When Your Mom Is Made a Saint

Laura and Giuseppe Pannuti have been touched by a saint.

Laura’s mother, St. Gianna Beretta Molla, refused her doctor’s advice to abort her fourth child, Gianna Emanuela, even though an ovarian cyst threatened her life. She died April 28, 1962, at age 39, a week after giving birth. Pope John Paul II beatified her on April 24, 1994, and canonized her on May 16, 2004.

St. Gianna’s third child, Laura, and her husband, Giuseppe Pannuti, spoke to Register correspondent Joseph A. D’Agostino, with translation help from Silvio Dalla Valle, president of the Italian pro-life group Voglio Vivere (I Want to Live).

How much do you remember of your mother?

Laura: Little, because I was very, very young when she died.  I was not 3 years old. Even today, I am not sure what I remember are old memories or what I saw later on through movies, pictures, and so on, and what was told to me by family members.

Was your entire family always convinced that your mother was a saint?

Laura: First of all, we must distinguish between my mother’s family and my father’s family.  Both families were Catholics, so the education the children received was very Catholic.  What my mother did was kind of normal, for both families.

Really?  To sacrifice her life was not a surprise to them?

Laura: Living their lives according to the teaching of Our Lord through the Gospel, and then choosing their state of life, and then choosing the ultimate sacrifice was kind of normal.

Giuseppe: One of [my wife’s] mother’s brothers was a Franciscan missionary in Brazil; another was a priest; a sister was a missionary nun in China and India; and a sister of her father’s is a nun, so [the sacrifice] was not easy, I think, but not so surprising.

Laura: During the process of her beatification, my father was asked if he had the impression of living with a saint.  He said, “No, because we wanted the same thing.”  The same love for God, the same love for children.

What other qualities did your mother have?  Was she known for having special, heroic virtues?

Laura: Her greatest virtue was to accept the education she received from her parents, and to do apostolate work since her youth with people of the same age, inviting them to join Catholic Action and other Catholic movements.  For instance, during the Second World War, she convinced people her age to help people, not only to give food and aid, but to give moral support to people who needed help.

Giuseppe: After the war, many old women ended up without children, because so many died during the war. … Because these women needed help, she, with her friends, would go to visit those people, clean their houses, and help them do those kinds of things.  On each birthday, she baked a cake for those old ladies, for instance.

Laura: One of my mother’s brothers was a missionary in Brazil, and she was already a physician.  She asked God if it were not her vocation to put these talents as a physician to help his mission.  Then she asked her spiritual director if that were her vocation.  He said, “No, I don’t think so, because had God given you better health, that might be your vocation, but you don’t have good health to go to Brazil.”

She went to Lourdes to ask Our Lady to spur her to find her vocation.  Then when she came back, she met her husband — my father — and at the same time her father asked Our Lady to give him, as he said later, “a holy wife.”  They married in 1955 and then they had four children.  They lived just seven years together.  She continued to practice as a pediatric physician in her private office. 

The ultimate decision of my mother was then the consequence of her life, and my father suffered great pain over that.  My father couldn’t do anything, but he agreed with that [decision] despite the great pain. 

Many people said to the family, “I don’t agree with the decision of your mother to leave three children and her husband in order to give birth to another child.”  Her mother knew that the only way her daughter could be delivered was to sacrifice her life.

Have many people told you that your mother made the wrong decision?

Laura: Not directly, but I can listen to some comments when I go to conferences.  I overheard some people say, “That’s the easiest decision, to die and leave the children to others.”

Giuseppe:  I was giving testimony of my mother-in-law, and a 10-year-old boy in a Catholic school — of course, he heard this from others — told me, “I think it is selfish of your mother-in-law to do this, leaving three children on Earth.” 

And I answered that she didn’t want to die.  She loved everything beautiful in life — she played piano, she painted, she climbed, she skied.  She was a woman of our times, but she didn’t want to die, she accepted the risk of dying.  She didn’t say, “Kill me.”  She was open to everything: “Everything God wants from me, I give.”

