"A woman of exceptional love, an outstanding wife and mother, she gave witness in her daily life to the demanding values of the Gospel.” In his homily on the occasion of her beatification, April 24, 1994, Pope John Paul II proposed Gianna Beretta Molla as a model for all mothers: “By holding up this woman as an exemplar of Christian perfection, we would like to extol all those high-spirited mothers of families who give themselves completely to their family, who suffer in giving birth, who are prepared for every labor and every kind of sacrifice, so that the best they have can be given to others".
In canonizing Gianna Beretta Molla, the Church officially recognized the extraordinary sanctity of a woman who chose to live an ordinary life – as a professional and, later, as a wife and mother. Though she had once considered entering a religious order, instead she practiced medicine (receiving her medical degree in 1949, and her specialty in pediatrics in 1952). She devoted herself to caring for her patients, and her selflessness and dedication as a physician endeared her to the people. But it was not only her practice of medicine that influenced them. She regarded her profession as a mission through which she could aid and nurture both bodies and souls. The young doctor’s devotion to her Catholic faith was well known in her community, and especially her instruction of young Catholic girls in their faith.
Gianna meditated long and prayerfully on God’s will for her. “What is a vocation?” She wrote, “It is a gift from God – it comes from God Himself! Our concern, then, should be to know the will of God. We should enter onto the path that God wills for us, not by ‘forcing the door’, but when God wills and as God wills” (in Blessed Gianna Beretta Molla: A Woman’s Life. Boston: Pauline Books, 2002, p 71, 72). Gianna believed she was called to marriage and family life, but she waited patiently for God’s will to be revealed.
Gianna’s faith and her communion with Christ were profound, and from this grace she drew deeper understanding of the dedication and self-giving love that is fundamental to Christian marriage and family life.
After her marriage and even after she had children Gianna continued her medical practice, extending her gifts beyond her immediate family to the children of others. Three children, a son and two daughters, were born between 1956 and 1959, and Gianna had two miscarriages before conceiving another baby in 1961. Pietro and Gianna referred to their children as their “treasures”.
In his own account of these years, Pietro Molla says that he did not object to Gianna’s continuing her medical practice, because she was so deeply attached to her patients, though after she became pregnant with their fourth child, Pietro and Gianna had agreed that she would stop working outside the home after the baby was born.
Early in the pregnancy it was discovered that Gianna had a fibroma, a benign tumor, on her uterine wall. Surgery that would involve aborting the baby was suggested, but the Mollas instantly and firmly rejected this idea, and chose surgery that would remove only the tumor. Because of her medical knowledge, Gianna understood more fully than most the risks involved in this delicate surgery – both to her and to her unborn child. She insisted that the baby be protected at all costs.
The surgery successfully removed the fibroma, and the pregnancy continued, apparently normally, and the family made plans for the future in joy and hope. But all was not well, and a few days before the baby was born, Gianna realized it would be a difficult – possibly life-threatening delivery. She asked her husband to promise that if it were necessary to choose between saving her and saving the baby, he should choose the baby. “I insist”, she said.
On Good Friday, Gianna entered the hospital. And a lovely, healthy baby daughter, Gianna Emanuela, was born the next day, April 21, 1962. But the mother had developed a fatal infection – septic peritonitis. (Modern antibiotics most likely would have saved her.) The inflammation caused immense suffering during her final week on earth. In the midst of her terrible pain, Gianna called to her own mother, Maria, who had died in 1942 – and she prayed. As she lay dying, she repeated, “Jesus, I love you”, over and over.
Her agony ended on April 28 – at home. She was 39. The tiny infant, Gianna Emanuela, was exactly one week old. Pietro was left to raise four very young children without their mother:
Almost immediately upon her death a devotion to Gianna arose among those whose lives she had so deeply touched, and who knew her heroic devotion to her faith and her family.
Her “cause” was introduced formally in 1970. She was beatified April 24, 1994; and canonized on May 21, 2004 – forty-two years after her death.
That her husband and three children attended her canonization ceremony is one of several historic “firsts” connected with her canonization.
Gianna Beretta Molla is the first married laywoman to be declared a saint (though there are many sainted widows). She is also the first canonized woman physician — a professional woman who was also a “working mom” four decades ago, when this was unusual.
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