St. Gianna Beretta Molla

(1922-1962)

On April 24,1994, Pope John Paul II declared “blessed” a present-day Italian woman physician who accepted death rather than undergo an operation that would imperil the life of her unborn child. In beatifying this contemporary pro-life heroine, the Holy Father gave to the world a saintly intercessor against the international cruelty of abortion.

Gianna Beretta was born in Magenta, Italy, on October 4, 1922. She was tenth of the 13 offspring of admirable parents, who gave to their children a strong sense of prayer and trust in God’s providence.

Gianna, a highly talented young woman, called, as she felt, to the medical profession, won doctoral degrees in medicine and surgery in 1949 at the University of Pavia. The following year she opened a clinic at Mesero, near Magenta. Two years later she took advanced studies in pediatrics at the University of Milan. Thereafter Dr. Beretta specialized in the care of mothers and babies, and also the elderly and the poor.

Gianna undertook the medical profession not simply as a means of support, or even as simply a philanthropy. For her the practice of medicine was a spiritual “mission”. All during her student years she had done volunteer service to the needy and aged as a member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. As a physician she increased her generous service as a form of “Catholic Action”: lay volunteerism according to the mind and needs of the Church. But there was nothing of the “fanatic” about Dr. Beretta. She was a young woman of vigor and good cheer, a daring skier and mountain climber.

Marriage in 1955 merely gave Dr. Gianna a chance to expand her “missionary” efforts. Gianna and Pietro Molla were a joyful couple. She bore him three children in the next four years. A woman of balance and common sense, she successfully harmonized her careers of mother, wife, and medic.

However, when she became pregnant again in 1961, the doctor suddenly learned that a fibroma was developing in her womb. The baby was now in its second month.

Scientist and pediatrician as she was, Dr. Molla appreciated the threat that the growing tumor presented to her life if she did not undergo an operation. But the uterine operation would have meant death for the unborn baby.

It was a classic case that the Church has always pondered. Moral theology, although forbidding direct abortion, has taught that while surgeons should try to save both mother and child, it is permissible to remove a diseased womb to save the mother, even though the child is thus indirectly deprived of life.

Gianna at once pleaded with the surgeon to save the life of the child. During the next seven months she forced herself to keep busy with her various duties, meanwhile praying as never before that God would preserve the little one. She added a special prayer that the child itself would suffer no pain from the malignancy.

A few days before the birth was due, Gianna told her doctors, “If you must decide between me and the child, do not hesitate; choose the child. I insist on it. Save the baby.”

The baby, Gianna Emanuela Molla, was born in good health on April 21, 1962. But despite every effort to save Dr. Molla, who bore her unspeakable pain in constant prayer, she died on April 28. A sad end, but a glorious one: Is not mother love essentially a vocation of self-giving?

At the beatification ceremony, the Holy Father greeted and blessed at his throne those whom the heroic pediatrician had left behind in God’s good hands: her husband Pietro, one of their older children, and Gianna Emanuela Molla, just turned 22. The pope blessed the young woman, but Gianna Molla knew she had already been blessed from conception by the hand of God.

— Father Robert F. McNamara

Update: Gianna Beretta Molla was canonized on May 16, 2004.

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