St. Gianna Beretta Molla & Family

Sometimes I feel Tolstoy got it backwards.  “Happy families are all alike”, he famously wrote; “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Sure, many people find turbulence and vice more fascinating than harmony and virtue. 

Yet the dysfunction of unhappy or nowadays shattered families tends to yield almost predictably monolithic outcomes – as the news on any given day will attest. In happy families we see true individuality, and therefore true variety, emerge.  Showered with love, its members – with all their gifts, limitations, and idiosyncrasies – blossom as only they can.

True sanctity is rare; living with a person who has attained a measure of sanctity, given human nature, is also no easy feat. But sometimes even sanctity runs in the family. The parents of St. Therese of Lisieux, for example, were recently beatified themselves and now rest in the crypt of the basilica built to honor one of their daughters.              

I had the good fortune, while in Lourdes last year, to spend some time with Gianna Emanuela Molla, the daughter of St. Gianna Beretta Molla of Magenta (Milan), Italy. You may have heard about her life and the painful circumstances which ultimately led to her rapid beatification in 1994 and canonization in 2004.  

A happy wife, doctor, and mother of three, she was diagnosed in September, 1961 with a large fibroma (a benign tumor) in the uterus when she was two-months pregnant.

Knowing this pregnancy entailed great risks to her life, she asked the surgeon to remove the fibroma in such a way as to save the life of the baby she was carrying. This was accomplished.  Gianna thanked God and spent the following seven months attending to her duties as a mother and doctor with renewed commitment and strength.

As childbirth drew near, trusting God’s Providence, Gianna said to her husband Pietro: If you have to choose, there should be no doubt: choose – I demand it – the life of the baby. Save him.

On April 21, 1962 Gianna Emanuela was born by caesarian section.   Immediately afterwards, Gianna’s general condition started to worsen and, despite all efforts, further deteriorated over the next several days. On April 28, 1962, she was taken back to the family home, where she died. She was 39-years-old.

          Saint Gianna Molla by Neilson Carlin
(Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, LaCrosse, Wisconsin)

That was fifty years ago. Her husband Pietro, born 100 years ago, died in 2010.  This month in Italy, a new book with the love letters he wrote to her is set to be published.  Her love letters to him have already been published.  Reservations about releasing such private letters—a non-starter while he was alive – were overcome only after the family concluded that publishing them might reach many people. 

This is not only because everyone loves a love story, but because the couple lived a “normal” existence,  in the modern world with a keen zest for life. She liked skiing, mountain-climbing, and opera. And both demonstrated a deep spirituality that animated every aspect of their lives, as man and woman, parents, and professionals.

As Gianna Emmanuela is fond of saying, “my mother was a saint first of all because of the way she lived, not only because of the way she died.” But there is something of an archetype, of course, in the way she died.

There is no greater love, we recognize, than what she chose to do: literally lay down her life for her daughter. Incidentally, her father reports that, aside from her great faith, this was a decision dictated to her by her conscience as a mother and a doctor. And her husband, respecting the truly Christ-like act his wife was prepared to make, willingly took on the role of Mary at the foot of the cross. Through brokenhearted – pierced by this great sword – he accepted it.  He too loved to the end.

When her father died, Gianna Emmanuela in turn felt keen loss. She had taken care of him – as a loving daughter and professional geriatrician — for more than seven years.  During the first months without him, she felt no joy in living, but with the passing of time it has returned. Recalling all the Americans so happy to meet her on her recent U.S. tour, for example, she now says spontaneously: “their joy is my joy”.

On several occasions as we made our way around Lourdes, I observed people’s faces light up when they recognized whom they were meeting. After one impromptu conversation was well underway, tears came to the eyes of an elderly Italian priest when a proper introduction was made.  He must have known the St. Gianna Molla name – but never expected to bump into her daughter. 

She must get this all the time. Effortlessly, it seems, she gives complete and undivided attention to every person in front of her.

Whoever comes into contact with her is faced with a visible, incarnate reminder that someone else felt that she was worth loving “to the end.’ Though naturally reserved, she has now become a full-time ambassador to the apostolate occasioned by the rich life and appealing charism of her mother and father.  Committing to this was as a big decision because doing so has meant stepping away from the good she could continue doing in geriatrics.

I found myself asking her something I’d never asked anyone else, “So, aside from your Mom, who is your favorite saint?”  She laughed and said St. Francis of Assisi. Many would make that same choice, yet her own rationale – her uncle served as a Franciscan missionary in Brazil – was informed both not only the native attraction of Francis, but by the deep bonds of love within her family.


Matthew Hanley’s new book, Determining Death by Neurological Criteria: Current Practice and Ethics, is a joint publication of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and Catholic University of America Press.