Saturday, January 31, 2015

Saint Gianna Beretta Molla: A Life of Love and Sacrifice

Saint Gianna Beretta Molla 1922-1962
Today's post is a tribute to the life of Saint Gianna Beretta Molla, an Italian mother and doctor, who led a faithful and virtuous life; one that was deemed heroic and culminated in the ultimate sacrifice of her life to save her unborn child in 1962.

Saint Gianna's moral courage and certitude is the perfect example to draw from, for those women who are faced with a life threatening pregnancy and is an ideal intercessor to pray to for the miraculous cure of any illness.

For those involved in the pro-life effort, Saint Gianna represents one of "the" saints to choose from to rally behind in any endeavour to end abortion and convert those who are anti-life.

As for Catholic doctors, she is the quintessential medical professional to emulate. Her professional life demonstrated that faith is not to be separated from a career in medicine nor should it be compartmentalized in any way. Rather, as a devout Catholic, Saint Gianna put God first in everything and allowed her Christian faith to permeate every aspect of life. 

What is to be understood about Saint Gianna's ultimate sacrifice is that although it was a heroic decision, it was not the decisive factor and focus that determined her approval for canonization. What it did do is spotlight a faith-filled holy life, drawing the attention of many, some of whom already knew of and experienced her holiness.

More importantly the discovery process for her canonization focused on how she lived her life. This discovery showed that throughout her years, Gianna lived a holy and virtuous life. Together with the approved miracles for her beatification and canonization, it was thus recommended that she be declared a saint.

Gianna was a modern day saint that lived like you and I, but with the goal of reaching eternal salvation. During her life she experienced many sufferings: both of her parents died at a young age within six months of each other; her favourite sister passed away; she lived through the second world war; and she experienced ill health. As a result of living through all this in the light of faith, she was formed into a holy woman. The decision to sacrifice her life to save her baby was an extension of her holiness; a decision that was made without hesitation.

To better understand Saint Gianna's life is to understand how she became a saint. Gianna Beretta Molla was born in 1922, in Magenta, a town in Lombardy close to Milan. She was the tenth of thirteen children, five of whom died in infancy or childhood. From a very young age, Gianna wanted to help those who were suffering. During the war, she organized groups of friends to go help those families whose homes were destroyed by allied bombing. From a very young age she always wanted to help people, a characteristic that animated her entire life. It eventually instilled in her a desire to become a physician whereby she could help people, both in body and soul. Gianna considered working in the field of medicine as part of a "mission." She once thought of joining her brother in Brazil as a medical missionary, but her acceptance that God had another plan for her as a wife and mother, was indicative of her close relationship with God.

During the years of her secondary and university education, she studied diligently. At the age of twenty eight, having earned degrees in medicine and surgery at the University of Pavia, Dr. Beretta opened a clinic in Mesero, near her hometown. She returned to the University of Milan for a specialist's certification in pediatrics in 1952. From that point on, her practice focussed on the care of mothers and their children, the elderly and the poor.

Gianna, her husband Pietro and their three children
Being a skier and mountaineer did not hinder her apostolate and zeal for souls. Saint Gianna put faith into action through generous apostolic works as a member of Catholic Action that involved helping the elderly. She was also a member of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, through which she helped the poor and needy.

It was through her involvement in Catholic Action that she met her husband, Pietro Molla, another Catholic Action member, during a Mass for a newly ordained priest. They married on September 25, 1955, at the basilica of Saint Martin in Magenta. Having embraced the vocation of marriage, she wholly dedicated herself to forming a truly Christian family. Three children were born, Pierluigi, Mariolina, and Laura between 1956 to 1959, each time experiencing a difficult pregnancy. 

Doctor Molla's medical practice and charitable activities blossomed together with her family life. In 1961, two months into her fourth pregnancy, a fibrous ovarian tumour was discovered that threatened her life and that of the unborn child. She had three medical options: option one was to remove the uterus and affected ovary which would spare her life, but kill the unborn child; two, remove the tumour alone and terminate the pregnancy which would likely afford her the opportunity to bear more children later; three, remove the tumour while trying to save the pregnancy, a procedure that posed immediate risks to the mother and promised a dangerous delivery. Doctor Beretta told the surgeon to choose the third option. Throughout her remaining seven months of pregnancy, she told both her husband and physicians that if forced to make a decision during the baby's delivery of whether to save the baby or herself, St. Gianna insisted, "Do not hesitate. I insist on it. Save the baby." 