Laura: Before [taking my mother] to the hospital to deliver the baby, my father had to go on a business trip to Paris.  She asked her husband to bring from Paris fashion magazines, so she could dress more or less like that after delivery, if God willed it.

Do you think sainthood today means something different from what it used to?

Laura: I think that what Pope John Paul II wanted to do with the canonization of my mother was to send a message that it’s possible to be a saint in the married state of life.  Even laypeople following the teaching of the Gospel can become saints, living a regular (married) life.  Because the ultimate sacrifice of my mother crowned a life that was according to the Gospel.

So it’s the same thing it’s been for 2,000 years?

Laura: Yes, the meaning of sainthood is the same.  The only difference is that the Pope wanted to show that you can be a saint leading a regular life, and that even today it is possible to be a saint.  Sainthood is the same, but the example is closer to us, so it’s easier — not easier to follow, but easier to understand.  Since she lived close to us, people who are suffering today can see in my mother an example of life.

Would you say that your mother’s life was an example of a modern life, or of an older style of life being lived in modern times?

Laura:  It’s a modern example, but lived according to the old tradition. In that time, it was not usual for a woman to graduate from medical school.  And the modern example is that a woman got a degree in medical school, then she worked and not only that, she was at the same time able to work and to take care of her family.  As a young person, she was socially inclined to take care of others.  She is an example that women or people can follow, because she is closer to us.

Who started the cause for your mother’s canonization?

Laura: Immediately after her death, not from the family but from lay associations, they started doing veneration.  When my mother died, the Archbishop of Milan was Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini.  But immediately, he became Pope (Paul VI).  But even before he became Pope, he received the news from the associations in Milan.

Giuseppe: He knew the family.  There is even a picture of her with Cardinal Montini.  He went to visit the city where she lived.  It was not Cardinal Montini who took care of the process, it was his successor, Cardinal Giovanni Colombo.  It was Cardinal Colombo who asked my wife’s father if he should go ahead with the process.  He asked to think a little bit and then agreed.

What did Pope John Paul II tell you when you met him?

Laura: The first time, at the beatification in 1994, he asked me if I were married.  I told him no, but I would like to be.  I spoke with him on Dec. 20, 2003 for the decree of the approval of the second miracle and I was married, and my husband was with me.

In the United States, people have the impression that Italy is a pro-family country where people love children.  But, the average number of children per family in Italy is now one. And suicide is prevalent.

Giuseppe: It’s true.  Italy is no more a pro-life country, in the fact and before in the ideas and the laws.  There is a small sign of change and a new direction in recent years.  But we are becoming an old country.  Median age is 60.  Going on like this, we are going to disappear as a people.

We shouldn’t forget that there are almost 50 million Italians in Italy and 80 million Italians in the world — in the USA, in Canada, in South America, in Australia.  And they are more pro-life than in the old land.

Your mother was a martyr for life. Couldn’t you say Italy is a “martyr for death” because it allows abortion, valuing materialism above family and children?

Laura: What people in Italy say is the main culprit for this is the fiscal policy of the government, but we don’t agree with this.

Giuseppe:  The policy is not pro-family, it’s true.  But it’s not the main reason because Italy was a poorer country at the time of our grandparents than it is today.  The economic reason is not the cause.  My grandfather was one of 10 brothers and three sisters.

Why isn’t abortion illegal in Italy?

Laura:  From my point of view, and in spite of the political choices that were made in the past, many Catholics unfortunately have lost the love of God that has as a consequence the love of life.  They don’t live in accord with their faith.  That’s why [Italians] approved and voted for a law — that was a referendum in 1981 — that ultimately was against the Fifth Commandment.

Is there any chance of making abortion illegal in Italy?  Maybe the example of your mother and her canonization might have some positive effect.

Laura:  I don’t think Italy will be the first country to reverse the law, because traveling all over the world, I have noticed the reception for my mother’s message was greater in the Eastern countries, Canada and Brazil than in her own Italy. 

Joseph A. D’Agostino is vice president for communications at the Population Research Institute and a freelance journalist.