Pierluigi Molla was only 5 when his mother died. But he had absorbed enough of her saintly character to make a mark on his life.
Canonized in 2004, St. Gianna Beretta Molla refused to have an abortion and gave her life instead to save that of her fourth child, Gianna Emanuela. Her heroic example led to her being named a patron saint of the unborn, and she has a growing, devoted following worldwide; reports of miracles and graces granted through her intercession continue to this day.
Register correspondent Edward Pentin spoke recently with Pierluigi, her first child. A business consultant based in Milan, Molla reflects on his mother’s example, what it’s like to be the son of a saint, and what St. Gianna would make of the struggle against abortion in the world today.
It must be very consoling for you to have your mother as a saint because you know for sure that she lives on, showing it through her intercession with miracles.
Definitely, yes, this is a great consolation. It’s also really wonderful to see how the knowledge of my mother is spreading around the world, and how many messages we’ve received from all over the globe testifying to what she’s doing today — because she’s mediating a lot of graces. Miracles are something recognized by the Church, but these are graces, and they’re really extraordinary. Two years ago I received an e-mail from the United States. A woman had problems conceiving a child, and at the end she had two wonderful children. One of them is called Gianna because she said a prayer to my mother. So this is extraordinary; it’s like she is with us and working throughout the whole world.
It happens frequently. There is a church close to Genoa with an old and famous shrine, Madonna della Guardia. A priest there put up a picture of my mother in the shrine 15 years ago, and it’s incredible how it’s now completely full of pink and blue ribbons. This is an Italian tradition — to hang up these ribbons on the outside of a house when a new child is born. This shrine is full of these kinds of messages, of graces received through my mother.
Although you were only 5 when your mother died, can you tell us about her character and faith?
She taught me how to ski, and also I remember going with her when she went on visits as a doctor. My mother was close to the family and to her profession. At that time, in the 1950s, it was not common for women to have a family and also be involved in a profession, to be a doctor, and to be active helping people in associations such as Azione Cattolica [Catholic Action] and San Vincenzo [St. Vincent de Paul Society]. But at the same time, she was someone modern who liked to go skiing in the mountains and liked music.
She lived a very active life?
A full life and also a modern one, compared to the average way of life at that time. So these are my memories of my mother. Also, I learned from her the faith that she transmitted to us: a trust in Providence — that you have to be committed to the values you hold. These things my father also passed on to us. Also, I was able to learn about her life through the documents she left us. She left a lot of documents about her work with Azione Cattolica, and through these documents you can really understand her.
She was completely happy in her family and professional life. She was consistent with this principle and applied it to everything she wanted to do. One of my mother’s favorite expressions was to do everything in depth, not superficially, and not to stop and only do 50%. She wasn’t an extraordinary intellectual, and at school she got average results. She was not a champion, but she tried her best.
Some beautiful quotes from your mother have been remembered for posterity, such as “The secret of happiness is to live moment by moment and to thank God for all that he, in his goodness, sends to us day after day” and “God’s providence is in all things; it’s always present.” What’s the most important thing we can learn from her?
As Catholics we need to learn how to be consistent with our values and beliefs. My mother grew up in a family where she received the faith and values from her father and mother, and [learned] how to live life in a correct way. She was consistent in these values, which she learned in the first years of her life, and she was consistent to the end.
The second thing is to be consistent with your vocation. She once thought of leaving Italy to work in Brazil with my aunt. But she understood that her vocation was to be a mother. And, as well as being consistent with her values in her role as a mother, she also strove to be consistent in her work as a doctor and as a volunteer.
In many ways, she addresses how important upbringing is and how vital it is to be brought up properly in the faith.
Yes, definitely, but not only as a mother. During her time working for Azione Cattolica, a colleague of hers said she rarely did not practice what she preached. My mother would not just say you have to do this or that — she really did it. It was the same in the family and in her choice to be a mother. She was an example for us: consistent in what she believed and what she passed on to the family. She said she wanted to have a holy family, and she did everything she could to lead this holy family toward being consistent in its faith.
Can you tell us a little about Gianna Emanuela?
Gianna is a doctor and studied medicine like my mother. She is a geriatric specialist, not a pediatric doctor like my mother. Now she is taking care of my father. Up until six years ago, he was completely active, but six years ago he started having problems. So Gianna decided to leave her job in a public hospital to take care of him. She also helps to run my mother’s foundation. My father started the foundation, which is a family charity in honor of my mother, and various people write to it from all around the world, giving materials or asking for help. So Gianna is working for that.
Up until six years ago, all this was done by my father. He had been completely absorbed in this work over the past 15 years. Once he retired from his job, he took care of all the necessities relating to the beatification and canonization causes. As you can imagine, and as I said before, to be a family, to be a witness to a beatification is not only important, but it also involves an immense amount of work. Traditionally, saints come from priestly orders or convents, and so they have a lot of people working on these causes for free. But in a family, we have to work hard — and also for free.
Relaxed abortion laws mostly came into force in the Western world after your mother died. Do you think she’d be campaigning against these laws if she were alive today?
She probably would be, as someone who was committed to Azione Cattolica. As someone who had to give a good example, who tried to be consistent in her commitment to her faith, she would have done everything she could to prevent an abortion from taking place. I think she would have also been committed to this in her job, to be consistent with this aspect of her faith. [When Pope Benedict met with President Obama at the Vatican], the main aspect discussed was abortion, so it shows the real value these issues have at the highest level. Because if you agree with this kind of value, you must also be consistent in the policies you make. I was really surprised that Obama wanted to reduce abortion. In the last 10 years of presidential campaigns in the U.S., abortion has figured highly, so it is of real value.
Certainly, my mother represented this value. My mother was a person who lived in the 1950s, died in 1962, and yet the message she left is still very current and topical. Not only in bioethics and abortion, but also in matters relating to the economy and moral values. If we agree on these values, and every leader applies these principles to daily life, we can change the general situation.
What is it like to be the son of a saint?
It is an extraordinary experience. Hard to imagine. What happened to the family during all the beatification and canonization processes wasn’t easy because one has to constantly recall, each time, the pain of her death. The beatification process meant coming back to a painful moment in my life. I was only 5 years old, and when you lose your mother at that age, it’s about the worst kind of pain that any child can experience. But at the end of the beatification process, in 1994, I was compensated by seeing my mother elevated to the altars. The same thing happened in 2004 at the canonization. Now I am 53 years old. But it really was an extraordinary experience, and now I feel very happy that, through the Church, I can celebrate my mother on All Saints’ Day instead of being sad for her the day after, on All Souls’ Day. So the transformation to being a saint means that now, if you remember her life, you have a feeling of happiness instead of sadness.
For me and for my sisters, it has been extraordinary, because what happened to us is not common. I don’t know if we are the first, but it’s really an uncommon experience to see this happen when alive, also for my father. My father is 97. He was with us in St. Peter’s in 2004 for the canonization of his wife.
So it has been an extraordinary experience, but probably we were not the first and only ones. We hope not, because this is a contemporary message, a really great message for the Church: how contemporary people living everyday lives can become saints. Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini said my mother is the saint of everyday life. She shows that saints can be people living ordinary lives, not extraordinary ones. For this reason, we are all ordinary people. Admittedly, my mother was an extraordinary and heroic woman, but in every ordinary thing of her life, she showed herself just to be living an ordinary life. My father had an extraordinary relationship with my mother. They were together for just five years, but are still together.
Edward Pentin writes