The call to holiness and human life
January 10, 2012
By Father Earl Fernandes
“My wife is a saint!” I have heard many men say that, however, when I heard Pietro Molla say it, he was speaking the truth. His wife, Gianna Beretta Molla was canonized in 2004.
At the conclusion of the Christmas season, the church highlights the idea of vocation — the call to holiness — to follow the “Beloved Son.” Later in January, with sadness, the church in America recalls the legalization of abortion and vigorously protests grave injustices against the weakest members of society, while working to build a culture of life.
In the life of St. Gianna Beretta Molla, there were two principal themes: the call to holiness — to serve God as He desires — and the care for human life. Born near Milan in 1922, she was one of 13 children of Alberto and Maria Beretta. Her parents taught her the value of faith, to rely on God and of the necessity of prayer. Gianna became a pediatrician and thought about a religious vocation, but discerned that it was not for her.
Viewing the practice of medicine as part of the Christian vocation in the world — to treat human life with the greatest respect — she opened a clinic. She wrote to her colleagues: “We have occasions in which the priest is not there. Our mission is not over when the medicines are no longer of use. We still have to lead the soul to God…Just as the priest may touch Jesus [holding the host in his hands], so we doctors also touch Jesus in the body of our patients: the poor, the young, the old, and children. There Jesus is made present in our midst.”
She never reduced “work” to a career; rather it was a means for sanctifying the world and growth in holiness. Eventually, Gianna heard the call to marriage. She wrote to Pietro before their wedding: “Thus, with the help and blessing of God, we will do everything so that our new family may be a little cenacle, where Jesus rules over all our affections, desires, and actions. My Pietro, the wedding is only a few days away and I feel so moved to receive the Sacrament of Love. We will become collaborators of God in creation; we can give to him children who love and serve Him.”
Gianna and Pietro were blessed with three children between November 1956 and July 1959. Gianna was a remarkably modern woman, who balanced her duties as mother, wife, and doctor. In September 1961, Gianna was nearing the end of the second month of her fourth pregnancy. The pregnancy was difficult, and it was discovered that Gianna had a fibrous uterine tumor. Standard procedure would have been to remove the uterus, which would have resulted in the death of her child. Gianna told the surgeon to remove only the tumor, so that her child might live, knowing the risk to her own life. The operation was successful. Shortly before the child’s birth, she told her husband: “If you must decide between me and the baby, without hesitation: choose, I demand it, the baby. Save the child.”
On Holy Saturday, April 21, 1962, Gianna gave birth to a baby girl, Gianna Emanuela. Shortly thereafter, Gianna developed a high fever, caused by septic peritonitis. On Easter morning, she held her newborn daughter for the last time. She spoke with her husband for the last time: “Pietro, I was already over there. Do you know what I saw? Some day I will tell you. But because we were so happy, we were too comfortable with our marvelous children, full of health and grace, with all the blessings of heaven.”
This was her last conversation with her husband. She died on April 28, 1962, and was canonized in 2004. Two miracles occurred in Brazil where her brothers had been missionaries; both ministered to women with difficult pregnancies.
Having spoken with her husband, her daughter and her siblings about her, I am convinced that holiness is really possible, even today, even in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, which she and Pietro visited in 1959. In her life, there were two “vocational” questions: Who is God calling me to be? What is God asking of me?
God calls us all to be saints. God called her to lay down her life for her child. To what is God calling you?
Father Fernandes is an assistant professor of moral theology and dean of the Athenaeum of Ohio/Mount St. Mary’s Seminary.