Born: October 4, 1922 in Magenta, Italy
Died: April 28, 1962 in Monza, Italy
Beatification: April 24, 1994 by Pope St. John Paul II – during the Year of the Family
Canonized: May 16, 2004 by Pope St. John Paul II. St. Gianna is the first married laywoman to be declared a saint. She is also the first canonized woman physician – a professional woman who was also a ‘working mom’, something that was very unusual at the time.1
Feast Day: April 28
Patronage: Mothers, physicians, unborn children
There are few things in life that bring greater joy than the birth of a child. No matter how a baby enters our lives – whether their arrival has been long anticipated or is completely unexpected – the miracle of new life always gives rise to feelings of wonder and awe. But there are times when our cup of joy is mixed with sadness and sorrow – when the cause of our happiness is mingled with the heartache of loss. Such was the case with St. Gianna Beretta Molla, an Italian wife, mother, and pediatrician, who died in 1962 in order that her child could live.
Giovanna (Gianna) Francesca Beretta was born in Magenta, Italy (near Milan) on October 4, 1922, the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi. She was one of thirteen children born to Alberto Beretta and Maria De Micheli. Her parents were both devout Catholics, and faith was at the heart of the Beretta home. Alberto and Maria turned to God for help in everything, and it was “their strong faith [that] helped [them] through difficult times of suffering, especially during World War I and the Spanish Influenza epidemic, which took the lives of three of their children.”2
Gianna, their tenth child, was a happy girl – completely ordinary in every way. She went to Mass with her mother every day, learned to play the piano, loved to paint, and enjoyed life and nature. She wasn’t a particularly brilliant or exceptional student, though. In fact, “In 1936 she failed Italian and Latin and was afraid of being kept back.”3 She had to spend part of her summer studying for makeup exams.
After the death of their oldest daughter, Amalia (in 1937), Alberto decided it was time to retire. The family moved to Genoa in order to allow the older children to attend university. Gianna, who was still in high school, continued her studies there with the Dorothean Sisters.
The following spring, when Gianna was 15 ½ years old, a Jesuit priest named Father Michele Avedano gave a retreat for the students of her school. It marked the beginning of a real deepening of Gianna’s faith. In her notes from the spiritual exercises, she wrote, “Jesus, I promise to submit everything that you will allow to happen to me. Only help me to know your will.”4 “She wished to offer everything to Jesus, both sufferings and joys; to die rather than commit serious sin; to pray; to learn to trust God in the trials and sufferings of life; to accept his will; and, finally, to seek to know the unfathomable designs of Providence.”5 She made up a new ‘program of life’, and one of her first steps was to dedicate herself completely to her studies. As a result, her grades improved dramatically.
Unfortunately, however, Gianna’s health was poor; and at the end of the school year, her parents decided to keep her home (from 1938-39). During that time, she devoted herself to her faith, attended Mass every day, studied the piano, and spent time with her parents. Under the influence of her pastor, Monsignor Mario Righetti, she joined the Young Girls of Catholic Action. Once a carefree young girl, Gianna was growing into a serious, hard-working young woman. By the time she returned to school, she was full of ambitious plans for the future. She wanted to become a missionary and live the Gospel.
Gianna enrolled in medicine in 1942 – the same year her parents died – and by 1952 she had earned her degree as a pediatrician. All her brothers and sisters had been equally successful in making their way in the world, as Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini once observed: “‘I am impressed by the fact that Gianna and her siblings all achieved prestigious professional qualifications: two engineers, four physicians, a pharmacist, and a concert pianist. These results certainly reward the intellectual gifts and the conscientious effort of each of them. They also reflect the family’s financial resources and prudent administration. But I believe that the determining factor was the parents’ way of listening to their children.’ The Beretta children felt understood and valued, and consequently they learned attention and respect for themselves and for others.”6
A time of discernment
Gianna had always dreamed of being a missionary, and now that she had completed her studies, she seriously considered joining her brother, Enrico (who had been ordained “Fr. Alberto”) in Brazil, where he was serving as a Capuchin missionary. But there was one obstacle that stood in her way: her frail health. The conditions in Grajau (where Fr. Alberto was working) were very rough, and Gianna had never been able to endure hot weather. When she consulted with Bishop Bernareggi of Bergamo, he was blunt. “In what my experience as priest and bishop has taught me, I know that when the Lord calls a soul to the missionary ideal, besides a great faith and an exceptional spirituality, he also gives physical strength that will help overcome difficulties and situations that here we are unable even to imagine. If Gianna does not have this gift, I think precisely that this is not the road the Lord calls her to live.”7
Although she was disappointed, Gianna accepted his counsel as a sign of God’s will for her. And now that this door had closed, she began to consider whether her vocation might lie in family life – as a wife and mother.
