THE EXAMPLE OF SAINT GIANNA BERETTA MOLLA (1922-1962)
Saint Gianna Beretta Molla was born in Magenta (Milan), Italy, on 4 October 1922, the 10th of 13 children. Already as a young girl, 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 in generous apostolic service 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 thereafter gave special attention to mothers, babies, the elderly and the 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 on 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 24 September 1955 in St. Martin's Basilica 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 decide between me and the child, do not hesitate: choose the child—I insist on it. Save the baby." On the morning of 21 April 1962, Gianna Emanuela was born. Despite all efforts and treatments to save both of them, on the morning of 28 April, 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 body of the new blessed lies in the cemetery of Mesero (4 km. from Magenta).
GIANNA’S HEROIC DECISION
During Gianna’s pregnancy with her fourth child, she made the decision to save her child’s life, at all costs. This decision ultimately led to her death. In the second month of her fourth pregnancy, Gianna was diagnosed with a large tumor in her uterus. Gianna’s tumor (a fibroid), though benign, was large and painful. It threatened the development of the baby and even threatened the continuation of the pregnancy. Gianna began having bleeding, so a decision regarding surgery was urgent. Gianna had three options. She could have the fibroid removed by also removing her uterus (hysterectomy). This would cause the death of her two month old fetus and eliminate the possibility of future pregnancies. A second option was to remove the fibroid and terminate the pregnancy. The last option was to remove the fibroid and continue the pregnancy. This was the only option to save her unborn child, but the risk of pregnancy-related complications was very high. “If you have to decide between me and the baby, there is to be no hesitation. Choose the baby. I demand it. Save it!” Against standard medical advice, Gianna chose the third option. She underwent surgery. She recovered well and her pregnancy continued.
At the end of her pregnancy, labor could not be induced, so her baby had to be delivered by Caesarian section. A healthy baby girl, Gianna Emanuela, was born on April 21, 1962. Very soon after the delivery, Gianna began having increasing abdominal pain and fever. She was diagnosed with septic peritonitis (an infection of the lining of her abdomen). She received all the known treatments of that time – antibiotics and transfusions for the infection, which was likely a complication of the caesarian section surgery. Despite their efforts, Gianna could not be saved. Gianna died on April 28, 1962, seven days after the birth of her child. Gianna never considered the possibility of aborting her child. She also repeatedly made it clear that if only one life could be saved, it should be the baby’s life. The heroic part of what Gianna did was to choose life for her child under difficult and uncertain circumstances, no matter the consequences to herself.
THE MAKING OF A SAINT
Canonization is the process the Church follows to name a saint. In the early years of the church, saints were chosen by public acclaim. Though this was a more democratic way to recognize saints, some saints’ stories were distorted by legend and some never existed. Over time, the bishops and the Vatican became responsible for this decision.
The process begins after the death of a Catholic whom people regard as holy. The local bishop investigates the candidate’s life and writings for heroic virtue. Then a panel of theologians at the Vatican evaluates the candidate. After approval by the panel and cardinals of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the Pope proclaims the candidate “venerable”.
In Gianna’s case, Cardinal Giovanni Colombo, Archbishop of Milan, began promoting the cause for her beatification on November 6, 1972. On April 28, 1980, the cause for beatification of the servant of God, Gianna Beretta Molla, was officially introduced by the decree of Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, Archbishop of Milan. Between June 1980 and January 1984, the investigation of Gianna Beretta Molla in Milan and Bergamo, Italy, included over 170 sessions with more than sixty witnesses, including priests, religious women, medical professionals and Gianna’s family. Between April and November of 1986, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints reviewed the four volume (2570 pages) investigation results, and issued the Decree of Validity for Gianna Beretta Molla. On July 6, 1991, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints confirmed and Pope John Paul II decreed that the heroic virtues of the Servant of God, Gianna Beretta Molla, be recognized. Gianna Beretta Molla received the title of “Venerable”.
THE MIRACLES OF SAINT GIANNA
Two miracles have officially been attributed to the intercession of Gianna Beretta Molla, and both miracles took place in Brazil. Fr. Alberto, one of St. Gianna’s brothers, and also a physician, was a Capuchin missionary in Brazil. He cared for the needy and regularly wrote to his sister about the work in the mission. She had a strong desire to join him. After completing her studies and contemplating going to Brazil, her spiritual director raised concerns around her health and the grueling life of missionary work. He counseled against the idea, as did the Bishop of Bergamo. Gianna accepted that God had other plans for her and began her medical practice in Italy.
