Early on Holy Saturday morning, April 3, 2010, Mr. Pietro Molla, husband of St. Gianna Beretta Molla, died in his family home in Mesero, near Milan in Italy, surrounded by his daughter Gianna Emanuela and his other children, Pierluigi and Laura. Mr. Molla was 97 years old and had been in failing health for several years. Pierluigi contacted me this morning to let me know of the sad news of Pietro’s death.
I have been good friends with the Molla family since 1999 and St. Gianna is the Patron Saint of the Salt and Light Catholic Television Network in Canada. My friendship with the Molla family grew from our first meeting in 1999 in Mesero. I have been blessed with the gift of their friendship these past eleven years and accompanied the Molla Family in the years leading up to the 2004 canonization of St. Gianna, a great, contemporary woman saint, wife, mother of a family, medical doctor and lover of life.
I discovered a pillar of faith, courage, and devotion in the person of Mr. Pietro Molla, husband of St. Gianna. During our first meeting, Pietro shared with me dozens of photos in family albums, regaling me with stories of Gianna’s interests in music, opera, theater, mountain hikes, skiing. He also shared with me in great detail the final months and weeks of Gianna’s earthly existence in 1962. At her death Pietro would become a single parent with four young children. He never remarried.
The Molla children are all very close to me in age, and we struck up a wonderful friendship that has lasted to this day. Pierluigi and his family welcomed me as one of their own. Laura, my contemporary is a very intelligent, warm professional woman, now happily married to Giuseppe Pannuti.
When Pierluigi and Dr. Gianna Emanuela came to visit me in Toronto in 1999, while I was still chaplain of the Newman Centre at the University of Toronto, Gianna asked me to accompany her to visit two Toronto hospitals that specialize in the care and treatment of those who suffer with Alzheimer’s Disease. Gianna is a specialist in that area. I watched her in action among her medical peers and colleagues in Toronto, sharing stories and research about Alzheimers disease and her love of the elderly. Dr. Gianna Emanuela was continuing the healing mission of her mother.
Over the past eleven years, I visited numerous times with Pietro at his home in Mesero, shared meals with him in little restaurants in town, and spoke many times with him by phone. In September 2003, shortly after the Molla family was informed that the required miracle had been approved by the Vatican for Blessed Gianna’s canonization, Pietro phoned me in Toronto and invited me to make the “official” documentary of St. Gianna Beretta Molla’s life. It was an extraordinary privilege for us at Salt and Light Television in Canada to be entrusted with that task. Our film on St. Gianna’s life, “Love is a Choice,” is an award-winning documentary now in numerous languages.
I shall never forget the eve of St. Gianna’s canonization at the Vatican on May 16, 2004, when Pietro called me to his room at the convent of the Sisters of Maria Bambina, and asked me to spend several hours with him as he prepared spiritually for the canonization ceremony the following morning. What an extraordinary privilege. That night I said to Pietro, “You are from a family of Saints and Gianna will not be the only one raised to the glory of the altar. You will follow.” He held my hand firmly, smiled and wept. The scenes of the canonization ceremony on May 16, 2004, remain engraved on my mind and heart, especially when Gianna Emanuela and her father Pietro were warmly embraced by Pope John Paul II during the moving liturgy, which would be Pope John Paul II’s last canonization ceremony.
My last visit with Pietro took place on Sunday, October 19, 2008, during the Synod of Bishops on the Word of God at the Vatican, where I served as English Language Media Attaché. As we had one Sunday free, I took advantage of the abbreviated “Roman weekend” and flew to Milan to spend the day with the Molla family in Mesero. I celebrated Mass in the bedroom of Pietro Molla, then 96 years old, surrounded by the three Molla children -- Dr. Gianna Emaunela, Pierluigi, and Laura and their families. Several close family friends and relatives also joined us.
Following Mass we went downstairs and enjoyed a simple "pranzo" with the Molla family, sharing of how the moving story of St. Gianna's life is spreading around the entire world. I was with ordinary Milanese folks who took the Beatitudes seriously and lived them each day. We may speak of the communion of saints in theological terms, but on that October Sunday in 2008, I experienced it in flesh and blood terms -- this group of people was for me the reality of communion of saints in real time: a husband of a saint, children of a saint, nieces and nephews of a saint. They are like us. Their love of God and neighbor, their simplicity, fire and dynamism will burn away the sadness and evil in the world today, not with harshness but with fiery love and ordinary kindness.
From my first meeting with Mr. Molla in 1999, I was convinced then and moreso now after eleven years of friendship, that the story of holiness did not end with St. Gianna Beretta Molla. Pietro Molla was a pillar and rock - a man of extraordinary faith, simplicity and holiness. He lived a remarkable, saintly life and like his beloved wife, Gianna, made holiness something attainable for all of us.
The cause for the beatification and canonization for St. Gianna's brother, Frei Alberto Beretta, a Capuchin missionary in Brazil, is now opened in Bergamo, Italy. I am certain that the cause for Pietro Molla’s beatification and canonization will be opened soon. What a powerful witness this would be to the dignity and sacredness of marriage and family life!
Laura Molla shared with me this morning by phone that the Molla family is somehow linked to the mystery of Holy Saturday. It was on Holy Saturday 1962 that Gianna Beretta Molla gave birth to her daughter, Gianna Emanuela. One week later, on Easter Saturday, St. Gianna died from the serious medical condition that resulted from bringing her child to term. St. Gianna gave her life so that the child in her womb would live. And now Pietro returns to the house of the Father on Holy Saturday morning 2010.
Pietro shared with me one day what he wrote in his diary on March 7, 1955: “The more I know Gianna, the more I am convinced that God could not have given me a greater gift than her love and companionship”. St. Gianna and her husband are now reunited in heaven and celebrate the mystery of Christ’s dying and rising in the company of the Lord and his saints. I can only imagine the scene in heaven on Holy Saturday morning as this wonderful couple was reunited after forty-eight years of being apart. They would embrace their daughter Mariolina, who died as a child, and be welcomed by the Venerable Pope John Paul II who enrolled Gianna in the book of the Saints. May St. Gianna, Pietro and Mariolina intercede for us now from heaven, and watch over all married couples and families on earth.
Pietro Molla’s Funeral Mass will be celebrated on Easter Tuesday, April 6, 2010 in Mesero, Italy. He will be buried in the town cemetery, next to the tomb of St. Gianna Beretta Molla.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO, Salt and Light Catholic Television Network