Editorial Note: This post is a part of our saint devotion series, in which one of our staff or faculty members explores their relationship with a particular saint. In honor of International Women's Day, we are highlighting female saints this week.
Saints are often most well known for a luminously singular event in the popular imagination—a radiant moment of faith, hope, or charity. For St. Gianna Beretta Molla this moment is surely her insistence that the life of her unborn child be protected and preserved, even at the cost of her own.
Pregnant with her fourth child, Gianna was diagnosed with a fibroma, a benign tumor on the uterine wall. Herself a doctor, she refused a surgery that would have certainly resulted in the child’s death, and opted instead for a procedure that removed the fibroma and preserved the pregnancy, despite its greater risk to her own health. Though the operation was successful and the pregnancy continued, a few days before delivery Gianna found out that labor would be difficult, even life-threatening. Nonetheless, she insisted that if her husband Pietro were forced to choose between saving her life or the baby’s, he choose the child’s because she was convinced that the child she carried was inestimably worthy of love. Years later, he recalled her firm and peaceful words: “If you have to decide between me and the baby, there is to be no hesitation. Choose the baby. I demand it. Save it!” (Pietro Molla, Saint Gianna Molla: Wife, Mother, Doctor, 121.) Gianna gave birth to her daughter, Gianna Emanuela, on Holy Saturday 1962, and died one week later on Easter Saturday at the age of 39 from septic peritonitis.
A friend first introduced me to St. Gianna in my late 20s while I was studying for my master’s degree. If I am perfectly honest, she made little impression on me at the time. Still clinging to a radical feminism that I had found so attractive during my college years, I found her willingness to sacrifice her own life for the sake of her unborn daughter uncomfortable and perplexing. What I did not understand then is that, like all saints, St. Gianna’s tremendous witness at the end of her life did not materialize from a void; rather it sprang from a hidden, quotidian life enfolded into the mystery of Christ. In addition to her roles as a wife, mother, and physician, Gianna was active in the lay apostolates of Saint Vincent de Paul and Catholic Action, among others. Her daily life was, according to her husband, “an uninterrupted act of Christian witness” (Ibid., 113). The daughter of a third order Franciscan, the works of mercy permeated Gianna’s life—caring for the elderly, the sick, and the vulnerable.
Images of Gianna often show her smiling tenderly at her children or gazing upward, seeming to share some intimate secret with God. It is fitting then, that in her writings we find a “Hymn to the Smile,” in which the saint enjoins us to smile always at the Lord from whom all joy flows. In the words of her husband, her “life was hymn to joy, a hymn to be happy with the grace of God in our hearts” (Ibid., 81). Indeed, no one is prepared to say, “yes,” either to such suffering or to such joy, who is not deeply rooted in the gospel of life.
As the program director of the Notre Dame Office of Life and Human Dignity at the McGrath Institute I often find myself overwhelmed by the callous efficiency with which we, as individuals and as a society, dehumanize and eliminate people, and the deceptive justifications we offer to make the desecration of human dignity appear as a good. I often turn to St. Gianna and recollect her profound insight: “We, full of the joy that comes from Jesus, carry joy in our hearts with Jesus. He will be the strength that helps us.” The work of promoting a consistent ethic of life—whether researching new threats to the sanctity of life, writing lesson plans for teachers, planning events and conferences, or giving talks—is first and foremost a work of submission to the joy and love of Christ. The founding principle, the fundamental disposition of a culture of life, is to make one’s life a hymn to joy.
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