Friday, 11 May 2012

A breath of fresh air in a muggy modern world – the life of St Gianna Beretta Molla

Thanks to her recent feast day (28 April) I have come across a few programmes and blog posts recently about St Gianna Beretta Molla, patron of mothers, physicians and unborn children.  She died in 1962 and was canonised by Blessed Pope John Paul II in 2004.  These programmes and posts prompted me to find out a bit more about her, and she blew across my soul like a breath of fresh air!  Why?

I had known the basic facts about St Gianna and the reason why she is such an inspirational saint for pro-lifers.  However, if you’d asked me what her sanctity consisted in I would have replied, “She sacrificed her life for her unborn child even though she could legitimately have saved herself” (St Gianna was diagnosed with a large fibroid tumour in her womb early in her fourth pregnancy, that could not be left untreated.  The Catholic Church would have allowed a hysterectomy to save her life, as this would not have been a direct abortion but the child’s death would have been an unintended secondary effect – the moral principle of “double effect”.  The Saint, however, chose to have a much riskier operation to remove the tumour so that her child might live.  She died of septic peritonitis after a difficult pregnancy and birth).
What I hadn’t realised was that St Gianna’s whole life was dedicated to sacrificial love (one of her best-known maxims is, “One cannot love without suffering or suffer without loving”).   All through her life this seems to have been her mission, indeed her raison d’être.  Endowed from an early stage with a strong sense of vocation, she would have liked to follow her brother overseas as a missionary but was dissuaded because her health was not strong enough.  Instead, she devoted herself to the formation of young girls in the “Catholic Action” movement and to doing good in the St Vincent de Paul association.  
Her vocational sense did not diminish; it is seen very clearly in her attitude to her work.  She was a doctor, practising both in general medicine and paediatrics, and – somewhat unusually for women in the 1950’s – continued her job after marrying and starting a family.  She had an enormous reverence for her patients, in every dimension of their being.  Thus her husband, Pietro, could say when interviewed at around the time of her beatification in 1994, “Gianna had a holy respect for the body and the person of the patient... She often repeated: ‘Whoever touches the body of a patient, touches the body of Christ.’  It was a quasi-sacramental concept, according to which Gianna sought to cure illnesses but at the same time bring comfort to spirits.  The sick realised they were treated with dignity and were grateful.” St Gianna would surely have been an enthusiastic advocate of the Theology of the Body!  
Her sense of vocation is also strong in her other great calling – marriage and motherhood.  During their engagement she wrote to Pietro, “I have so much trust in the Lord, and I am certain that he will help me be a worthy spouse to you.  I like to meditate often on the first reading for the Mass of Saint Anne: ‘Who shall find a valiant woman?... The heart of her husband trusteth in her... She will render him good, and not evil, all the days of her life.’ (Prov 31:10-12.)  Pietro, I wish I could be the valiant woman of the Scripture for you!”  Ten days before their wedding she wrote, “I would like our new family to be a cenacle gathered around Jesus”.
St Gianna was a virtuous woman.  When her cause for beatification was introduced, Pietro wrote – in the form of a “conversation” with his late wife – a summary of how she conformed to the theological and cardinal virtues.  St Gianna, who had a great reverence for Church teaching and did her best to pass it on to the young women in her care in Catholic Action conferences, would have seen life in these terms too.  She attended Mass daily if at all possible and her life, as Pietro tells us, “rested on prayer” – the Rosary, meditation, and a great devotion to Our Lady of Good Counsel to whom she consecrated each of her babies after their baptism.  At her suggestion she and Pietro prepared for their wedding day with a triduum of Mass and prayer.
And yet with all this she was joyful.  She lived life to the full.  She loved creation; she loved skiing; she loved attending plays and concerts; she expanded her somewhat workaholic fiancé’s worldview by encouraging him to play as well as work.  Pietro says, “In our workaday life, Gianna introduced the elements of beauty and festivity”.  In fact, amongst her notebooks we find that she wrote a whole Hymn to the Smile!
So: sacrificial love; vocation; prayer; virtue; joy. Pietro praises her distinctively “feminine” qualities.  Her role as wife and mother was of central importance to her.  All this, it seems to me, makes her a vital (both in terms of importance and of alive-ness!) “sign” in our times.  Reading the book co-authored by her husband and writer Elio Guerriero, I was deeply refreshed by her simplicity, her straightforwardness, her cutting to the heart of what is important in life and what makes it worth living.  
A few days before St Gianna’s beatification, Cardinal Martini said, “Figures like Gianna Beretta Molla are a sign of hope for us, even in this confused time that we pass through.”  I would say, especially in this confused time.  In an age of specious sophistication, dissent masquerading as intelligent debate, arrogant intellectualism, individualistic rejection of authority and a sense that we have “moved beyond” the old-fashioned simple approaches of virtue and devotion (and that’s just within the Church!), St Gianna witnesses – in the words of Cardinal Martini – to a “simple charism of fidelity to the Gospel”.  I could almost feel myself unwind as I read more and more about her.  “Thank goodness for that,” my soul seemed to say.  

Thank Goodness for St Gianna Beretta Molla. 

Facts and quotations above are drawn from the book "Saint Gianna Molla" by Pietro Molla and Elio Guerriero, trans. James G Colbert, published by Ignatius Press, ISBN 0-89870-887-7

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