What We Can Learn from the Sacrificial Motherhood of St. Gianna

Katherine Prezioso

What We Can Learn from the Sacrificial Motherhood of St. Gianna

Although St. Gianna lived a life of sacrificial motherhood, beyond what most mothers are called to, she filled her life with a deep faith, love for God’s creation, and a joy and gratefulness for her vocation as a wife and mother that is worthy of being emulated. She did not see her children as pests to be avoided nor did she feel she needed to resign herself to a frumpy and dour motherhood.

St. Gianna Beretta Molla (1922-1962) loved to be outside, often found skiing and mountaineering in her native Italy. She was a diligent medical student, eventually opening her own practice with a focus on mothers, babies, the elderly, and the poor. Her engagement to Pietro Molla gave her such joy that she wrote to him: "Love is the most beautiful sentiment that the Lord has put into the soul of men and women." They were blessed with their first child a year after their wedding and two more followed within three years. Tragically, they suffered two miscarriages after the birth of their third child. During the pregnancy of her sixth child, a fibroma was found. Given three options, St. Gianna opted for the riskiest option for her, but the only option that would have a chance of saving her child’s life. In the hopes of saving her child from suffering, she took that suffering onto herself. She told her doctors: “If you must decide between me and the child, do not hesitate: choose the child - I insist on it. Save him.” She gave birth to a girl via c-section but died eight days later due to septic peritonitis, a complication from the delivery. 

Most mothers today are not called upon to give up their lives for their children. But this does not mean that St. Gianna lived an unattainably holy and sacrificial life. In God’s severe mercy, the sacrifices that motherhood offers are varied and almost constant. But they remain our choice. Modernity has given us many ways to circumnavigate almost any suffering. However, just as with any device that thwarts God’s gracious will, the pleasures we amuse ourselves with as we ignore the suffering that is lurking in the corner are usually fleeting. Worse, avoiding the suffering that God has allowed in our lives typically leads to greater suffering, whether that be temporal or eternal. As a small example: trying to force an unwilling toddler into quiet time usually causes us both more distress and takes more time than answering his endless questions. I do not suggest that mothers never take time alone, stop taking care of themselves, or work themselves to complete burnout. Instead, let us follow the joyful example of St. Gianna. Perhaps it is not losing ourselves to motherhood that should be our focus, but the finding of a truer, better version of ourselves, purified by suffering. 

St. Gianna’s sacrificial motherhood was not limited to her most well-known sacrifice. Just as mothers do now, she faced the demands of juggling family life with many children, balanced with the requirements of her job in the medical profession. And yet, we never see her looking dour or overworked, simply resigned to her fate as a mother. Conversely, she does not complain about the strains of raising children, never seeing them as mere obstacles to completing what she needs to accomplish. Instead, every picture of her shows a joyful young mother, bursting with life. Her love for her children far exceeded her deep love for her profession (which she treated as a mission); in fact, she is known for referring to her children as her “jewels.” However, it would be unfair to paint her life in joyful generalizations. Even before her untimely death, she had suffered in her motherhood. Her pregnancies were exceedingly difficult: she suffered from hyperemesis gravidarum (extreme morning sickness lasting the entire pregnancy). As a comfort to us who go past our due dates, St. Gianna was once pregnant for over 43 weeks! 

In our culture today, we are desperate to avoid any kind of suffering. And, often, children bring some kind of suffering, whether that be difficult pregnancies and births, balancing the demands of family life and work, or just the constant, mind-numbing interruptions to our trains of thought. But we are not called to live lives free of suffering. The sacrifices mothers are called to make each day may be preparing us to accept a larger sacrifice gracefully, as for St. Gianna, or they may simply be purifying us as we work towards our eternal home. God is not afraid of suffering and sacrifice; He does not see it as something to be avoided at all costs, but something to be accepted prayerfully.  

We can take comfort in the words of Pope St. John Paul II at her beatification: “A woman of exceptional love, an outstanding wife and mother, she gave witness in her daily life to the demanding values of the Gospel. By holding up this woman as an exemplar of Christian perfection, we would like to extol all those high-spirited mothers of families who give themselves completely to their family, who suffer in giving birth, who are prepared for every labor and every kind of sacrifice, so that the best they have can be given to others.” This is the legacy of a mother who suffered with a willing heart.