Almost twenty years ago, when I was a new mom, I slipped out one evening for a presentation – an introduction to the then newly beatified Gianna Beretta Molla. The presenter came to share the story of this doctor, wife, and mother who had captivated the world with her fierce devotion to human life even if it should cost of her own. He came with stacks of holy cards printed with her photograph and the prayer for her canonization. And he came with her wedding gown. I remember pressing the holy cards to the satiny folds of her white dress. Touching them to a piece of her life, a symbol of the sacrament that she gave herself over to with radical faith and deep love, I felt a connection and a desire to know her more. “This will be a relic someday,” he predicted. “Gianna was saving her dress, hoping to turn it into a vestment if she should have a son who would become a priest.” Her son, as it turned out, would not become a priest. But she would become a saint.
She is famous for her final story: the crescendo of self-giving love when she, pregnant with her fourth child, discovered that a tumor was growing on her uterus. She rejected a hysterectomy, which would have been morally acceptable but would have resulted in the indirect death of her unborn baby. Instead she opted for a surgery which would remove the tumor but would allow the pregnancy to continue, all the while knowing, as a physician herself, the risk she was taking. At every step, she was insistent that the baby’s life come before her own. Gianna delivered a healthy ten-pound daughter, Gianna Emanuela, on April 21, 1962, via c-section. Probably because of the surgical delivery, she contracted an infection in her abdomen. After a week of excruciating suffering, which she voluntarily chose to endure consciously, she died in her home on April 28 – now her feast day.
This sacrifice, this willingness to lay down her life for another, was only the culmination, though, of a life lived entirely for God and those He sent her. Gianna may be a saint because of one heroic decision, but she became a saint because her whole life was a prayer of praise and a symphony of smaller sacrifices. The loss of an older sister when she was young propelled her into the world of suffering, which she met with a dedication to prayer – daily mediation, afternoon visits to the Blessed Sacrament, the rosary. While in high school, she went on a retreat of the Spiritual Exercises, making firm commitments in the spiritual life. “Jesus,” she journaled on the retreat, “I promise to submit to everything that you will allow to happen to me. Only help me to know your will.” And submit she did, to the death of her parents, the sorrows of World War II, the struggles of medical studies. She grounded herself in service: leadership in Catholic Action, which involved giving talks and retreats to young women, and her “mission” – her medical work which she saw as a ministry to “Jesus in the bodies of the sick.” Never judging, always compassionate, she stressed the value of life, especially to those patients who considered abortion. Sometimes, she would leave money behind on the tables of her poorest patients. And always, she would do it with a smile.
When she married Piero Molla in 1955, they both desired a holy marriage and family. Warmly welcoming three children in quick succession, Gianna was still able to balance work and family, continuing her medical practice up until shortly before little Gianna Emanuela’s birth. And still, every day, every busy day, Gianna stopped in to visit the Blessed Sacrament, to be with the One who gave her the strength for all of it.
What this means for us is this: that our readiness for the bigger sacrifices of life is made possible by our acceptance of every little one God gives us the opportunity for. Our faithfulness to Him begins in the small practices of everyday prayer. And so Gianna is a model of heroic love, true, but it is a lifetime of love we see when we look to her. Meeting each morning as a opportunity for prayer and love – in motherhood, in the workplace, in the many nooks and crannies of the world – that is possible. And it strengthens us for the heroic, the impossible, the possible-only-with God.
That is the secret of St. Gianna. May she pray for us all.