“Hers is a Heroic Testimony of Maternal Love”

Our Lady of Lourdes
Our Lady of Lourdes (photo: Photo Credit: Zavatter, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

When Carrie Gress wrote last week about her dear friend who is at the end of her life and facing the horrific suffering of saying goodbye to her young children, I turned to prayer, asking the intercession of my own dear friend who faced the same battle.

Carrie and I were colleagues when she worked for Zenit, and God has obviously designed our lives to intersect in many respects. We both got pregnant for the first time during our stage as coworkers. (Given that the wife of another member of the team was also expecting her first child, it made for exciting times at the virtual office.) Imagine our delighted surprise, though, when it turned out that Carrie and I gave birth on the same day! So even if I can’t keep track of the rest of her kids’ birthdays, I never have a problem remembering the oldest’s. I joke that maybe someday they’ll go to prom together or something.

As I read about Carrie’s beloved friend Lizz, I realized God has united us in another way. Carrie describes the Easter Vigil of 2005 as a special one, as she sponsored her friend into the Church that night. For me, and for my friend Shannon, it was the Vigil of 10 years earlier, in 1995. 

I had no idea when I enrolled as an ill-formed cradle Catholic at a small Catholic university in the Midwest that I would find Christ and his Church there, but happily, I did. From my first weeks at college, it seemed that all the right people entered my life, such that I quickly had a vibrant network of “super Catholic” friends, from whom I learned my faith. We even prayed the rosary in my dorm room each evening. Shannon wasn’t Catholic so she wasn’t part of that group, but she was on my floor and on the softball team with a couple of my friends, so I knew her and had befriended her somewhat. In response to what is perhaps the strongest motion of the Holy Spirit that I’ve experienced thus far in my life, I asked her to be my roommate for our sophomore year, because I somehow knew that it would give her the chance to learn about the faith and that she would join the Church.

That was exactly what happened and by Easter time of that year, she had developed such a longing for the Eucharist that she penned a beautiful reflection for a Lenten guide campus ministry put together, about how in receiving Our Lord we get to be little Marys and carry him as she did. Not bad for a zealous Baptist!

Being her confirmation sponsor is one of a small handful of my life’s happiest moments, up there with the likes of my own children’s baptisms. At the advice of our chaplain, who is now a bishop, I whispered to her as she entered the Communion line for the first time, “Remember me in the Eucharist,” an allusion to St. Monica’s dying request to Augustine. That phrase is now on Shannon’s tomb stone.

Shannon, like Lizz, also had to face the horrific suffering of saying good-bye to her young children, who were ages 8, 6 and 3 when she passed, also from a terrible cancer.

It was Feb. 11, Our Lady of Lourdes, five years ago now. As I was preparing for publication the Pope’s text to the ill and suffering of the world for the World Day of the Sick, celebrated each Feb. 11, I sent her an email with the subject line: “Today is your day!” In fact, it was her day, but not because she was one of the “sick,” and thus a special recipient of the Pope’s message. It was her day much more truly. That afternoon, at 4 p.m., she left this life, after having seen her oldest child receive her Eucharistic Lord, whom she had so grown to love.

It didn’t surprise any of us that Our Lady would have taken Shannon home on her day. Shannon had been to Lourdes just some months before. This is what she told me about it (and here, you see something of the greatness of her heart): “I don't want people to be disappointed that I didn't have some great miraculous healing while I was in Lourdes.  I'm very at peace with what I experienced there, and it's OK I didn't get a miracle. […] If I were to have a ‘choice’ and if there were a miracle to have been experienced within our [pilgrimage] group, I would have easily chosen some of the other people in our group to experience a miracle rather than me.”

Anyway, back to Carrie and Lizz. Carrie wrote this about one of the most difficult elements of Lizz’s journey: “How can a mother say goodbye to her children when the oldest is hardly at an age to understand and the youngest just wants his mommy? I know what it is like to tear myself away from four small children just to go to the grocery store, but the thought of saying goodbye to them until we all meet again is just too much for most mothers to process. It is remarkable to consider how different Lizz’s preparation for death would be if she didn’t have to leave those little ones and their father who still need her so much. And yet, this is what God in his perfect will is asking her to do. To say goodbye.”

Those words bring me back to Shannon’s living room on my last visit to her. The cancer had gotten to her lungs so she couldn’t move around much without becoming breathless and her oxygen tank had become her constant companion. Her voice was now always high and tinny, the way you sound during a hard run. At one point, her youngest, the three-year-old with the most endearing mischievous smile you’d ever see, had crawled into her lap. She looked down into his face with an expression that every mom can relate to, when you feel such a love for your child that you feel it bursting within you. But Shannon’s face also reflected that she was in her own personal Gethsemane. That the intensity of her love was the intensity of her torture.

The memory of her suffering has become linked in my mind with my awe at the heroism of St. Gianna Molla. Gianna also suffered the realization shat she was going to leave her children behind, as Shannon did and as Lizz is.

Her husband, Pietro, recalled Gianna’s abandonment to Providence: “You knew that a mother’s contribution to the upbringing, education, and formation of her children has no equal,” he said.

Yet noting her humility and “the fullness of [her] trust in Providence,” he said that she had “complete trust in Providence regarding their education and their formation if the new pregnancy requested the sacrifice of [her] life.” 

“Hers is certainly a heroic testimony of maternal love,” he reflected.

I’m sure that St. Gianna looked at her three oldest children with that same tortured love that Shannon had in her eyes that day, and caressed her belly as she prepared to sacrifice her life in love for her tiny infant. Pierluigi, the oldest, was only five when she died. 

Believing, as Gianna did, that Our Lord would take care of them even without her earthly presence was undoubtedly a consolation. But even her heroic faith and humility wouldn’t have taken away the pain.

Still, it is a call to us to make an effort to follow in her footsteps in humility and trust in Providence, to remember that our children aren’t ours and that Our Lord is the first one interested in their well-being, and capable of caring for them without us.

As I prepare to mark the fifth anniversary of Shannon’s birth to heaven today, it consoles me to think she is with St. Gianna, and the two of them are watching over their children still on earth … and praying for Lizz.