St. Gianna and Pietro Molla: models for the Synod on the Family

    There’s much rumour and speculation swirling around the upcoming Synod on the Family in October 2014. One of the main points of debate is whether or not divorced or remarried Catholics should be allowed to receive Holy Communion if an annulment has not been granted. Other areas to be addressed include same-sex marriage, co-habitation, and the role of men and women within a marriage. Although there seems to be much disagreement among Catholics including all levels of the clergy, the one thing everyone agrees on is the need to provide compassionate, unambiguous, pastoral care to married couples and their families.

    Today’s Catholic families need a model of committed sacramental marriage. The prelates at the Synod only have to look at the example of St. Gianna and Pietro Molla to determine how to best strengthen the vocation of marriage that is threatened by many societal forces in our present day.

    St. Gianna and Pietro had a modern marriage even by today’s standards. They both had demanding careers: she was a medical doctor with a busy practice and he was an engineer and plant manager at SAFFA, a manufacturing company. They had a young family and so there were childcare arrangements to consider as well as the other needs of a growing family. Pietro travelled a great deal for SAFFA and St. Gianna sometimes felt frustrated at his absence. They had holidays together and sometimes apart. There was the mundane routine of household chores. They dealt with children’s illnesses; they experienced death. The three tenets of Catholic Action (a group in which they were both involved and in which St. Gianna was president of the women’s division) formed the basis of their marriage: prayer, action, sacrifice.

    Prayer was central to their marriage and both of them tried to assist at Holy Mass even on weekdays. Pietro attended weekday Mass whenever he could during his business trips. The Holy Eucharist was the source of strength they faithfully drew upon and each new child was consecrated to Our Lady. Before their wedding day St. Gianna made a suggestion that was warmly received by Pietro: “What would you say about our making a triduum to prepare spiritually to receive the Sacrament?”

    The second pillar of their marriage was action. As a physician, St. Gianna was not only conscientious, she was compassionate and never hesitated to re-affirm the sanctity of life. She was a devoted mother who juggled the needs of her family with her professional responsibilities.

    As an engineer and plant manager at SAFFA, Pietro “constantly pursued new avenues of production. In this case, charity led him to diversify production” in order to provide jobs for his workforce even though it meant many absences from home. When he was at home, Pietro spent much time with his young children and his beautiful wife. When he was travelling, he wrote home almost daily.

    The third pillar, sacrifice, was undertaken daily in the way St. Gianna and Pietro placed the needs of each other and of the children above their own. For Pietro, frequent absences from home was a sacrifice that he bore and offered to God for his family.

    Sacrifice was also evident in St. Gianna’s choice to save her fourth baby’s life over her own. Pietro recalled that after Gianna Emanuela’s birth, St. Gianna, “with difficulty took the baby in her arms, lifted her up, and kissed her, looking at her with such sadness that I knew she was aware that she would leave this child an orphan.”

    Pietro sacrificed and suffered much in agreeing to his wife’s request to save the baby’s life over her own and then raising the children as a single father. Two years after St. Gianna’s death, he suffered the unimaginable grief of losing a child, Mariolina, to a fatal illness. He expressed the role that sacrifice and suffering played in his marriage and family life: “I’ve had to convince myself that sorrow remains a mystery even in the light of faith, and I have experienced that the only way to accept it is the way of the Crucified Christ.”

    Like St. Gianna and Pietro, if we strive to live our marriage unselfishly, with great love for God, our spouse, and our children, we will feel the weight of the cross given to us by Our Father in order to sanctify us through the vocation He wills for us. It is in our vocation of marriage lived joyfully and with trust in Divine Providence that He calls us to be saints.

    Hopefully, the Synod will honour the call to sanctity in marriage. Hopefully they will address the challenges faced by Catholic families, not by watering down Magisterial teachings but by raising up married people to bear witness to God’s love and salvation through the Church’s teaching on marriage and family life. Hopefully, they will call for us to repent and atone for whatever in our marital situation is not in line with the Magisterium and therefore contrary to God’s plan for us.

    St. Gianna and Pietro Molla showed us what the modern Catholic marriage ought to be: self-giving, patient, loving, joyful, passionate, and upheld by the pillars of prayer, action, and sacrifice. The Synod on the Family should provide us with renewed sound Catholic teaching and support so that in our marriages we may daily strive to live these ideals.

    Let us pray for the defense and strengthening of sacramental Catholic marriage. Let us pray for our bishops and all clergy who are called to follow the Magisterium in the area of marriage and family life and who have the challenge of guiding us to live out our vocation well. Let us pray for all married couples and their families.

    St. Gianna and Pietro Molla, pray for us.


    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.