During the 1994 International Year of the Family, the Holy See clashed with the Clinton administration and the United Nations bureaucracy at the Cairo population conference. The core issue was the promotion of abortion as a means of family planning, but the intensity of the conflict indicated that the struggle was between two completely different views of the human person, and, in particular, of women.
On one hand, the Cairo conference proposed a view of women as autonomous agents, for whom sexual expression was but one aspect of the overarching goal of self-development, which required liberation from the burdens of child-bearing and child-rearing in order to achieve equality with men. On the other hand, the Church insisted that authentic human development comes not from liberating oneself from obligations toward others, but from using one's freedom to give oneself to others.
For women in particular, that personal development cannot be separated from what Pope John Paul II has called the “feminine genius,” namely, the woman's ability to care for the other, to be in society a truly humanizing influence. While this “feminine genius” is needed in all sectors of society, it is in the family that it is most needed, and most fulfilling for women to provide it.
A Truly Modern Woman
On April 24, 1994, just four months before the Cairo conference was to begin, John Paul beatified the woman who could be thought of as an incarnation of the feminine genius in the world and in the home. Dr. Gianna Beretta Molla had died almost exactly 32 years previous, on April 28,1962, of complications after the birth of her fourth child, Gianna Emmanuela. She had chosen to proceed with a difficult pregnancy, knowing that saving the life of her baby girl might mean her own death. A pediatrician herself, Gianna Molla knew full well the risks.
“If you must decide between me and the child, do not hesitate: Choose the child,” Gianna told her husband a few days before Gianna Emmanuela was to be delivered by Caesarean section. “I insist on it — save the baby.”
Three decades later that baby was present in St. Peter's Square to see her mother beatified. For her, and millions of other young women around the world trying to balance work and family, professional life and spiritual life, femininity and equality, Dr. Gianna Beretta Molla may just be the ideal model and patroness. If the Church needs a patron saint of the modern woman, Gianna Molla, the happy pediatrician, devout Catholic and doting mother, would be a good candidate, demonstrating with her passion for life that the Gospel is still good news for the women of our time.
Gianna was born in Magenta, near Milan, on Oct. 4, the feast of St. Francis, patron of Italy, in 1922. The 10th of 13 children born to Alberto and Maria Beretta (eight of whom survived childhood), Gianna was raised in an intensely Catholic home, both parents being Third Order Franciscans. She learned a deep spirit of prayer and care for the poor from her parents, and saw in her own mother a model of both strength and humility. After making her first Communion in 1928, Gianna attended daily Mass for the rest of her life, often attending with her mother.
The Molla family moved several times during Gianna's youth, but the closeness and happiness of the family more than compensated for any hardship that might have caused. An uninspired high school student, Gianna struggled to pass her courses and even failed her courses in Italian and Latin. Her final year of school, however, marked a turnaround, and she began to excel at her studies, going on to study medicine at the University of Milan in 1942 — the same year both her parents died.
In 1950 Gianna graduated with a diploma in medicine and surgery and opened a practice with her brother, Ferdinando, who was also a doctor. She was a competent and kind doctor, often serving the poor for free and traveling — sometimes by bicycle, sometime on her motorcycle — some distances to treat the sick at home.
Originally feeling called to the missionary life — one of the Beretta boys had become a priest in Brazil — Gianna discerned after much prayer that her vocation was to marriage and family life. She married Pietro Molla on Sept. 24, 1955, in her hometown in a wedding witnessed by her priest brother, Don Giuseppe. She had first met Pietro when he came to her office to see Dr. Ferdinando as a patient. Having devoted herself to her professional work, Gianna was already 33 when she married, and Pietro was 10 years her senior.
“With the help and blessing of God, we shall do all in our power that our family may be a little cenacle where Jesus may reign over all affections, desires and actions,” Gianna wrote to Pietro. “We become cooperators with God in the work of creation. Thus we can give him children who love him and serve him. Pietro, will I be able to be the wife you always wished to have? I want to be!”
The Mollas were blessed with three children in four years: Pierluigi was born in 1956, Maria Zita in 1957 and Laura Enrica Maria in 1959. After several miscarriages, Gianna was pregnant with her fourth child when a tumor was discovered in her ovary. Faced with several options, Gianna chose the surgery that, while removing the tumor, would allow the baby to live. It was the riskier choice for her own health. She continued to give of herself both to her family and to her patients throughout the rest of the difficult pregnancy.
On April 21, 1962, she gave birth to a daughter. While the baby was healthy, the mother was not. Gianna suffered septic peritonitis and suffered for a week from agonizing pain. She was not able to speak in her final days, although she clearly maintained an intense colloquy with God during her death agony. She was returned to her home in the early morning of April 28, 1962, and she died that same day.
Christmas is the season of the image of the Madonna and Child, so natural to every culture. Christmas is the story of a woman who loved God enough to give birth to his only Son. The grace of God came by a woman presenting a Child to the world, and everything was made new again. Dr. Gianna Beretta Molla's sacrifice of love brought another child — another gift of God — into the world, and presents to the world a model of the grace of God still at work, making all things new in the late 20th century.