On October 22, 1977, Lucia Sylvia Cirilo, a 27 year old Brazilian Protestant woman, gave birth to her fourth child, a still born baby, via caesarian section. She was discharged from the hospital 9 days later in good health, but a few days later she returned to the hospital as a result of severe pain. Doctors found a very serious complication had caused a rectal-vaginal fistula. It was inoperable in that hospital, and the nearest viable facility was more than 600 km away. Since Lucia was unlikely to survive the trip, a nurse, Sr. Bernardina, who was a Capuchin religious, invited two other nurses to join her in intercessory prayer to Gianna Beretta Molla. Gazing at a small picture of the Servant of God, Sr. Bernadina prayed, “You who are Father Alberto’s sister, make this fistula heal and keep this woman from having to travel to Sao Luis.” According to the young mother’s testimony, her pain subsided immediately and disappeared completely. An examination by the surgeon revealed that the fistula had healed, and it was no longer necessary to transfer the young woman. On May 22, 1992, following years of investigation and verification, the cure was recognized by the Special Congress of the Congregation of the Causes of Saints, as a third degree miracle.
In mid- November 1999, Elizabeth Comarini Arcolino, a 35-years-old Brazilian woman, was pregnant with her fourth child. Within the first month, she had a serious hemorrhage. In spite of this, the pregnancy continued, but an ultrasound showed abnormalities, and doctors did not hold much hope for a full-term pregnancy. On December 9, a further complication occurred in the form of a large blood clot. Ten days later, doctors found the baby’s heart was still beating, but the placenta was very deteriorated. Elizabeth’s physician said the baby was barely alive due to the size of the blood clot and it was almost certain that she would spontaneously abort. Contrary to these expectations, the pregnancy continued.
In February, Elizabeth returned to the hospital feeling something was wrong, only to learn that the membranes had broken. At 16 weeks, the baby was alive, but there was no amniotic fluid, placing mother and child at serious risk of infection. Termination of the pregnancy was recommended to avoid the risk of infection. As a practicing Catholic, Elizabeth knew she could not choose abortion and she must try to bring the child to term. Isabel, her friend, overheard this recommendation and inspired by her faith, went to the chapel to pray. As she got up to leave, she saw the Bishop pass by the door and went to tell him what was happening. Knowing Elizabeth and Carlos from having presided at their wedding, he went to her room and prayed with them. The Bishop left and returned with a biography of Blessed Gianna Beretta Molla. He told Elizabeth to “do what Blessed Gianna did, and if necessary, give your life for your child. I was praying at home and I said to the Blessed in prayer, ‘Now has arrived the opportunity for you to be canonized. Intercede before the Lord for the grace of a miracle and save the life of this little child.’”
Elizabeth had prayed through Blessed Gianna before, for the birth of her third child, and was reassured by the inspiration of Blessed Gianna and the Bishop. Several doctors said this was madness as the child was already dying. Her doctor told Elizabeth that Elizabeth’s faith had made her think, and that she, as her physician, also had faith. They would wait for the natural death of the fetus. Elizabeth’s whole community continued to invoke Blessed Gianna for a miracle. Elizabeth had a very difficult time, often feeling abandoned by God. At 32 weeks, a baby weighing 1.8 Kg was delivered by caesarian section on May 31, 2000. She was named Gianna Maria, after her intercessor, and was healthy with the exception of a twisted foot, which was later corrected successfully. Elizabeth had life-threatening complications, but after 3 days in the intensive care unit, she made a full recovery. In July 2001, a pediatrician examined the child and found her to be perfectly normal and healthy, intelligent and lively. In January 2002, a subsequent examination revealed no problems of any kind with the child’s development.
On December 20, 2003, the decree “super miracle” was promulgated by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in the presence of Pope John Paul II. With her spouse and three children in attendance, Gianna Beretta Molla was canonized on May 16, 2004. St. Gianna is
a patron saint for mothers, physicians, and unborn children.
God our Father we praise You and we bless you because in Saint Gianna Beretta Molla you have given us one who witnessed to the Gospel as a young women, as a wife, as a mother, and as a doctor. We thank you because through the gift of her life we can learn to welcome and honor every human person.
You, Lord Jesus, were for Gianna a splendid example. She learned to recognize you in the beauty of nature. As she was questioning her choice of vocation, she went in search of you and the best way to serve you. Through her married love she became a sign of your love for the Church and for humanity. Like you, the Good Samaritan, she cared for everyone who was sick, small or weak. Following your example, out of love she gave herself entirely, generating new life.
Holy Spirit, Source of every perfection, give us wisdom, intelligence, and courage so that, following the example of Saint Gianna and through her intercession, we may know how to place ourselves at the service of each person we meet in our personal, family and professional lives, and thus grow in love and holiness. Amen.