A hardworking, intelligent, and culturally savvy young woman made a monumental choice in April 1962. It was a choice made out of love, specifically, the tender love of a mother.
The woman: Saint Gianna Beretta Molla, of Italy. Her choice: to save her unborn child’s life, even if it risked losing her own. As one of the two patrons of this September’s  World Meeting of Families—the other being St. John Paul II, who canonized her—St. Gianna is a saint not only for expectant mothers, but also for anyone who sees the inherent dignity of life.
In times when the forces of life and family continue to be besieged by violence, disintegration, and the notion that easy equals right, St. Gianna’s choice shines as a beacon to Catholics and to humanity at large.
St. Gianna’s story has touched many hearts and minds the world over in the 53 years since her death, including Basilian Father Thomas Rosica, head of Salt + Light Media, Canada’s first Catholic television network. You might recognize him from TV as the English-language assistant to the Holy See Press Office.
Rosica has been a close friend of the Molla family since 1999, when he met two of St. Gianna’s children at the blessing of a stained-glass window featuring their mother at the Newman Centre Chapel in Toronto. A major proponent of St. Gianna’s 2004 canonization, Rosica spoke with St. Anthony Messenger about her life, legacy, and role as a patron of the World Meeting of Families.
“She represents everything that this culture ignores,” he points out. “She’s the saint for life, marriage, family, love, and the saint for ordinary activities—just a very beautiful, wholesome, healthy, and holy role model.”
A Caregiver at Heart
Gianna’s story, what Rosica refers to as “an extraordinary story of a very ordinary woman,” began over 90 years ago. Born on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, October 4, 1922, Gianna Beretta was the 10th of 13 children in a bustling Italian household in Magenta, Italy, near Milan.
Both her mother, Maria, and her father, Alberto, were Secular Franciscans, and their home was infused with a deep Catholic identity and Franciscan sensibilities. Sadly, tragedy struck multiple times in the early years of the Beretta family. Six of the 13 children died at young ages due to Spanish flu and other illnesses.
The loss of her older sister and role model, Amalia, in 1937, was a turning point for young Gianna. A journal entry from 1938 reflects both her deep despair and burgeoning devotion to Christ. “I make the holy resolution to do everything for Jesus. All my works, all my disappointments, I offer everything to Jesus,” Gianna wrote.
Gianna carried that spiritual sentiment forward in her life, and, when she was in her early 20s, moved closer to fulfilling her “holy resolution” by getting involved in faith enrichment with other young Catholic women.
“She was a leader in the Catholic Action movement, an ecclesial movement. So much of the work she did for Catholic Action was significant to her and others’ spiritual growth,” explains Rosica.
In 1942, around the same time that she became involved in Catholic Action, Gianna
entered medical school in Milan, an unusual path for a woman in Italy at that time. “She
represents the best of feminism. Women were not clamoring to get into medical school and, even still, she finished at the top of her class. In a photo of her medical school class, there’s clearly a minority [of women], and yet there she is, front and center,” says Rosica.
After a lengthy academic career—one often disrupted by the turmoil of World War II—her dedication to becoming a doctor was finally realized in 1949. She obtained her specialization in pediatrics in 1952.
Gianna’s True Calling
Not long after completing medical school, Gianna opened an outpatient clinic in Mesero, Italy, a small town outside of Magenta. It was in Mesero that she met engineer Pietro Molla.
Their friendship and mutual admiration evolved into a strong bond of love. After a brief courtship and engagement, Gianna and Pietro married in 1955, settling in a cottage in nearby Ponte Nuevo. By 1959, the Mollas already had three children: Pierluigi, Mariolina, and Laura.
“Pietro and Gianna’s was a deep love, but it was not an easy thing because Pietro was away a lot. He had to travel extensively because of his job with a matchmaking company [matchsticks],” Rosica notes. “When you read the love letters they sent to each other, you sometimes get the sense that there were also times of great pain because he was away and she was raising the kids.”
After two miscarriages, Gianna became pregnant once more in 1961, but there were complications. Just two months into the pregnancy, doctors discovered that she had developed a serious fibroma—a noncancerous tumor—in the uterus. Along with recommending immediate surgery to remove the growth, doctors also advised that Gianna either have an abortion— which would ensure her own survival— or a hysterectomy, which would have the unintended consequence of the unborn baby’s death.
Gianna chose neither the abortion nor the hysterectomy, insisting that the child’s life must be saved. Rosica recalls a conversation he had with Piera Fontana, a close friend of Gianna’s, about her decision to save the child’s life at all cost.
“I spent a whole afternoon with her talking about Gianna,” Rosica remembers. “She told me, ‘When I found out that she had this tumor and she was carrying the child, my heart was broken—she delivered most of our children as a young doctor. Because we were so poor, she never charged us for her work.’”
The tumor was successfully removed in September 1961, and Gianna went back to life as usual, juggling work at her medical clinic and her duties as a mother. All the while, though, the concern lingered that the suture inside her uterus could become infected, especially during childbirth.
Her decision was no death wish; Gianna prayed daily that she would be spared so that she could continue being a pillar of support and love in her young family.
