An Inspiration for My Life: The Story of St. Gianna Molla
In the picture taped above my desk, she’s wearing a flowered dress and white sweater, with her dark hair brushed neatly back from her forehead. She’s looking serenely off into the distance, but I suspect that the gentle smile illuminating her face is due not to the unknown object of her gaze but to the baby in her arms. She hugs the child tenderly, temple pressed against rounded cheek, with pure joy shining in her eyes.
This is St. Gianna Molla, whom St. John Paul II called, “a woman of heroic love, an outstanding wife and mother.” Born into a large Catholic family in Magenta, Italy, in 1922, St. Gianna became a physician, specializing in pediatrics, before she married Pietro Molla in 1955. When she developed a uterine tumor during her fourth pregnancy, she refused the recommended hysterectomy and underwent surgery to remove only the tumor, thus preserving the baby’s life.
As a result of her selfless decision, she died from septic peritonitis (a risk associated with such an operation) a week after her daughter’s birth on April 28, 1962, at age 39. St. John Paul II canonized her on May 16, 2004 – and just four years later, I discerned that she was meant to be my Confirmation saint. Her story inspired (and continues to inspire) me for three primary reasons.
To begin with, I’ve always felt that I could truly relate to her. She wasn’t a first century martyr, a phenomenal mystic, or a cloistered nun (saints falling in those categories are certainly inspirational and encouraging; they just didn’t seem to be what God had in mind for me) . Instead, she was, in her husband’s words, “a splendid but ordinary woman, a beautiful and intelligent woman who loved to smile.” St. Gianna also dressed elegantly, furnished her home with thoughtful care, and enjoyed painting, piano playing, skiing, mountain climbing, and attending concerts.
She took pleasure in all the simple, wholesome joys the world has to offer, knowing those joys reflect the goodness of God Himself. Though she seems less intimidating to me than some other saints, her example is no less significant. Underlying St. Gianna’s apparently ordinary life was an extraordinary faith in God, sustained by daily Mass and prayer and based on the understanding that true holiness consists of accepting His will in every aspect of life. Because she seamlessly integrated a healthy appreciation for this world with a devout spirituality, I can identify with her more easily than any other saint. Her example is edifying and challenging, but also encouraging because it’s not beyond my reach.
Not surprisingly, St. Gianna’s love for life led her to devote herself to upholding its sanctity, first as a doctor and later as a wife and mother. She entered the medical field precisely because of her deep desire to nurture the gift of life and serve others in both body and soul, believing that: “Whoever touches the body of a patient touches the body of Christ.” As a result, she treated all her patients with the utmost compassion and respect, making herself available at all hours and frequently offering her services free of charge.
In addition, she fiercely advocated for life whenever the opportunity arose, urging women considering an abortion to choose life. More than anything else, of course, Saint Gianna’s greatest testimony to the sanctity of life was her willingness to give up her own to save her unborn child. Knowing her baby was a human being formed in the image and likeness of God and deserving of protection, how could she have chosen otherwise? As clear as it was to her, however, her decision couldn’t be more counter-cultural today in the United States today. It’s easy to become discouraged at the ubiquitous, blatant disregard for human life that blights our society, which is why I’m grateful to have such a Confirmation saint to galvanize me when all seems hopeless.
More than any other reason, I chose St. Gianna for my Confirmation name simply because she was a mother, as I hope to be someday. Her life and death are a testament to the value of the vocation of motherhood, which is constantly demeaned and ridiculed in today’s hedonistic, self-absorbed culture of death. Secular society’s prevailing mentality insists that women can only find fulfillment in a career and material success, and furthermore, that those goals require the “right” to kill their own children in the event of an “inconvenient” pregnancy.
Besides poisoning our society and condemning future generations to death, however, such an attitude also warps the true meaning of womanhood and strikes at the core of its nature. As St. Gianna understood well, God designed women to cooperate with Him in bringing new life into the world. Though the rest of secular society considers it a curse to be minimized in order for women to achieve “equality” with men, that ability is, in fact, a privilege, arguably one of the most supreme blessings ever bestowed on the human race.
Consequently, St. Gianna embraced her vocation of marriage and motherhood wholeheartedly, not wavering even when it required her to sacrifice her life. She acted contrary to the standards of the modern world, but in complete accordance with her Catholic convictions. “If during the struggles to carry out our vocation, we should have to die,” she wrote, “that would be the most beautiful day of our lives.” Like a true mother should, she loved her children, born and unborn, so intensely that she willingly chose to die for them in imitation of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.
As Catholics, we’re blessed to belong to the Communion of Saints, a spiritual bond transcending the physical world and uniting us, the Church Militant, with the Church Triumphant – the saints whom we can always depend on for encouragement and intercession. St. Gianna embodied the deepest longings of my heart and lived the ideals of motherhood to a heroic degree that I aspire to emulate myself someday with the help of God’s grace. Whenever I see her picture, my mind flashes back to one of the most sacred moments of my life, when I knelt before the archbishop at my Confirmation and heard those awe-inspiring words: “Gianna, be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
By Ellen Virginia