Why does this saint, who is not even part of the Universal Calendar, keep striking me as so important for our age?
Gianna Beretta Molla was an Italian GP (doctor), who had given birth to three children and was pregnant with her fourth. During that pregnancy she was faced with a life-threatening condition which could be treated in one of two ways. The first surgical procedure would almost certainly save her life but would result in the loss of her unborn child. The second was more risky for her, but unlikely to harm the child. She chose the second option, lived long enough to give birth to her child, Gianna Emanuela, but died soon afterwards of medical complications.
There is a very natural human reaction to this story, based on a pragmatic understanding of love, which shouts: “What a mistake! A family of children had to grow up without a mother!”
Indeed, Dr Gianna would have been well aware of the risks, and could have chosen the other surgical option with integrity as a Catholic. This not one of those cases where the absolute morals of the church come into play – the first surgical procedure would not have intended to harm the unborn child, it simply offered inevitable side-effects. It is not one of those stories where enemies of the church can crow about celibate bishops telling women what to do with their bodies (a misunderstanding of course: they really mean that God’s shepherds are telling God’s people the challenging demands of God’s law in a particular difficult circumstance). St Gianna had the freedom to choose, and she valued the life of her unborn child above her own.
There is a deeper, Christian response to her choice which goes like this: “How amazing! A woman who totally embraced the teaching of Jesus, that the greatest love is to lay down your life for another. Not for a person who is deserving on their own merits, but for the least of the least. This is the perfect love which allows a Christian to totally reflect the love of Christ.”
The teaching of Jesus is starkly uncomplicated. The greatest value is laying down your life so that a tiny child can live. So the story of St Gianna is a litmus test: if your gut reaction is “How amazing,” you have an inner understanding of the depths of Christian love. If Gianna’s choice still strikes you as a mistake, then ask the Lord for the grace to understand what it truly means to be a follower of Jesus.