Love and marriage
Although marriage was a vocation that she would come to embrace with enthusiasm and joy, it wasn’t until the end of 1954 – when Gianna was 32 – that she met her future husband, Pietro Molla. He was an engineer, the technical vice-director of La Saffa – a company that was very important to the economy of the whole region at that time.
They were a wonderful complement to each other. Pietro was reserved in nature, while Gianna was more talkative and outgoing. Their relationship was built on a strong foundation of friendship, “based on mutual respect and shared ideals (work, family, love of neighbour) regarding their intentions for a family open to God, to children, to sacrifices, and to suffering.”8 It didn’t take long for their affection for one another to blossom into a deep and sincere love. When Pietro proposed in February, 1955, Gianna responded with a letter: “I must tell you right away that I am a woman who wants affection very much; I have found you, and I intend to give myself totally in order to form a truly Christian family.”9 They were engaged on April 11th and married later that year, on September 24, 1955.
Their life together was full of joy from the start. “Gianna was a splendid, but ordinary woman,” said Pietro. “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. Since we had to travel to Milan from our home in Ponte Nuovo,” he said with a smile,” we usually skipped supper so that we wouldn’t miss a minute of the concert. She also liked to travel. Because I had to make business trips abroad, we went together as much as possible. We went to Holland, Germany, Sweden, England. We spent some time in places all over Europe.”10
Their first child, Pierluigi, was born on November 19, 1956. His sister, Maria Zita (“Mariolina”), came along soon after – on December 11 of the following year. Two years later, Laura arrived (on July 15, 1959). “Gianna did not have easy pregnancies or births,” wrote Pietro, “but she willingly faced the sacrifices of motherhood [and] was radiant after every delivery, sure of having taken part in God’s creative action. … Gianna saw in her children the goodness of God and the guarantee that the world was destined not only to stagnation and decay, but also to renewal and new life and the continual transmission of generations.”11
Gianna was very busy with her medical practice and the needs of her active, young family. Juggling the demands of family and work was especially challenging at times as Pietro travelled a great deal on business. But she still gave generously of her time to help others. Mother Emma Ciserani, the Canossian sister in charge of the Omni Nursery where Gianna was the primary physician said, “She treated every child with the delicacy possessed by one who sees the image of Jesus in every human being.”12
Gianna was also very involved in Catholic Action, and she especially enjoyed working with the young girls. The motto and apostolic watchword of Catholic Action is “PAS,” which stands for Prayer, Action, and Sacrifice. It was an ideal that Gianna lived authentically. In some notes she made for the conferences to Young Women of Catholic Action, she wrote, “Love and sacrifice are as intimately connected as sun and light. We cannot love without suffering or suffer without loving. Look how many sacrifices are made by mothers who truly love their children. They are ready for everything, even to give their own blood. Did not Jesus die on the Cross for us, out of love for us? Love is affirmed and confirmed with the blood of sacrifice.”13
Gianna dreamed of having another child, but Pietro could see how demanding her schedule was. Her third pregnancy had been difficult, and she had been hospitalized with toxemia a month before Laura had been born. They had almost lost their precious child. Pietro asked Gianna if she might consider giving up her practice, but the look she gave him in reply was enough. He knew better than to ask again! “I promise you,” she told him one day, “that when we have one more child, I will stop my medical work and will be a full-time mother, even though that will be difficult for me.”14
The heart of a mother
In the second half of 1961, Gianna announced that she was pregnant again. She and Pietro were delighted, and together they thanked God for this new blessing in their lives. At first, everything seemed to be normal. But a little over two months into her pregnancy, Gianna began to notice an abnormal swelling in her abdomen. Doctors discovered a large ovarian cyst growing alongside her uterus, and it was beginning to cause her a great deal of pain. Gianna needed immediate surgery, and the doctors gave her three options:
- She could have a complete laparotomy, which would involve removing both the tumour and her uterus. This would save Gianna’s life, but her unborn child would die. She wouldn’t be able to have any more children.
- The doctors could terminate her pregnancy (by doing a therapeutic abortion) and remove the tumour. This would save Gianna’s life, but her unborn child would die. Choosing this option would mean that Gianna would still be able to have children in the future.
- The doctors could just remove the tumour, operating in such a way that the unborn baby’s life would be saved. This was the most risky choice for Gianna, and it carried the potential of further complications.
She never hesitated for a moment. She chose option 3.
