It is hard to imagine the story of St. Gianna not being centered on her life as a wife and mother. She sought with all her heart to live a vocation to love. As she wrote to her husband, Pietro, shortly before they were married: “Love is the most beautiful sentiment the Lord has put into the soul of men and women.”

Love — desiring the good of the other and acting accordingly — was the goal of St. Gianna’s life, and their marriage was an icon of Christian love. Pietro was in St. Peter’s Square for his wife’s 2004 canonization — the first time a man or woman had witnessed the canonization of a spouse.

St. Gianna’s life of love is traced back to her youth, but takes clearer shape in her choice to become a physician.

The Crosiers

Her initial intent with that career path was to offer gynecological services to the poor of Brazil, hoping to join her priest brother there in the missions. This became an impossibility, however, because St. Gianna’s health was delicate and could not withstand the risks associated with such mission work. And so she turned her specialization to pediatrics.

After a four-month courtship and five-month engagement, the Mollas were married in 1955. The publication of the letters exchanged during the future saint and her future husband’s courtship are a testament to the joy available to couples united in a marriage grounded in Christ.

The Mollas modeled an authentic Christian marriage, one where love and joy prevails in the midst of the modern world’s complexities.

By mid-1961 the Mollas, already parents of three children, rejoiced to find out they were expecting a fourth child. But this season of joy became an opportunity for St. Gianna to carry her heaviest cross as a disciple, to heed what Christ described as the greatest act of love — to lay down one’s life for another. Two months into the pregnancy, St. Gianna was diagnosed with a tumor on her uterus.

Doctors believed that in order to treat the tumor she would need to have an abortion or have a hysterectomy. Catholic teaching, of course, forbids direct abortion. However under Catholic morality’s principle of double effect, a hysterectomy could have been performed, even if it indirectly took the life of her child in the womb. St. Gianna chose the path of love — rejecting any method of treatment that endangered the life of the child — and the tumor alone was removed. In this great act of love, St. Gianna showed that a mother’s vocation is to protect life, not end it.

Gianna Beretta with then-fiancé Pietro Molla in 1955. CNS / Catholic Press photo

Gianna was clear to her family and friends about what to do if there was a question of having to give preference to her life or the baby’s. “This time my pregnancy will be difficult, and they will have to save one or the other, and I want them to save the baby,” she said.

On Holy Saturday in 1962, a healthy baby girl was born. But St. Gianna had to give birth by Caesarian section and, with that, an infection had set in. It would claim her life a few days later, on April 28 at age 39. When he canonized St. Gianna in 2004, Pope St. John Paul II recalled how the saint’s own death imitated Christ’s, who “‘having loved his own … loved them to the end’ (Jn 13: 1). … The extreme sacrifice she sealed with her life testifies that only those who have the courage to give of themselves totally to God and to others are able to fulfill themselves.”

Her feast day is April 28.

Michael R. Heinlein is editor of Simply Catholic. Follow him on Twitter at @HeinleinMichael.