Holy Week is always filled with a palpable, contemplative silence, a brief period of reflection before the coming of Easter and its accompanying jubilations. As we reflect on the Passion of Christ, we should recall that the raising of the cross is also a charge to all Christians to pursue sainthood, made possible for us by our Lord. In our rather mundane, ordinary lives, the pursuit of something as dramatic as sainthood can be daunting, or even seem impossible. Reflected in the life of St. Gianna Beretta Molla, though, is a strong reassurance that ordinariness and holiness often go hand in hand.
St. Gianna is something of a pro-life icon, so many students are probably familiar with her story. She was born to a devout Catholic family in Milan, 1922, and was educated as such. She attended the University of Pavia and acquired degrees in medicine and surgery, and opened a clinic thereafter. Eventually she attended the University of Milan, as well, specializing in pediatrics.
Her course in life is not too dissimilar from that of many students at the University of Dallas. We have all gone to primary and secondary school, and then attended a university to pursue whatever profession. Many of us will go on to become parents like Gianna did. Most of us — indeed, virtually all of us — will never go on to accomplish anything particularly stupendous or notable. Life taking an ordinary course is, well, ordinary. Still, like St. Gianna, we ought to strive to experience life as a precious gift.
After a joy-filled engagement to Pietro Molla, the two were married and had four children together. Gianna’s first three children, Pierluigi, Mariolina and Laura were all born without incident, but her fourth pregnancy seriously threatened her life. Despite knowing the risk to her life posed by her continued pregnancy, Gianna insisted that the surgeon save her child’s life at any cost. She suffered months of pain in joy and peace, entrusting herself to Providence without trepidation.
Days before her child was due, she said, “If you must decide between me and the child, do not hesitate: choose the child — I insist on it. Save him.” Gianna endured unspeakable pain during labor, giving birth to Gianna Emanuela on April 21, 1962. Despite every effort being made, Gianna gave her life for her daughter shortly thereafter.
I said above that each of us graduating here is unlikely to accomplish anything particularly great in life, but I lied a little bit. The likelihood of any of us becoming particularly rich and famous, or otherwise important to society as an aggregate, is indeed next to nothing. Gianna never redrew any international maps, nor did she ever found a billion dollar business and practice “philanthropy,” but she did exemplify the very highest act of love.
In John, 15:12-13, Christ tells us, “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” If Gianna did not live out the greatest act of love anyone can, I do not know what hope, if any, there is for the rest of us.
Today, you and I have the privilege of walking in her footsteps, as she walked in the footsteps of Christ, who himself so loved us that He gave His life. Gianna’s tireless and joyful service to the desperate and needy, and to her own unborn child, is a reminder to each of us to pursue the most extraordinary things by the most ordinary means.
“Let us love the Cross and let us remember that we are not alone in carrying it. God is helping us. And in God who is comforting us, as St. Paul says, we can do anything.”
– St. Gianna Beretta Molla