Gianna Beretta Molla entered St. Gerard's Hospital in Monza on Good Friday, April 20,1962, where Gianna Emanuela was born the following day. Not long after the birth of her fourth child, she began to suffer excruciating pain from septic peritonitis. One week later on April 28, 1962, at the age of thirty nine, she passed away. Her last words were, "Jesus, I love you! Jesus, I love you!" It wasn't long before her grave became a place of prayer and pilgrimage. Her cause for beatification was recognized by Pope Paul VI in 1973. The beatification occurred on April 24, 1994, with Gianna Emanuela, herself a doctor, present.

The canonization of Gianna Beretta Molla was approved by Saint John Paul II. The date of her canonization was May 16, 2004, on the sixth Sunday of Easter and was accompanied by the canonization of five other individuals. In attendance were: Gianna's frail ninety one year old husband Pietro Molla, Gianna's children, a grandchild, her surviving siblings, former patients and Elizabeth Acomparini Arcolino, the young Brazilian mother whose fourth pregnancy was miraculously saved through what the Congregation for the Causes of Saints concluded was the intercession of Gianna Beretta Molla. Saint Gianna's feast day is April 28, the day that annually commemorates her death.

There is a fitting symmetry in the fact Saint Gianna was the last of 482 saints canonized by Saint John Paul II, one of the twenty first century's greatest defenders and protectors of life. His efforts to identify and denounce the evil of abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty and all threats to the value and inviolability of human life are well documented. His encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) is considered to be one of the most important Church documents on the subject matter. So relevant and pertinent is this document that the Vatican under Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI established Evangelium Vitae Day, an annual day celebrating life. Gianna's canonization was as George Weigel put it in his book, The End And The Beginning, "...a fitting capstone of John Paul II's quarter century long effort to lift up moral heroism in the defense of life through the examples drawn from the contemporary world." (356) 

During Saint John Paul II's homily for Gianna's canonization and the other five individuals, he made the opening remark, "...True peace is the fruit of Christ's victory over the power of evil, sin and death. Those who follow him faithfully become witnesses and builders of his peace." (1) Saint Gianna's life was one of love and sacrifice, a true Christian witness that was captured in Saint John Paul II's remarks at the end of his homily when he stated:
Gianna Beretta Molla was a simple, but more than ever, significant messenger of divine love. In a letter to her future husband a few days before their marriage, she wrote: "Love is the most beautiful sentiment the Lord has put into the soul of men and women". 
Following the example of Christ, who "having loved his own... loved them to the end" (Jn 13: 1), this holy mother of a family remained heroically faithful to the commitment she made on the day of her marriage. The extreme sacrifice she sealed with her life testifies that only those who have the courage to give of themselves totally to God and to others are able to fulfill themselves. 
Through the example of Gianna Beretta Molla, may our age rediscover the pure, chaste and fruitful beauty of conjugal love, lived as a response to the divine call! (7)
Saint Gianna Beretta Molla's life is the perfect antidote for those who have been confronted by the anti-life argument that claims it is acceptable for an abortion to take place when it would save the life of the mother. For anyone to accept such a position would be the equivalent of "playing God." As Pope John Paul II noted in Evangelium Vitae, Chapter III - You Shall Not Kill, God's Holy Law, "...Only God is the master of life!" (55) We must always remember that life is sacred and begins from conception and ends at natural death. In the Catechism of The Catholic Church, under the 5th Commandment "Thou Shall Not Kill," it clearly states why life is sacred:
Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being. (2258)
To try to rationalize an abortion under any circumstances is to ignore this truth. To do so diminishes the dignity of the human person and ignores the fundamental right of every human being; that is, the right to life. Saint Gianna's sacrifice of her own life was not only a reflection of her respect for the sacredness of human life, but was part of the fulfillment of her vocation as a mother, her total gift of self to her family and to God. It was part of the fulfillment that all married couples are called to by God as a special sharing in His love and power as Creator and Father by, what Saint John Paul II noted in Familiaris Consortio, "... [T]heir free and responsible cooperation in transmitting the gift of human life... (28)

I hope that today's post will help those who are endeavouring to save the unborn from abortions and convert those who are anti-life. May this great saint of our time, Saint Gianna Beretta Molla, intercede for you in all your efforts.  

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