On Good Friday, April 20, 1962, Gianna entered the hospital in Monza, Italy, ready to
celebrate her fourth child’s entry into the world. The following day, Holy Saturday, Gianna gave birth to a baby girl via cesarean section and named her Gianna Emanuela. Hours later, joy shifted to deep concern as Gianna developed an extremely painful septic infection.
After only a few days in the hospital, the infection was worsening, and Gianna requested that she be taken home, where she could be at peace with her family at her side. On Sunday, April 28, little more than a week after she had given birth, Gianna died from septic peritonitis.
Pietro grieved the loss of Gianna deeply and faced the challenge of raising the Molla children as a widower. He could not have imagined in 1962 how all of his wife’s suffering and sacrifice would someday be held high in St. Peter’s Square as a beacon for life.
‘Finalmente, One of Us’
The path to Gianna’s sainthood can be traced back to the 1960s when, following her death, a priest and friend, Father Olinto Marella, forged a grassroots effort in Milan to promote Gianna’s story.
The case for her beatification picked up steam in the 1970s, catching the attention of Pope Paul VI. A 1977 miracle from Brazil involving the sudden recovery of a dying pregnant woman who prayed to Gianna propelled her case forward. After a lengthy review process confirmed the miracle, Gianna was beatified in 1994 by St. John Paul II.
A second miracle in 1999—again from Brazil—moved Gianna toward canonization. On May 16, 2004, St. John Paul II officially canonized St. Gianna Beretta Molla, who would turn out to be the last of the saints he declared. Gianna’s husband, Pietro, and her three surviving children (Mariolina died in 1964) were all present at her canonization ceremony, a first in the known history of canonizations.
Especially potent was the presence of Gianna Emanuela, the daughter whose life she insisted on protecting, and who followed in her mother’s footsteps, eventually becoming a physician herself. Rosica, who was present with the family, remembers clearly when St. Gianna’s name was announced during the emotional ceremony that spring day.
“I remember . . . Pietro was in a wheelchair and he said, ‘I have to stand up,’” Rosica recalls. “He stands up and looks right at the banner with Gianna’s image and he said, ‘Do you see that picture? I took that when we were in the mountains.’”
St. John Paul II used Gianna’s own words while delivering his homily at the canonization Mass: “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.’” The pope went on to reflect, “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.”
Not long after the canonization ceremony, Rosica remembers reflecting on the momentous occasion with Gianna’s close friend Piera. Over a glass of the famous liquor grappa, the larger-than-life Piera talked about what her friend’s canonization meant to her.
“Piera told me, ‘Look, in the past, they raised up to the altar all these apostles and holy saints and everything else, and that’s fine. It’s not that they’re not holy. But with Gianna, finalmente [“finally”], one of us! A mother is now a saint.’ So we raised our glasses and toasted,” Rosica recalls.
Life in Bold
The reserved images linked to some saints certainly do not apply to St. Gianna. But how exactly was St. Gianna “one of us”? Considering the diversity of her interests, there is much to choose from for modern Catholics looking for a relatable saint.
She enjoyed concerts, plays, and operas at Milan’s famous La Scala opera house. From being an accomplished pianist to keeping a keen eye on the latest fashions, Gianna was a cultured woman interested in the vibrancy of human life in this world.
An avid outdoors-woman, many photos capture her hugging mountainsides and hiking in the ruggedly beautiful northern Italian landscape. She was always connected to her vocation as a mother, though, and her young children can be seen bundled up alongside her in her forays into the outdoors.
“When we think of saints, we don’t necessarily think of a woman who loved beautiful clothes, who had season tickets to the opera, who loved skiing, who liked to drive her car very fast,” says Rosica.
The term pro-life can be understood broadly when examining the life of St. Gianna. She celebrated the joy and the gift of life granted by God throughout her 39 years on Earth, not only in her final moments.
Though the notion of a mother continuing to work as she raises her children might not seem too out of the ordinary these days, it certainly was in 1950s Italy. Gianna—the first woman doctor to be canonized—knew well the challenges and sweet, small victories of being a mother in the modern age.
Moms today can whisper a prayer to St. Gianna when life gets overwhelming; they can feel confident that she knows exactly what they’re going through.
This September [ 2015], St. Gianna’s story will reach even more people at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. It’s fitting that St. John Paul II, who deeply understood how pivotal families are to the Catholic faith, and St. Gianna are the patron saints of the event.
American Catholics are particularly energized about Pope Francis’ first visit to the United States, a trip that includes the pope’s participation in the World Meeting of Families. Rosica sees a natural connection between the pope and the Italian mother and saint.
“Pope Francis loves families; he encourages families. Francis has been very clear about supporting families and marriage, so Gianna, being a laywoman and mother, she’s really a very appropriate saint and role model for the World Meeting of Families. We need heroes. She’s a hero!” Rosica exclaims.
Even after the World Meeting of Families has wrapped up and the papal plane has departed US soil, the legacy of St. Gianna will remain for all. Rosica is keen to emphasize that St. Gianna’s legacy has as much to do with her life as it does with the sacrifice that was her death.
“As a young mother of a family, she knew exactly the choice that she was making at the
end, but it was her whole life that prepared her to make that choice. Her life was a constant yes all the way to when she said, ‘Let the child live. Let the baby live.’”