Despite her complete trust in God, it was a difficult decision. Gianna was a doctor, and she knew she probably wouldn’t survive the birth of the baby she was expecting. But she never lost hope that God would save them both. “I am certain that the sacrifice she accepted with so much love and self-giving cost her dearly,” said Pietro. “Gianna loved living. She wasn’t some mystical type who always thought of heaven and who lived on earth believing it to be, above all, a vale of tears. Rather, Gianna was a woman who could take pleasure in the small and great joys God grants us even in this world.
“Nevertheless, she did not hesitate when she learned of the large tumour that threatened the normal development of her pregnancy. Her first reaction was to ask the doctors to save the child in her womb. … Gianna chose the last option – the riskiest for herself. It was obvious that giving birth after this kind of surgery could be very dangerous – something which Gianna clearly understood.
“But her decision was certainly not suicidal. As I said, Gianna trusted in God. Her choice was consistent with her whole life; it was a choice with roots reaching back to her childhood, to the profoundly religious atmosphere in which her family always lived. Her decision was rooted in her parents’ example of love, which was a constant strength and security even in the most difficult times of life. Her experiences as a member of Catholic Action and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul helped to refine her spirituality and made her a generous woman – a mother to all. Her life was entirely based on this complete dedication of herself to others, up to her final sacrifice. Gianna never expected anything in return; she did not give freely ‘in order to go to heaven’. She did it because she was a mother.”15
Gianna’s surgery took place on September 6, 1961. Although the gynaecologist wanted to do a laparotomy, Gianna again insisted that he save the baby, even though she knew full well what could occur.16 The surgery was successful, and though there was a great danger of miscarriage, they managed to save the pregnancy. Gianna recuperated gradually, and was soon able to resume her life and work.
Everything seemed to return to normal. Gianna fully understood the consequences of her decision, but she didn’t seem worried. She placed her trust completely in God as she returned to her normal, daily routines. But she continued to pray fervently that the baby might be born healthy and normal, and that both her and the baby’s life might be saved. Not once during those long months of waiting did she say anything to Pietro about what she knew might lie ahead.
Joy and sorrow
On Good Friday, April 20, 1962, Gianna entered the hospital in Monza in preparation for her baby’s birth. The attempt to induce labour was unsuccessful, so they decided that it would be best for the baby to be delivered by C-section. At 11:00 a.m. the next morning – Holy Saturday – their daughter, Gianna Emanuela was born. Shortly after she woke from the anaesthetic, the exhausted Gianna was able to hold her little girl in her arms.
But tremendous suffering quickly followed those brief moments of joy. Gianna developed septic peritonitis, and though she received every treatment available at that time, nothing helped. Pietro never left her side, and others joined him in his vigil. Although Gianna was in intense pain, she asked not to be sedated. She wanted to remain conscious and spent her long days of agony without making any complaint. She took a turn for the worse on Tuesday, and on Friday, she fell into a coma from which she never woke. Pietro, knowing she would have wanted to return home, had an ambulance bring her back to the house where she had lived for so many years as a happy wife and mother. He remained alone with her until she died peacefully at 8:00 a.m. on Saturday, April 28th, 1962. She was 39 years old.
Why did Gianna make the decision she did?
You might wonder how it was possible for Gianna to make a decision that ultimately left her husband widowed and her young family motherless. In answer to this question, Pietro replied, “To understand her decision one must keep in mind, in the first place, Gianna’s deep conviction, as a mother and a physician, that the baby she carried was a complete human being, with the same rights as any of her other children, even if conceived only two months earlier. A gift from God, this child’s life deserved sacred respect. Secondly, Gianna had great love for her children: she loved them more than she loved herself. And one cannot forget her strong trust in God. She knew how vital she was to my life and to the lives of our children, but even more, she knew that she was especially indispensable to the little child developing in her womb. Perhaps, without her unconditional trust in God, she would have made a different choice. But she was sure God would do what was best for her in the mysterious plan of his love.”17
In a small book Pietro wrote to keep Gianna’s memory alive in the hearts of his children, he wrote, “You would not have carried out the heroic act of saving the life of your unborn baby if you had considered it an act of injustice toward our family or a betrayal of the morality that you saw as one with all of God’s laws. You knew that your maternal obligation to raise, educate, and form our children was no less serious than the duty to safeguard their coming into the world after their conception. You knew very well that no one could equal your maternal love in raising, educating, and forming our children. But in your humility, you trusted that the Lord would make up for the absence of your visible presence. You believed that you would not be acting unjustly either toward our children or toward me, as you accepted the Lord’s will, knowing that I, even in my distress, shared your faith and love.”18
Perhaps it’s not surprising that through it all, Pietro never realized that he was living with a saint. “Gianna was a normal woman,” he said. “She enjoyed life, she was happy, she loved her children.”19 He knew beyond a doubt that she was but one of “innumerable, unknown mothers who, are quietly heroic in their love and in their lives.”20
– Sharon van der Sloot
“Holiness does not consist of extraordinary signs. Above all, it consists of the daily acceptance of the unfathomable designs of God.” – Archbishop Carlo Colombo
Postscript: Pietro Molla died at the age of 97 on the morning of April 3, 2010 – Holy Saturday.
