Gianna Beretta was born in Magenta (Milan) October 4, 1922. Already as a youth she willingly accepted the gift of faith and the clearly Christian education that she received from her excellent parents. As a result, she experienced life as a marvelous gift from God, had a strong faith in Providence and was convinced of the necessity and effectiveness of prayer.
She diligently dedicated herself to studies during the years of her secondary and university education, while, at the same time, applying her faith through generous apostolic service among the youth of Catholic Action and charitable work among the elderly and needy as a member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. After earning degrees in Medicine and Surgery from the University of Pavia in 1949, she opened a medical clinic in Mesero (near Magenta) in 1950. She specialized in Pediatrics at the University of Milan in 1952 and there after gave special attention to mothers, babies, the elderly and poor.
While working in the field of medicine-which she considered a “mission” and practiced as such-she increased her generous service to Catholic Action, especially among the “very young” and, at the same time, expressed her joie de vivre and love of creation through skiing and mountaineering. Through her prayers and those of others, she reflected upon her vocation, which she also considered a gift from God. Having chosen the vocation of marriage, she embraced it with complete enthusiasm and wholly dedicated herself “to forming a truly Christian family”.
She became engaged to Pietro Molla and was radiant with joy and happiness during the time of their engagement, for which she thanked and praised the Lord. They were married on September 24, 1955, in the Basilica of St. Martin in Magenta, and she became a happy wife. In November 1956, to her great joy, she became the mother of Pierluigi, in December 1957 of Mariolina; in July 1959 of Laura. With simplicity and equilibrium she harmonized the demands of mother, wife, doctor and her passion for life.
In September 1961 towards the end of the second month of pregnancy, she was touched by suffering and the mystery of pain; she had developed a fibroma in her uterus. Before the required surgical operation, and conscious of the risk that her continued pregnancy brought, she pleaded with the surgeon to save the life of the child she was carrying, and entrusted herself to prayer and Providence. The life was saved, for which she thanked the Lord. She spent the seven months remaining until the birth of the child in incomparable strength of spirit and unrelenting dedication to her tasks as mother and doctor. She worried that the baby in her womb might be born in pain, and she asked God to prevent that.
A few days before the child was due, although trusting as always in Providence, she was ready to give her life in order to save that of her child: “If you must decided between me and the child, do not hesitate: choose the child - I insist on it. Save him”. On the morning of April 21, 1962, Gianna Emanuela was born. Despite all efforts and treatments to save both of them, on the morning of April 28, amid unspeakable pain and after repeated exclamations of “Jesus, I love you. Jesus, I love you», the mother died. She was 39 years old. Her funeral was an occasion of profound grief, faith and prayer. The Servant of God lies in the cemetery of Mesero (4 km from Magenta).
"Conscious immolation", was the phrase used by Pope Paul VI to define the act of Blessed Gianna, remembering her at the Sunday Angelus of September 23, 1973, as: “A young mother from the diocese of Milan, who, to give life to her daughter, sacrificed her own, with conscious immolation”. The Holy Father in these words clearly refers to Christ on Calvary and in the Eucharist.
Gianna was beatified by Pope John Paul II on April 24, 1994, during the international Year of the Family. (Source: The Vatican)
She was canonized on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 16, 2004, by Pope John Paul II. In his homily for that Sunday Mass, we read:
1. "Peace I leave with you" (Jn 14: 27). During the Easter season, we frequently hear this promise of Jesus to his disciples. True peace is the fruit of Christ's victory over the power of evil, sin and death. Those who follow him faithfully become witnesses and builders of his peace.
It is in this light that I wish to contemplate the six new Saints, offered to us today by the Church for universal veneration: Luigi Orione, Hannibal Mary Di Francia, José Manyanet y Vives, Nimatullah Kassab Al-Hardini, Paola Elisabetta Cerioli, Gianna Beretta Molla.
. . .
7. Gianna Beretta Molla was a simple, but more than ever, significant messenger of divine love. 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".
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!
8. "Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid" (Jn 14: 28). The earthly events of these six new Saints spur us to persevere on our own journey, confiding in the help of God and the maternal protection of Mary. From Heaven, may they now watch over us and support us with their powerful intercession.
Who Is Saint Gianna Beretta Molla?
The first married laywoman and physician to be canonized is a model for us all.
by Joseph W. Cunningham, JD
Pope John Paul II once said of Gianna Beretta Molla: “What a heroic witness is hers, a true Song to Life, in strident contrast to a certain pervasive mentality of today.” Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan has called Gianna a “sign of hope for today’s families.” Just who is this new saint—a young wife, mother, and pediatrician who died at age 39 after giving birth to her fourth child?
Gianna was born on October 4, 1922, to Alberto and Maria Beretta, parents of 13 children. Five children died at an early age. Of the eight remaining, four became medical doctors; two, priests; and the others a nun, a pharmacist, an engineer and a pianist.
Gianna’s family was imbued with the faith. The mother led her children to daily Mass. They prayed the rosary together often and consecrated their home to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Rules for Living
At age five, Gianna received her first Holy Communion. When she was fifteen she attended an Ignatian retreat that profoundly impacted her life. At that time she wrote down certain resolutions for living. She resolved:
1. To do everything for Jesus—every work, every trouble would be offered to Him.
2. To avoid viewing movies unless they were modest and not scandalous.
3. To die rather than commit a mortal sin.
Finally, Gianna prayed that the Lord would make her understand how great is his mercy. She also composed a prayer: “O Jesus, I promise you to submit myself to all that you permit to happen to me; only make me know your will.”
