Gianna Beretta Molla: a hymn to God, to life, to the family

by Virginia Coda Nunziante 

“Pietro, if you must choose between me and the child, don’t hesitate: choose the child. I demand it — save him.”

Gianna addressed these words to her husband a few days before her death. To consider her choice a spontaneous act of heroism, brought on by the foreboding of inevitable death, would be a mistake. It is the result of a whole life anchored in God and devoted to others. Gianna would have given her life for anyone, in the image of her Redeemer and Saviour Who gave His life for her.

Gianna Beretta was born near Milan, on 4 October 1922, to profoundly Christian parents. She received her First Holy Communion at the age of five-and-a-half and, from then on, made the Eucharist the sustenance and the centre of her whole existence. Her sister, Virginia, who later became a religious missionary, remembered her as follow:

“God had given her a special beauty, characterised by a gentle and profound look which revealed a balanced spirit, a pure soul and a generous heart, open to all good. So, as a child she was naïve, pure and simple; she was the same as an adolescent.”

Despite the hardships of the war and the loss of both her parents, one after the other in 1942, Gianna finished her education; going on to study medicine at the University of Milan and, later, at the University of Pavia. Her brother, Fr Alberto, said:

“Gianna always felt very strongly in herself the ideal of doing good to others and she chose the medical profession because she considered it to be one of the most effective means of apostolate.”

It was the profession which, better than any other, brought her face to face with her suffering neighbour, in whom she saw Jesus Himself. It was during these years that she wrote:

“Let us sanctify the present moment. Let us confide the past to the mercy of God, the future to divine providence, our task is to live holily in the present moment, to live the will of God at each instant and to live it with joy. If I do my duty now then God will help me.”

In 1954, she went on pilgrimage to Lourdes, accompanying the sick. At the feet of the Holy Virgin, she prayed to know the will of God. That same year, she met her future husband, Pietro Molla, for the first time. Recalling this day, he would later write, “God could not have given me a greater gift.”

In the first letter which Gianna wrote to him, she directly expressed her whole conception of marriage:

“Dear Pietro, … I truly wish to make you happy and to be what you desire: good, understanding and ready for the sacrifices which life will ask of us… Now, you must already know that I love you and that I have the intention of giving myself to you to make a truly Christian family. Dear Pietro, excuse my confidence, but I am made for this. See you again. With love, Gianna.

On 10 September, just before their wedding, which would take place on 24 September in St Martin’s Basilica in Magenta, Pietro touched Gianna’s heart when he wrote:

“My dear Gianna, … with the certitude that God wanted us to be united, you and I have set out on our new life. During these last months, everything has been a crescendo of understanding and affection. Now, our understanding is perfect, because heaven is our light and the divine law is our guide. And our union is full because we are one heart and one soul, a single sentiment and a single affection. And our love, pure and strong, knows how to look forward to the benediction of heaven.”

She responded:

“Dearest Pietro, I know that you will always make me as happy as I am now and that God will hear your prayers, because they come from a heart which has always loved and served him holily. O Pietro, how much I have to learn from you! You are my example and I thank you. So, with the help and blessing of God, we will do everything to make our new family a little cenacle where Jesus reigns over all our affections, desires and actions. My Pietro, it is only a few days now and I am so moved to approach and receive the Sacrament of Love. We will become the collaborators of God in creation, so we can give Him children who love and serve Him.”

Their prayers were answered. Pierluigi was born on 19 November 1956, Maria Zita on 11 December 1957 (God would call her to join her mother in heaven at the age of six, when she died of acute glomerulonephritis resulting in kidney failure) and Laura on 15 July 1959.

In spite of difficult pregnancies, Gianna and Pietro still wanted to have children and, in August 1961, she became pregnant once again. Towards the end of the second month, however, a uterine fibroid developed. According to Pietro, she was free, in this serious situation, to choose between three options: the first, to remove the fibroid, terminating the pregnancy and excluding the possibility of having more children (the surest and safest option for her and the future); the second, to remove the fibroid, terminating the pregnancy but preserving the possibility of other pregnancies (the sure and safe option for her now but not for the future); and the third, to remove the fibroid without terminating the pregnancy, nor excluding the possibility of other pregnancies (the most dangerous option, both for herself and for the future). Without the least perplexity, she chose the third option.

In the afternoon of 20 April 1962, she was admitted to hospital: she confided her life and that of the child to Divine Providence and repeated, “I am ready for whatever God wills.” Gianna prepared herself for the tremendous act: “I am doing the will of God and God will provide for my children.” In the morning of 21 April, after several attempts to have her give birth naturally, she underwent a cesarian section. Little Gianna Emanuela was born but, after a few short hours, her mother’s condition had deteriorated: her fever and terrible abdominal pains from septic peritonitis became worse and worse.

Her sister, Virginia, related:

“She asked me to call a priest. While waiting, she wanted my missionary crucifix. She kissed it emotionally. Then she said to me in a weak voice, ‘If you only knew what comfort I receive from kissing the crucifix. Oh! if it weren’t for Jesus comforting us at certain moments!’ Gianna refused all anaesthetic in order to remain vigilant and continue her calvary in intimate union with Our Lord.”

At dawn on Easter Saturday, 28 April 1962, in accordance with the wish which she had expressed to her husband, she was taken back home, where she died at 8 o’clock in the morning, on her nuptial bed, where she had given birth to her children. She was only 39 years old. During her last agony, Gianna repeated several times, “Jesus, I love you!”

Pietro wrote to his brother-in-law:

“Dear Fr Alberto, … Each day since she has been in heaven, I offer this prayer to Our Lord and to Gianna: ‘Jesus, You who have called among your Angels my spouse and the mother of my children, make my children advance this day in wisdom and grace with You, with Our Lady, with their holy mother, with their peers, with men, day after day; just as You advanced in Your Holy Family in Nazareth, and as their mother knew how to raise them. Keep them in good health of soul and of body, just as their holy mother knew how to preserve them, by Your grace and blessing, with wise and loving care.

“Make my children worthy always, each day of their life, of the holiness of the martyrdom of their holy mother. Make me less unworthy, the least unworthy possible, of the holiness of my spouse, so that, by your grace, I may stand in her place in goodness and in the raising of our children. Give to me, and to my children, the grace, certitude and ineffable comfort which made Saint Augustine write, concerning his mother in heaven, “When you were alive, I saw you where you were. Now that you are in Paradise, I feel you present wherever I am.”

“And you, Gianna, help me to carry my cross, day by day; to accomplish the will of Our Lord heroically. Obtain for our children, and also for me, the divine grace to make us saints.

“Make us approach you more each day, so that each day we may climb a step of the mystical ladder of Jacob, until we reach the top, where you are waiting for us. And intercede for us so that, when Our Lord calls us to Him, He may find us worthy to stand side by side with you forever. Amen.”

It was only years later that Pietro understood God’s plans. “If she had stayed here with us,” he said to his daughter, Gianna Emanuela, “she would have continued to do good to the family, to her neighbour, to the sick, but Our Lord wanted her to do good to many more people in the whole world.” On 24 April 1994, only 32 years after her death, she was proclaimed “Blessed” by Pope John Paul II. And ten years later, on 16 May 2004, the same pope canonised her, naming her patron of mothers, doctors and unborn children.