St. Gianna’s Invitation
St. Gianna Beretta Molla was born October 4, 1922 as the 10th of 13 children. Her parents were Alberto Beretta and Maria De Micheli. Her childhood home was, in a certain way, a house of prayer. Early family life was interwoven with frequent visits to the nearby Capuchin friary near their home in Milan. Gianna’s parents planted the love for their Catholic faith into their children’s lives. Over time these planted seeds would bear much good fruit.
St. Gianna grew in her prayer life and in her studies as she progressed through school. She became involved in a church movement called Catholic Action, which called its members to grow in their spiritual life. The motto of Catholic Action was “Prayer, Action, Sacrifice.” These truly became the bywords for how she lived her life.
Eventually she entered medical school in Pavia, Italy. When she began medical school, both of her parents died within four months of each other. Through this adversity, she would graduate in 1949 in medicine and surgery. In 1952 she earned her specialization in pediatrics. One of her brothers had become a Catholic priest and invited St. Gianna to join him as a missionary in Brazil. He had a need for a medical doctor in his apostolate and she seriously considered it. However, at that time she was not in the best of health. She was advised by her confessor to stay in Italy and this decision changed the course of her life.
For her, it opened the potential for family life. In 1950, while St. Gianna was working at a hospital, the man who would love her for the rest of her life, Pietro Molla, first laid eyes on her. Pietro shared that he saw her on two separate occasions but never spoke to her directly.
It wouldn’t be until towards the end of 1954 that they would actually become acquainted. They met at the ordination of a priest that they both knew. At the celebration dinner that followed, Pietro ended up sitting across from Gianna. In his diary that night he wrote, “Thanking God, I think I made a good acquaintance.”
They continued to see each other and within a matter of months, were engaged. They married on September 24th, 1955. It was Gianna’s idea to go to Mass three consecutive days before their wedding. This way, they could have a “Triduum” for their nuptial mass.
Gianna would continue to invite Pietro into this deeper intimacy with his faith and the liturgy. Later in his life, Pietro was asked in an interview if his wife had given him a certain education, as it were. He responded,
“Certainly, a complete education, even from the human point of view. Because at the very moment when she invited me to participate in the liturgy or in acts of piety, she proposed a new model of humanity to me. . .”
Included in their marriage was an openness to life. Both St. Gianna and Pietro loved life and they wanted to share it with as many children as God would allow. By July of 1959, they had three children, Pierluigi, Mariolina, and Laura. Each pregnancy offered its own sufferings but the birth of new life always superseded any suffering for St. Gianna. While expecting their fourth child a fibroid tumor threatened the life of both St. Gianna and her child. A hysterectomy would remove the tumor but Gianna would not hear of losing her baby.
St. Gianna gave birth to Gianna Emanuela on April 21st, 1962. Just like her other deliveries the pain of child labor gave way to joy at the arrival of new life. St. Gianna’s condition, however, began to decline and on April 28th, 1962 she passed away due to septic peritonitis. St. Gianna had sacrificed her life in order to save the life of her child.
The grieving which the family underwent cannot be fully understood. At the time of her passing, the oldest child Pierluigi, was only five and a half. Over time, the children would better understand what their mother’s sacrifice truly meant. Pietro would never consider remarrying, as he was convinced there was no one better for him than his Gianna.
In many biographies, this would be the end of anyone’s story. St. Gianna’s life of prayer, action, and sacrifice, tells us a different story. One which continues even to this day.
In 1970, Pietro was approached by the Bishop of Milan to ask if the diocese could begin the process of beatification for St. Gianna. Initially, there was hesitation on Pietro’s part. He understood that beginning this process would mean opening his family’s suffering and pain to the outside world. He thought of the interviews that would be requested from both himself and his children. It would mean reliving some of the pain they had gone through. Pietro explained later “At that time, I could not ask for my children’s agreement because they were too little. So, I had to decide alone; and despite the considerations I have mentioned, I gave a favorable response. I was particularly struck by Bishop Colombo’s reflection that Gianna’s witness could do so much good. How could I deny this request when Gianna had been so generous? A negative reply seemed to be in glaring contrast with that thirst for apostolate, with that will to do good to others, to help the elderly and needy, that Gianna had always shown in her life.”
This openness on Pietro’s part to this invitation led to greater intimacy with his wife. Through the initial beatification process, he was introduced to St. Gianna’s early writings which included her lecture notes for Catholic Action. All of these writings had been kept in her childhood home and were previously unknown to Pietro.
This initial process of beatification was challenging for her children, but especially Gianna Emanuela. As time passed she began to recognize what a grace had been given to her through the canonization process. She has commented in two separate interviews that
“. . . I feel like a member of an even larger family, composed of all who pray to Mamma with me, who confide in her, and feel her beside them as an example to imitate, and I experience the extraordinary sensation of never feeling alone. Within me I feel strength and courage to live . . . . . . At the same time though, there will always be grief of not having had a mother. Only now do we understand, that our Lord had a greater plan for my mother. Not just for her though, but also for all of us. That is what I think.”
Even in heaven, she has continued to invite her children to a greater plan. She extends an invitation to us as well to participate in the liturgy and find joy in all aspects of our life, even in suffering. Through her suffering, St. Gianna Molla gave a path to sanctity for those living their marriage vocation.