life, God sent us Sts. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. When street children were used as slaves and civil society chose to ignore them, God brought forth St. John Bosco. When humanity dismissed the suffering and the poor, God blessed us with St. Teresa of Calcutta.
The lives of the saints, like the prophets of old, convict humanity of its darkness and remind it of what is most human, sacred, and good. Their lives stand as a summons for us to come back to our truer selves.
One contemporary witness for us in the oftentimes debated realms of abortion, life issues, family planning, and motherhood is Dr. Gianna Beretta Molla. The life of this wife, mother, and medical doctor is an enduring testimony of sacrificial, nuptial, and maternal love to the Christian believer today and to any person of good will.
In 1922, Dr. Molla was born into a large family in northern Italy. After her early studies, she graduated from the University of Milan with degrees in pediatrics and surgery. In addition to her medical practice, she was a skilled pianist and greatly enjoyed skiing and mountain climbing.
Early in her practice, Dr. Molla met, fell in love with, and soon married Pietro. The two looked forward to starting their family and to spending their lives together.
While pregnant with her fourth child, Dr. Molla was diagnosed with a large ovarian cyst, which required surgery that could endanger the unborn child. She knew the medical risks and the threat to her own life.
In having this knowledge, she wasn’t immune to anxiety, fear, or distress. She struggled, but eventually said, “I have prayed so much these days… But now it is up to me to fulfill my duty as a mother. I am ready for everything in order to save the baby.”
Dr. Molla went on to say, “Look at mothers who truly love their children: how many sacrifices they make for them. They are ready for everything, even to give their own blood so that their babies grow up good, healthy, and strong.”
Immediately before the surgery, Dr. Molla vehemently told the surgeon, a fellow member of the medical community, “If you must decide between me and the baby, have no hesitation: choose – and I demand it – the baby, save her!”
The surgery was successful but Dr. Molla was severely weakened by it. Shortly after childbirth, on April 28, 1962, she passed away. She gave up her life so that her daughter might live.
On May 16, 2004, Pope St. John Paul II recognized her heroic sacrifice and declared Dr. Gianna Beretta Molla a saint. Attending the canonization Mass was Gianna’s ninety-one-year-old husband, her three children, her granddaughter, her living siblings, and patients of the former medical doctor. It was the first time a spouse was present at the canonization Mass of their spouse.
As an act of thanksgiving, St. Gianna’s daughter, who was born through her mother’s sacrifice, presented the pope with the relics of her mother at the canonization Mass. A moving moment that crowned the saint’s life and testimony.
For believers, St. Gianna shows us the wisdom of the Gospel and the church’s teachings in contested areas of human life. She points us to the cross when things are confusing and appear to be spinning, since the cross is stable and always stands firm. It perpetually shows the believer the path of love, which is not easy but which always allows goodness to win.
Saint Gianna is also a reminder to the human family. Like the other saints throughout human history, she is the witness we need. St. Gianna reminds us of the value of married love, of the dignity of the unborn and of all people, of maternal sacrifice, and of the unique role of the family in the struggles and joys of life.
As humanity forgets, redefines, or rejects these, it becomes more of a stranger to itself. And so, the life of St. Gianna continues the prophetic role of the saints and calls us all back to our truer selves.