Novena To Obtain Graces Through Saint Gianna Beretta Molla
God, our Father, You have granted to Your Church the gift of Gianna Beretta Molla. In her youth she lovingly sought You and drew other young people to You, involving them, through apostolic witness and Catholic Action, in the care of the sick and aged, to help and comfort them.
We thank You for the gift of this young woman, so deeply committed to You. Through her example grant us the grace to consecrate our lives to Your service, for the joy of our brothers and sisters.
Glory be …
Jesus, Redeemer of mankind, You called Saint Gianna to exercise the medical profession as a mission for the comfort of bodies and souls. In her suffering fellow men and in the little ones, deprived of all support, she saw You.
We thank You for having revealed Yourself to this servant as “one who serves” and who soothes the sufferings of men. Treasuring her example may we become generous Christians at the service of our brothers and sisters, especially those with whom You deign to share Your Cross.
God, Sanctifying Spirit, who love the Church as Your Bride, You poured into the heart of Saint Gianna a share of Your Love so that she could radiate it in her family, and thus cooperate with You in the wonderful plan of creation, and give life to new children who could know and love You.
We thank You for this model wife and, through her encouraging witness, we beg You to grant to our families the serene and Christian presence of mothers committed to transform their homes into cenacles of faith and love, rich with generous activity and sanctifying service.
O God, Creator and lover of mankind, You were close to Saint Gianna when, affected by illness, she was in the painful dilemma of choosing between her own life and the life of the child whom she was carrying in herself, a gift long-awaited. Trusting You alone, and aware of Your Commandment to respect human life, Gianna found the courage to do her duty as a mother and to say “yes” to the new life of her baby, generously sacrificing her own. Through the intercession of Mary, Mother of Jesus, and after the example of Gianna, inspire all mothers to welcome with love the sparkle of new life. Grant us the grace we are praying for …………. and the joy to find an inspiration in Saint Gianna who, as a model spouse and mother, after the example of Christ, gave up her life for the life of others.
“Novena to Obtain Graces Through St. Gianna Beretta Molla,” Saint Gianna Beretta Molla [website]; available from https://saintgianna.org/novena.htm; Internet; accessed 1 April 2015.
1 Cf. Helen Hull Hitchcock, “Foreward” to Pietro Molla and Elio Guerriero, Saint Gianna Molla: Wife, Mother, Doctor, trans. James G. Colbert (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004),11.
2 Cf. Giuliana Pelucchi, St. Gianna Beretta Molla: A Woman’s Life, trans. Paul Duggan (Boston: Pauline Books, 2002), 14. Two other children – Guglielmina and Anna Maria – also died when they were very young, and their oldest daughter, Amalia, died at the age of 26 after a long illness.
3 Molla and Guerriero, Saint Gianna Molla: Wife, Mother, Doctor, 27.
4 Pelucchi, St. Gianna Beretta Molla: A Woman’s Life, 30.
6 Molla and Guerriero, Saint Gianna Molla: Wife, Mother, Doctor, 30-31.
7 Ibid., 31.
8 Ibid., 39.
9 Ibid., 55.
10 Pelucchi, St. Gianna Beretta Molla: A Woman’s Life, 8.
11 Molla and Guerriero, Saint Gianna Molla: Wife, Mother, Doctor, 43.
12 Pelucchi, St. Gianna Beretta Molla: A Woman’s Life, 77. In addition to the usual responsibilities of her practice, Gianna had agreed to take on the responsibility of being the primary physician for the Omni Nursery.
13 Molla and Guerriero, Saint Gianna Molla: Wife, Mother, Doctor, 90.
14 Pelucchi, St. Gianna Beretta Molla: A Woman’s Life, 91.
16 When you perform a suture on the uterus in the early months of pregnancy, it often gives way to a secondary rupture of the uterus in the fourth or fifth month of pregnancy. If that happens, there is an immediate lethal danger of death. Cf. Ibid., 98-99.
17 Pelucchi, St. Gianna Beretta Molla: A Woman’s Life, 11-12.
18 Ibid., 107.
19 Molla and Guerriero, Saint Gianna Molla: Wife, Mother, Doctor, 15.
20 Pelucchi, St. Gianna Beretta Molla: A Woman’s Life, 5.