Gianna Beretta Molla was born in Magenta (near Milan) on October 4, 1922.
She was the tenth of thirteen children of Alberto and Maria De Micheli. A good student both at high school and university, she lived her faith with generosity among the young women who were part of the "Azione Cattolica" (Catholic Action). Gianna also put her faith in action amidst the elderly and needy through the work of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. She loved life, music, art, skiing and mountain climbing! In 1949 Gianna received a degree in medicine at the University of Pavia. The following year she opened a clinic in Mesero and continued her studies with a specialization in pediatric medicine at the University of Milan in 1952. For Gianna, being a doctor was not just a profession but a vocation.
At first, Gianna thought she could be a lay missionary in Brazil to help her brother, Father Alberto, a doctor and Capuchin missionary in Grajaù, Brazil (the cause for his canonization is now formally opened!). Later on, Gianna felt that God had chosen marriage for her and she followed this choice with her innate enthusiasm. Her wish was "to form a truly Christian family".
On September 24, 1955 Gianna and Pietro Molla were married in St Martin's Basilica in Magenta. In November 1956, her first son Pierluigi was born. Mariolina was born in December 1957 and Laura in July 1959. Gianna was a happy mother. Gianna knew how to balance her duties as mother, wife, doctor in Mesero and in Ponte Nuovo (near Magenta) with her great "joie de vivre".
In September 1961, toward the end of the second month of pregnancy with her fourth child, the young Italian doctor and mother of a family, had to make a heroic decision. Physicians diagnosed a serious fibroma in the uterus that required surgery. The surgeon suggested that she undergo an abortion in order to save her own life. A few days before the child was due, 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.” She gave herself entirely, generating new life.
On April 21, 1962 Gianna Emanuela was born by caesarian section at the hospital in Monza. Immediately after the operation, Gianna's general condition started to worsen. She had a very high fever and terrible abdominal pains caused by septic peritonitis. On April 28, 1962, at dawn, Gianna was taken back to the family home in Ponte Nuovo where she died at 8 a.m. She was 39 years old. She was buried in the cemetery of Mesero. She soon became known for the sanctity of her life and her final gesture of great love.
It was Pope John Paul II who beatified Gianna in 1994 and canonized her in 2004. Gianna’s husband and children were present at each of the ceremonies. Gianna’s husband Pietro (who died last year) and family are very close friends of mine and great supporters of our Salt + Light Television Network. Shortly after we began our work in 2003, we named St. Gianna as the patron saint of Salt + Light! St. Gianna’s only granddaughter, Ortensia, worked with us as in intern several summers ago.
When Gianna’s remaining children, Pierluigi, Laura and Gianna Emanuela, say: “my mother is a saint,” they mean it. I was privileged to be with them for the canonization of their mother in St. Peter’s Square on May 16, 2004 and I sat with them at the Beatification ceremony of Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday, May 1, 2011.
Dr. Gianna Beretta Molla was not the typical candidate for one of the Vatican’s most impressive ceremonies and most significant honours. She loved culture, fashion and beauty. She played piano, was a painter, enjoyed tennis, mountain climbing and skiing. She attended the symphony, theatre and Milan’s La Scala Opera. She loved traveling to new places, and had a very special place in her heart for children, the elderly and the poor.
Her action at the end of her life, in saving young Gianna Emanuela, her daughter, was heroic in that she prepared for her final action every day of her life. Her final decision for life was the natural flowering and culmination of an extraordinary life of virtue and holiness, selflessness and quiet joy. St. Gianna Molla continues to remind the church and the world of the necessity of a consistent ethic of life, from the earliest to the final moments of human life. Gianna would write and say: “One cannot love without suffering, or suffer without love.”
Each of us is called to heroism by our choice of life on a daily basis. Gianna Beretta Molla is certainly not the first laywoman and mother to be canonized, but her contemporary witness is badly needed by so many people around the world today. Her life was truly prophetic. In the simple words of one of St. Gianna’s closest friends, Piera Fontana, “50 years ago, before Gianna, how was it possible that only nuns, priests and friars were raised to the altar? Why were we never raised to the altar? Gianna was raised to the altar. She represents all mothers. A mother has finally arrived.”
At Gianna’s beatification in 1994 and again at her canonization ceremony in 2004, the media in various parts of the world and other misguided individuals began debunking and politicizing the Gianna story, stating that her canonization was the Roman Catholic Church’s full frontal attack on pro-choice people and all who support abortion. To reduce her life and vocation to “the first anti-abortion saint” is to misread her powerful story. The Church doesn’t beatify or canonize people and use them as arrows or weapons to attack others for error and sin. Rather, the Church offers the lives of outstanding, holy people like St. Gianna to present an alternative gospel vision to what we are enduring in the world today. Saints offer us a way to put the Beatitudes into practice on a daily basis. They are models who inspire and guide us. Gianna was a lover of life, from its earliest moments in the womb to its final moments in natural death.
In an age when permanent commitment is widely discouraged, when human life is cheap and disposable and family life is under siege, when abortion is all too available, when sacrifice and virtue are absent in so many lives; when many in the medical profession have little concern for the dignity and sacredness of every human life; when suffering is seen as a nuisance without any redemptive meaning; when goodness, joy, simplicity and beauty are suspect; St. Gianna Beretta Molla shows this world, gripped by a culture of death, an alternative gospel way of compelling beauty.
May St. Gianna watch over all those who work for life, defend the dignity and sacredness of life, and march for life in Canada and throughout the world.