St. Gianna: The modern woman’s saint
It is said that God gives us the saints we need for our time. Saints who, by their lives rooted in self-surrendering, self-sacrificing love, show us how to conquer the darkness of the world in which we live and rise to their ranks. In our time, when so many women continue to reject authentic femininity as ordained by God, He has given us St. Gianna Beretta Molla.
16 May 2015 marks the eleventh anniversary of St. Gianna’s canonization by Pope St. John Paul II. We know St. Gianna as a pro-life saint because she chose to save the life of her unborn baby instead of opting for surgery that would have saved her life at the expense of the life of her unborn daughter.
But if we examine her life, we come to know a thoroughly modern, vivacious woman who had all the marks of success in the world. At a time when women typically did not work outside of the home, St. Gianna was a well-loved physician with a thriving medical practice. Not only was she a working mom (unheard of in her day) who sometimes had childcare emergencies, she was a female doctor in a male-dominated profession. She believed that she was called by God to be a physician. Reflecting on her work as a doctor, she said: “We touch Jesus in the bodies of our patients.” To her, work was holy: “We are apostles, and if we do not want our work to be in vain, but to be effective, there is only one method that will not fail: prayer. We must pray with faith, hope, charity, humility, devotion, and reverence. … Work can be prayer … if we offer to the Lord all the actions that we perform so that they might serve His glory.”
All of the published photos of St. Gianna show a strikingly beautiful, elegantly dressed, lively, confident young woman. She enjoyed beauty; she enjoyed life. Her husband, Pietro, said: “Gianna was a splendid, but ordinary woman. … She was stylish and elegant, a beautiful and intelligent woman who loved to smile. She loved going to the mountains and she skied very well. She loved music. For years we had season tickets for the concerts at the Milan Conservatory. … She also liked to travel.” St. Gianna appreciated the beauty of women expressed in refined fashion. Shortly before the birth of their fourth child, as Pietro prepared to leave for business trip to Paris, St. Gianna asked him to bring back some French fashion magazines. “If God keeps me here, I would like to make some nice clothes.”
Her letters to Pietro, written while he was away on frequent business trips, revealed a woman passionately in love with her husband who missed him when he was away and who at times was frustrated with his absences. Pietro was the plant manager for a large manufacturing company and business travel was necessary; therefore, she always tried to be supportive of his trips away. She wrote that she “missed [his] warm embrace,” and the “strength and support of [his] presence.” She believed that Pietro “completed [her] has a human being.” The married couple knew the importance of spending time together. They regularly attended concerts, plays, movies, and art galleries in Milan. St. Gianna traveled with Pietro on one of his extended business trips, leaving the children in the care of their relatives.
A devoted mother, she juggled the needs of her growing family with the demands of a busy medical practice. She wanted a large family and thanked God when she realized she was pregnant with her fourth baby.
It wasn’t long before she noticed an abnormal swelling in her abdomen. Her brother, Ferdinando, also a physician, assisted Dr. Vitali during the surgery to remove a large benign tumour growing on her uterus. Ideally, the uterus ought to have been removed, but at her insistence, it was not removed so the baby would not be harmed. In his clinical report, Ferdinando noted: “the patient did not hesitate to place the baby’s life ahead of her own, knowing what could occur, and pleaded with the surgeon to respect her wishes during the operation.”
After recovering from the surgery, she returned to her work and the pregnancy proceeded cautiously. Although she knew there could be further danger to the uterus, she abandoned her life to God’s Providence. Pietro recalled that Gianna “prayed to the Lord, to Our Lady, and to [her] own mother that the right and guarantee to life for the baby in [her] womb might not require the sacrifice of [her] life, that [she] would be spared for the sake of our children and our family.”
St. Gianna’s and Pietro’s four child, Gianna Emanuela Molla, was born by cesarean section on 21 April 1961. Within hours after the birth, St. Gianna was diagnosed with septic peritonitis. The painful agony that followed would have been unbearable if not for her immense faith. She called to Jesus for help as she clasped and kissed a crucifix. “Oh, if Jesus were not here to console us at times like this,” she murmured. After one week of intense pain, her self-sacrifice almost complete, St. Gianna fell into a coma. Pietro brought her home from the hospital. He laid her in the bed that they shared, and with her children sound asleep in the other room, St. Gianna died peacefully at 8:00 A.M. on 28 April 1962 with Pietro at her side.
In the photos of St. Gianna, in the recollections of those closest to her, and in her writing, the picture emerges of an intelligent woman who to a certain extent was ahead of her time. She loved all the good things the world had to offer: beauty, culture, nature. She loved her work, she loved people, and she was much loved by everyone who knew her. In her, we have the example of a beautiful woman, a successful physician, a loving mother, and a devoted wife. But these qualities, as noble as they are, are not her most important attributes. It was her daily witness to the Gospel in all areas of her life and her heroic love culminating in her ultimate self-sacrifice that is an inspiration for women seeking to live a life of holiness.
In her own words:
The most essential condition for every fruitful activity is stillness in prayer. The apostle begins work by kneeling. … Before acting, we lift our souls to God. The more we feel the desire to give, the more often it is necessary to go back to the infinite fountain of love that is God.
Our task is to make the truth visible and lovable in ourselves, offering ourselves as an attractive and, if possible, heroic example.
Work and sacrifice yourself only for the glory of God. … If, even after all of your best efforts, failure seems to be the result, accept this generously. A failure gracefully accepted by an apostle, who has used all the means available to succeed, may be more beneficial for salvation than a victory. Let us always work generously and humbly; let us try not to look immediately for the fruits of our labor. … Remember that saving the world has never been easy, not even for the Son of God, not even for the Apostles.
Guerriero, E. (2014). The Journey of Our Love: The Letters of Saint Gianna Beretta and Pietro Molla. Boston: Pauline Books and Media.
Pelucchi, G. (1994). Saint Gianna Beretta Molla: A Woman’s Life 1922-1962. Boston: Pauline Books and Media.