When Gianna was age 20 and a leader in Catholic Action, a group involved with catechesis of young people, she gave them the following instructions:
Pray in the morning and evening on your knees.
Attend Holy Mass and receive Holy Communion.
Meditate every day for ten minutes and make frequent visits to the Blessed Sacrament.
Pray the holy rosary to ask the help of Our Lady.
In addition to her work with Catholic Action, Gianna was active in helping the poor and the elderly through the Saint Vincent de Paul Society.
Training and Vocation
In 1949 Gianna graduated from the University of Pavia with a medical degree in surgery with honors. She opened a clinic in Mesero, about 20 miles west of Milan, with her brother Ferdinand. She liked babies, so she obtained a certificate in pediatrics.
As for her vocation, Gianna told the young girls of Catholic Action: “Eternal and earthly happiness depends on the fulfillment of your vocation. Your vocation is one to a material, spiritual, and moral maternity, because God has placed in us an inclination to life. Each of us should make room for our vocation, for the giving of life. If, perchance, we may have to die while carrying out our vocation, that would be the most beautiful day of our lives.”
In 1954 Gianna made a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, to ask our Lady to guide her in her vocation. Should she become a lay missionary in Brazil and assist her brother, Father Alberto, who was the only physician in the impoverished area of Grajaù? Or should she marry and have a family?
On December 8, 1954, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the young woman attended the first Mass of a Franciscan priest, where she met an engineer named Peter Molla. In his diary that night Peter wrote: “I feel certain I have made a good encounter. The Immaculate Mother has blessed me.” They were engaged the following April.
In preparing for the marriage to Peter, Gianna chose a wedding gown of the finest quality so that it could be made into vestments for a son if he should become a priest. (Later a Mass vestment was indeed crafted that incorporated a piece of her wedding dress]. They were married at the Basilica of Saint Martin in Magenta on September 24, 1955, by Father Giuseppe Beretta, Gianna’s brother.
A Mother’s Sacrifice
Gianna wanted to have a big family. She and Peter had a son, Pierluigi, then two daughters, Mariolina and Laura, followed by two miscarriages. In the summer of 1961 Gianna became pregnant with another child.
Within two months, however, the young mother developed a large, painful uterine tumor that threatened her life and that of her developing baby. The surgeon suggested that she have an abortion or a hysterectomy—the latter, of course, would also have killed the child—in order to save her own life. Gianna opted instead for a riskier surgery that would simply remove the tumor to protect the baby while leaving her own life at risk.
The operation was successful in preserving the life of the child. But as the months of her pregnancy continued, Gianna had a premonition of what was to come. She was ready to sacrifice her life so that her child could live.
A few days before the baby was due, she told her husband: “If you must decide between me and the child, do not hesitate: Choose the child; I insist on it. Save the baby!”
On Holy Saturday, 1962, after a Caesarian section, Gianna gave birth to a healthy baby girl weighing nearly 10 pounds. The child was named Gianna as well. (Today, “little” Gianna is also a medical doctor, a gerontologist.)
That same day, the mother’s condition began to deteriorate. She was dying of septic peritonitis, an infection of the lining of the abdomen—a result of her choice to preserve the life of her child. Gianna died a week later on April 28, 1962 (now her feast day).
Many saints aren’t formally recognized by the Church until centuries after their death. But Gianna’s cause for canonization began within three decades after she died. The miracles necessary for the process occurred in a relatively short period of time, so that her husband, three surviving children and siblings were able to attend her canonization by Pope John Paul II on May 16, 2004.
Is our God trying to get Gianna’s message of holiness in everyday life to our troubled world at this crucial time, in this culture of death?
“Mother of the Family”
Today, St. Gianna’s husband and children emphasize that their wife and mother was canonized with the title “Mother of the Family” because she lived her whole life as an exemplary Christian witness to the Gospel. Her holiness is not so much the result of a single heroic deed as the fruit of daily perseverance. This brave mother’s importance to the Church is her witness to the Gospel of Life, her faithfulness to everyday activities, and her dedication to her husband and children.
Gianna is the first canonized married laywoman and physician. She is an exemplar for the many mothers who face circumstances similar to hers. Numerous individuals throughout the world testify that they have sought this saint’s intercession and received special favors—physical, spiritual and emotional.
The Society of St. Gianna has established the first shrine to her in the United States at the Church of the Nativity of Our Lord, Warminster, Pennsylvania. The shrine consists of a large framed photo of St. Gianna, accompanied by a pair of her gloves, which visitors can touch and venerate. Many of the shrine’s visitors, especially women seeking to become pregnant, report that their prayers have been answered.
St. Gianna Beretta Molla, pray for us!
Joseph W. Cunningham is the Past President of the Society of Saint Gianna Beretta Molla, based in Philadelphia (go online to www.saintgianna.org). He has worked closely with Ignatius Press in the publication of the recent book Saint Gianna Molla: Wife, Mother, Doctor by Pietro Molla and Elio Guerriero (2004)