St. Gianna: Martyr of Maternal Love

“You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139: 13-14)

St. Gianna Beretta Molla was born in Magenta (near Milan), Italy on October 4, 1922. She was the tenth of thirteen children. Her parents were fervent Catholics and devoted to St. Francis of Assisi. They raised her with great love for the poor, sick, and lonely. When she was only five-years-old, St. Gianna received her First Holy Communion.

From her earliest years, Eucharistic Adoration and the Holy Rosary were at the heart of St. Gianna’s spiritual life. She attended Mass frequently, and often daily, throughout her life. At 12, she became involved in Catholic Action, which was centered on Eucharistic devotion. She helped form and evangelize the young, to whom she spoke of purity. St. Gianna instructed the girls, “Pray the Rosary because without the help of Mary we won’t get to Heaven.” “Smile at her. Imitate her with your life, so that whoever looks at us may be elevated to holy thoughts.” 

As a physician, St. Gianna was inspired to care for mothers, children, the elderly, and the poor especially. St. Gianna advised, “Love your children. In them you can see Baby Jesus. Pray for them a lot and every day put them under Holy Mary’s protection.” She was a holy wife and mother, who lived in imitation of Our Lady, balancing her home and work duties well. Her husband, Pietro, related her holiness in living in simple, ordinary ways. St. Gianna, who loved her spouse deeply, led an active life and enjoyed skiing, mountain climbing, painting, music, travel, and fashion.

For her, practicing medicine was a vocation. St. Gianna explained, “We touch Jesus in the bodies of our patients.” “We are apostles, and if we do not want our work to be in vain, but to be effective, there is only one method that will not fail: prayer. We must pray with faith, hope, charity, humility, devotion, and reverence. … Work can be prayer … if we offer to the Lord all the actions that we perform so that they might serve His glory.”

With joyful zeal, St. Gianna brought the love of Jesus Eucharistic to her family, patients and youth in her care. She said, “Smile at Jesus who you approach at Mass, in Holy Communion and in Eucharistic Adoration.” “When Jesus, in Holy Communion, shows us His wounded heart, how can we tell Him we love Him if we make no sacrifices to be united to His and offered to Him in order to save souls?” “Our body is a cenacle, a monstrance: through its crystal the world should see God.”

The same Jesus Who said “This is my body, which is given for you” (Luke 22:19) strengthened St. Gianna to spend herself for others and, ultimately, to give her life for her unborn child. When Gianna was pregnant with her fourth child she had fibrous tumors in her ovary and her doctor wanted to terminate her pregnancy. St. Gianna refused, saying, “If you must decide between me and the child do not hesitate, choose the child, I insist on it, save the baby.” Although she experienced great suffering not only physically, but also at the thought of leaving her beloved husband and children behind, St. Gianna offered her life so that her unborn baby would live. She gave birth to a healthy daughter, who is named after her, and died seven days later on April 28, 1962 at the age of 39. St. Gianna has been called a “martyr of maternal love” and her last words were “Jesus I love you, Jesus I love you.”

In our time, when the popular narrative is that feminists should stand for abortion, St. Gianna’s life gives witness to the gift and dignity of both women and children, at home and in the work place. Her life attests to the sanctity of life and the vocation of motherhood. St. Gianna reflected, “You cannot love without suffering and you cannot suffer without love.” She reminds us that the Blessed Mother is our model as women and intercedes for all of her children, especially when they are struggling with an unexpected pregnancy or given the difficult choice about whether or not to give birth to their child.

St. John Paul II said, “Her testimony is heroic, a true hymn to life, in violent contrast with a certain mentality pervasive today! May her sacrifice inspire courage in those who participate in the movement for life, in order that each human being’s inviolable dignity be recognized, from birth to a natural death, as a foremost and fundamental value in respect to every other human and social right.” (April 25, 1994)

As we pray and work for a victory of life in our country and throughout the world, St. Gianna reminds us that the key to holiness and final victory is devotion to the Holy Eucharist and our Blessed Lady. St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta encouraged people to spend time in Eucharistic Adoration, saying, “If people spent one hour a week in Eucharistic Adoration, abortion would be ended.” As evidenced throughout history, battles are won and peace is restored through the recitation of the Holy Rosary.

St. Gianna’s husband, children, granddaughter, siblings, patients, and friends were present at her canonization on May 16, 2004. She is the patroness of mothers, unborn children, and physicians. St. Gianna’s feast day is celebrated on April 28 and many miracles are obtained through her intercession.

Words of Wisdom from St. Gianna

The most essential condition for every fruitful activity is stillness in prayer. The apostle begins work by kneeling. … Before acting, we lift our souls to God. The more we feel the desire to give, the more often it is necessary to go back to the infinite fountain of love that is God.

Our task is to make the truth visible and lovable in ourselves, offering ourselves as an attractive and, if possible, heroic example.

Work and sacrifice yourself only for the glory of God. … If, even after all of your best efforts, failure seems to be the result, accept this generously. A failure gracefully accepted by an apostle, who has used all the means available to succeed, may be more beneficial for salvation than a victory. Let us always work generously and humbly; let us try not to look immediately for the fruits of our labor. … Remember that saving the world has never been easy, not even for the Son of God, not even for the Apostles.

St. Gianna’s Prayer

Jesus, I promise You to submit myself to all that You permit to befall me, make me only know Your will. My most sweet Jesus, infinitely merciful God, most tender Father of souls, and in a particular way of the most weak, most miserable, most infirm which You carry with special tenderness between Your divine arms, I come to You to ask You, through the love and merits of Your Sacred Heart, the grace to comprehend and to do always Your holy will, the grace to confide in You, the grace to rest securely through time and eternity in Your loving divine arms. Amen.

By

Mary Beth Bracy is a writer who is blessed to research, publish, and speak extensively on various aspects of Catholic spirituality. Her books include Behold the LambBread of Life and The Little Way of Healing Love Through the Passion of Jesus: The Stations of the Cross with St. Thérèse of Lisieux. She is also co-author of the book Stories of the Eucharist. She has written articles for numerous Catholic publications and recorded some Catholic talks. For more information or to view her blog visit The Little Way

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