St. Gianna Beretta Molla. Wikimedia Commons

When Everyday Life Becomes Heroic

This is the story of a wife and mother who abandoned herself “without reserve to the action of Grace,” to the point of sacrifice. The second episode in our series about saints in the family....
Paola Bergamini

From her childhood onwards, Gianna Beretta Molla’s faith was lively. She lived her days simply, working as a pediatrician, raising children, praying the Rosary daily. Her one secret was to live reality intensely, “moment by moment, because it is a gift.” This is the story of a wife and mother who abandoned herself “without reserve to the action of Grace,” to the point of sacrifice. The second episode in our series about saints in the family.

Engineer Pietro Molla looks outside his bedroom window: spring is at the door, but in the morning the fields still glisten with frost. He sees the workers entering the nearby Saffa Company, the match factory in Ponte Nuovo of Magenta, Milan, where he is the Managing Director. “Let’s hope no problems come up today, no strikes,” he thinks. He puts on his coat and leaves his room, and sees her there, lovely as always, her hair in order, that new dress that becomes her, softly rounded because of her advanced state of pregnancy. Only her gaze reveals a new, unusual profundity and firmness. She walks up to him. “Pietro, I beg you: if you have to decide between me and the baby, don’t hesitate. Choose the baby. Save him. I demand it.” Few words. Then silence, broken a few minutes later by the voices of the three children calling for their mother from their room. Pietro says nothing. There’s no need. Gianna has already said everything. Now she’ll go to the children, say morning prayers together, then…

Pietro thinks back to the first time they met. It was December 8, 1954, for the first Mass of a mutual priest friend. He was struck by the young pediatrician from Mesero, Milan, and that evening in his diary noted, “I feel the serene tranquility that makes me sure that I’ve had a special encounter: Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception has blessed me.” They met again, with their first official date on December 31st at the Scala of Milan for a performance. Though Pietro had always lived a fairly austere life, with Gianna he discovered a new beauty in concerts and outings in the mountains, but above all, in Gianna’s every gesture, charged with a simple and immediate faith that filled each instant and made it shine, changing even the most humdrum reality. Gianna and her siblings had “breathed” this concrete faith as they grew up. She wrote, “For us, faith did not come primarily from books and catechesis, but from what we breathed at home, observing the attitudes and listening to the words of our parents.”

Bodies and Souls
Not even a year later, Pietro asked her to marry him. She was very happy, and the only thing she asked was to observe a triduum of prayer to prepare themselves adequately for the sacrament of marriage. On September 24, 1955 in the basilica of San Martino in Magenta, Fr. Giuseppe, Gianna’s brother and a missionary, celebrated their wedding ceremony. Pietro was 43 and Gianna 32. A few months later in a letter, the newlywed bride wrote her husband, “My dearest Pietro, the Lord truly loves me. I am very happy. Everything we are and we have is only a gift of His divine bounty. Here is the secret of happiness: living moment by moment, instant by instant, abandoning ourselves without reserve to the action of His grace.”

This was the way she was. Her faith suffused all of reality. The tenth of thirteen children, three of whom took vows and departed for the missions, Gianna was born in Magenta on October 4, 1922. Her family lived first in Bergamo, then in Genova, and finally, after the death of her parents in 1942, she and her siblings returned to live in the country house in Magenta. She worked with her sisters Zita and Virginia with the girls of the parish youth center and in the apostolate of Catholic Action in the young women’s sector. In 1950 she graduated in Medicine in Pavia, and in 1952 completed her specialization in pediatrics. She and her brother opened a practice in Mesero, and a few years later, she became the director of the nursery school of Ponte Nuovo.

She had very clear ideas about her profession: it was necessary to battle with and for the sick, but at the same time, to recognize human limitations and entrust oneself to God. As she wrote in a note, “How precious is our work. We have opportunities that priests don’t have. We have the bodies to educate, but when medicine is no longer useful, there’s the soul to lead to God.” She worked tirelessly for her patients, who saw her whiz by in her red Fiat 500 or on her bike in the midst of the Bassa fog, even late in the evening, and when the patient was poor, not only did she ask nothing for the visit, but she would leave money for their medications. She continued her apostolate in Catholic Action, of which she became President in Magenta in 1949. In her heart she nurtured a desire to leave for Brazil as a lay missionary, to help in her brother’s work. She began studying Portuguese, and everything seemed ready, but the Lord had quite different plans. Her family tried to dissuade her. The tropical climate would be bad for her health. Her Italian degree would not be recognized and she wouldn’t be able to practice her profession.

Precisely in that period, Pietro asked her to marry him, and Gianna didn’t know what to do. She went to her spiritual father to ask for advice. “So many young women are asked to marry, and when they happen to meet a good young man like that one there, why not marry him? There’s such need today for true Christian mothers. If the well prepared ones don’t marry, but only the madcaps, how can we have good Christian families?”

It was all clear: marriage and family became her mission, the vocation to live to the fullest, as she told the members of the Young Women’s Organization during a conference in 1950: “Your vocation is a gift of God. If it’s a gift of God, our concern has to be to know the will of the Lord. We have to undertake that road without forcing things, knowing how to wait when God wants, as God wants. There are many difficulties, but with the help of God we always have to walk without fear. If we should have to die in the battle for our vocation, that would be the most beautiful day of our lives.” She had no idea that the Lord would also ask this of her.

A Long Journey
After their wedding, life proceeded normally, with her practice and the care of her family. The Lord gave them three children in four years. Every day she prayed the Rosary and when possible, went to Mass. In 1961 she was pregnant with her fourth, but in the second month realized that something wasn’t right, an anomalous swelling in her abdomen.

A gynecological examination revealed that she had a uterine fibroma that had to be removed immediately. The operation went well, though the risk of a miscarriage and, above all, danger to her life remained. She was well aware of everything. She told no one, but prayed, asking Our Lady that the child she carried in her womb would not demand the sacrifice of her life, because she wanted to stay close to her husband and children. She entrusted herself totally to Providence, believing that only the Lord knew what was best for everyone. Pietro didn’t understand why she was putting in order every corner of the house, every drawer, like someone who knew she would be departing on a very long journey– until that morning.

On April 21, 1962, Holy Saturday, Gianna Emanuela was born, and from that moment, Gianna’s calvary began. The doctor’s worst fears had come true: septic peritonitis. There was nothing to be done. Gianna was in atrocious pain, but refused sedatives because she wanted to be lucid enough to pray. She was helped by her husband and her sister, Sister Virginia, who came back from India to be with her. As soon as she saw her, Gianna exclaimed: “Finally, you’re here! If you only knew, Ginia, what suffering it is to die when you’re leaving your children, all so little! If it weren’t for Jesus’ consolation in certain moments…”. Her sister held out the Crucifix for her to kiss. On April 28th, at 4.00 in the morning, they brought her home. At dawn her breathing was labored. At 8.00, she breathed her last words, “My Jesus, I love You.” From the room next door came the voices of the children who’d just woken.

Gianna’s body lay in state for three days. A long procession of people, workers, doctors, patients, went to pay their final respects. Many, above all men who rarely were seen in church, felt the need to go to confession. Her funeral was on April 30th.

On May 16, 2004, John Paul II, the Pope of the “daily life that must become heroic” proclaimed her sainthood with a simple title “Wife and mother.”