Pierluigi Molla, son of Italian saint Gianna Beretta Molla, spoke to a packed crowd at the Cathedral of St. Paul Aug. 3. Afterward, people lined up to introduce their “Gianna children” to him.
“I was really surprised to see how many children there are with the name of my mother,” Pierluigi said after speaking at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wis., the day before. “There is a ‘Gianna generation’ here in the United States.”
Pierluigi, who lives in Milan, Italy, was 5 years old when his mother died shortly after giving birth to her fourth child in 1962. Pope John Paul II beatified her in 1994 during the International Year of the Family and canonized her in 2004.
Gianna Beretta was born in 1922 near Milan. She was one of 13 children, three of whom joined religious orders.
In 1955, Gianna, a pediatrician and general practitioner, married Pietro Molla. When she was pregnant with their fourth child, doctors discovered a large ovarian tumor. Surgical protocol at the time called for removal of her entire uterus, which would have aborted the 2-month-old fetus.
Gianna insisted surgeons remove only what was necessary and allow her baby to live. She pleaded with her family and doctors before the birth: “If you must decide between me and the child, do not hesitate; choose the child. I insist on it. Save the baby.”
Seven days after giving birth, Gianna died. Her daughter, also named Gianna, went on to become a doctor like her mother. Today, she cares for her 97-year-old father in Milan.
“It’s painful to grow up without a mother,” Pierluigi told The Catholic Spirit before speaking at the cathedral.
“But in our case, I think that the pain now is compensated to see how many good things have been done in the name of my mother all around the world.”
Pierluigi, 52, remembers accompanying his mother as she drove her Fiat around the Italian countryside to care for her patients. He also fondly recalls skiing trips in the Italian Alps with his mom, an avid skier, and praying the rosary daily as a family.
“She was really precise about how to pray,” Pierluigi said. “She gave strict instructions. For example, you have to pray standing or kneeling.”
Despite being the son of a saint, an honor few, if any, other people in the world can claim, Pierluigi sees himself as an “average Catholic,” he said.
“I think the church, with this canonization, would like to express an idea that to be a saint is a way of life that every Christian can reach doing day by day what you have to do in your professional life, your family life, in your active life, helping people. This is the message,” Pierluigi said.
“My mother didn’t do extraordinary things. [She lived according to her values] up to the end. This was the heroism of my mother,” he said. “She was canonized not as a martyr of the church, but as the mother of a family.”
Pierluigi said he marvels at how widespread devotion to his mother has become in such a short time. He even discovered a community dedicated to St. Gianna on a remote Pacific island.
Pierluigi believes the Internet has played a large part in spreading the word about St. Gianna. But he also attributes the pro-life movement, particularly in the United States, for making her an unofficial patroness of the cause.
St. Gianna believed “life has to be respected and protected because it’s the most wonderful gift we have from God,” Pierluigi said.
Archbishop Raymond Burke, Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, has been one of St. Gianna’s most outspoken advocates since attending her beatification at the Vatican. Later, he began corresponding with members of her family.
The first U.S. Catholic church named after St. Gianna was founded in the St. Louis archdiocese under Archbishop Burke’s leadership, he said.
“St. Gianna’s message is basically a message of trust in divine providence and, therefore, a complete and total respect for all human life,” Archbishop Burke said during a telephone interview. “She had a great love for children and held so firmly and heroically to the truth that from the moment of conception human life is inviolable, but she also had a great devotion to the elderly and those who have special needs.”
A child named ‘Gianna’
Arthur Hippler, a religion teacher at Providence Academy in Plymouth, first learned about St. Gianna in 2000, when he was working for then-Bishop Burke in the Diocese of La Crosse.
At the time, Hippler and his wife, Theresa, had been having problems conceiving. Following a miscarriage, ovarian cysts and a stillbirth, Bishop Burke lent the couple a relic of St. Gianna — a swatch of her wedding gown — to pray with.
“We prayed with [the relic] every day without fail,” Hippler said. On July 18, 2002, the couple’s prayers were answered. Last month, they celebrated Gianna Hippler’s seventh birthday.
“There was no question in our minds that if it was a girl we were going to name her after [then] Blessed Gianna,” Hippler said. “We really did attribute our success after all the difficulties and heartache to her intercession.”
Since then, the Hipplers have been blessed with three other children. “When Gianna gives, she gives with abundance,” Hippler said.
For more information about St. Gianna, visit the Society of St. Gianna Beretta Molla Web site at www.SaintGianna.org. To order free holy cards or pamphlets about St. Gianna’s life, call (215) 333-0145 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.