National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

Saintly Mothers to the Rescue

Pro-Life Heroines Provide Hope When Needed

BY Eddie O'Neill

January 30-February 12, 2011 Issue | Posted 1/21/11 at 3:42 PM


It’s an unfortunate fact these days that the family continues to be under attack. Newspaper headlines report that marriage has become subjective, elderly life has been declared inutile, and for close to 40 years now, abortion has destroyed society’s tiniest members.

With this lack of respect for life has come the demise of traditional parenting roles. For instance, a stay-at-home mother and wife is often portrayed as old-fashioned and outdated. Popular culture clamors for women to become open-minded, liberated and “to get with the times.”

However, since her earliest days, the Church has upheld numerous women who have exemplified authentic motherhood.

These women have been the source of countless prayers over the centuries and have provided heavenly help to men, women and families alike.

Biblical and Modern Mentors

In Kaukauna, Wis., Jeannie Hanneman knew that St. Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, embodied the right motherly and martial charism for the pro-life work she felt called to undertake some 20 years ago. She was so inspired that she named her apostolate Elizabeth Ministry.

“Everything about Elizabeth Ministry comes from the story of Luke about Elizabeth. We cherish children, uplift marriages, encourage families and build communities,” Hanneman explains. “Elizabeth was the first person to recognize Christ. Elizabeth ministers are called to recognize Christ in everyone, but especially the babies in the womb.”

She says the story of Elizabeth visiting Mary — the Visitation — gives great importance to the unborn child.

“Elizabeth was a key pro-life figure because she proclaims to all pregnant women, ‘Blessed is the fruit of your womb,’” Hanneman relates.

Today, there are more than 700 Elizabeth Ministry chapters in dioceses worldwide. Through mentoring programs, retreats and workshops, the ministry works to provide hope and healing for women and their families on issues related to childbearing, sexuality and relationships.

Over the years, Hanneman says that Elizabeth has become a very close companion of hers. Whether it was her personal struggle with infertility or marriage issues or her daughter’s brain tumor, Elizabeth has been there, guiding her through thick and thin.

“We often tell people that the story of the Visitation seems to get lost. For example, at Christmastime, you will see many cards with the Annunciation or the Nativity, but never the Visitation — so I fear that few people are praying to Elizabeth to intercede on their behalf. She is waiting to help someone,” Hanneman says.

St. Gianna Beretta Molla is the perfect role model for the modern mom, according to Thomas McKenna, founder of the St. Gianna Physicians’ Guild, an organization dedicated to helping medical professionals live their Catholic faith in a more real way through their profession.

“What has impressed me about St. Gianna is that as a mother she did everything a mother would do in a family but followed the Catholic faith as her compass,” McKenna says. It was in 1961 when the 38-year-old Molla was pregnant with her fourth child. Just two months along in her pregnancy, doctors discovered that she had a large benign tumor in her uterus. Molla, a doctor herself, was given three options to remove the tumor.

First, the doctors suggested that the tumor, her unborn child and her uterus could all be removed. A second option was to remove the tumor and her unborn child but not her uterus. The third and riskiest option was to remove only the tumor and leave Gianna’s unborn child in her womb in an attempt to save the child’s life.

Molla chose to remove just the tumor and spare the life of her baby. It was a successful operation, and she continued with the high-risk pregnancy, praying that she would give birth to a healthy baby.

On April 20, 1962, baby Gianna Emanuela was delivered via Cesarean section; however, just hours after giving birth, her mother developed an extremely high fever and abdominal pain due to septic peritonitis. A week later, Gianna Molla died.

On May 16, 2004, Molla was declared a saint by Pope John Paul II in front of 100,000 people, including her daughter Gianna Emanuela. She has become a champion of the pro-life cause for her stand against abortion and is the patron saint of pregnant women; she is also a popular saint for women who struggle with infertility.

“I especially think she is a model for mothers because of the positive way she endured hardships and sufferings of a wife,” McKenna says. “She maintained an extraordinary confidence that inspired others.”

He says that her pro-life message could be summed up by her ultimate sacrifice: “Her life says that when one has a choice to save another’s life that it is worth even sacrificing your own life for the love of God.”

Mother Par Excellence

With a pontifical motto of Totus Tuus (totally yours), which referred to his total consecration to the Blessed Mother, Pope John Paul II knew that Mary came to save mankind through her Yes to bring Jesus into the world. She is the epitome of motherhood.

In 1999, in an address to the faithful of Vietnam, the late Pope stated, “When we turn to Mary, our hope is revived. Indeed, she is a part of our humanity, and in her we contemplate the glory God promises to those who respond to his call. I therefore invite the faithful to put their trust in our common Mother, often invoked under the title Star of the Sea, so that, amid the storms of sin and the sometimes painful events of history, they will remain firmly anchored to Christ and bear witness to his love.”

This message resonates in our world today for all those who seek motherly comfort and support as they live out the Gospel in difficult times.

One would be hard-pressed to find a better champion of motherhood and the value of human life over the last 50 years than Pope John Paul. He proclaimed to the world that motherhood was not simply a job, but rather a vocation. In his 1995 “Letter to Women,” he wrote:

“Thank you, women who are mothers! You have sheltered human beings within yourselves in a unique experience of joy and travail. This experience makes you become God’s own smile upon the newborn child, the one who guides your child’s first steps, who helps it to grow, and who is the anchor as the child makes its way along the journey of life.”

Heavenly mothers can help earthly mothers do just that.

Eddie O’Neill writes from Green Bay, Wisconsin.