Fr. Rosica, President Emeritus of Assumption University,
Dr. Wildeman, President of the University of Windsor,
Principal Richard Corneil,
Distinguished Guests and Friends,
It is a great privilege for me to be here with you this evening in Windsor at Assumption University, a great institution of higher learning founded by the Basilian Fathers, and to represent my sisters Gianna Emanuela and Laura who could not be with us. To have been chosen as the recipients of this prestigious and historic Christian Culture Gold Medal is an honor for which we are deeply grateful. To be reunited with our good friend, Fr. Thomas Rosica, fills me with gratitude for his years of close friendship and care for my family. In many ways, it was Fr. Rosica who helped spread the knowledge of and devotion to my mother throughout North America and beyond, ever since we first met in 1998
In receiving this medal tonight on behalf of my sisters, you have chosen to honor my mother, Gianna Beretta Molla, proclaimed blessed and saint by St. John Paul II. The late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini rightly called her: “Women, Mother, Doctor, Lover of Life.” This Gold Medal honors precisely those qualities found in a woman of our time: one who believed in the full dignity of women; one who lived out her lay vocation as a medical student, doctor, wife and mother. More than anything else, my mother Gianna was an outstanding exponent of Christian ideals. She gave witness to the Gospel and to Christian culture in everyday life. She lived out her lay vocation with joy and hope, generosity and service, sacrifice and unwavering commitment.
I would like to share with you my testimony about my mother’s life, with its constant, daily profession of faith, and the motivations behind her every step that led to her decisions. In what I say, however, I prefer that it be my mother herself who speaks to you, through not only my words but also her own, as well as through her actions. Her message is so clear and luminous that often her words need no further explanation. Her life, sanctified from beginning to end, is best characterized by the themes of family, apostolate and profession. She lived and died an apostle, a doctor and a mother.
In this regard, I would like to evoke some words from the homily preached by Pope John Paul II during my mother’s beatification on the 24th April 1994: “We would like to pay homage to all brave mothers who dedicated themselves to their own family without reserve, who suffer in giving birth to their children and who are ready to make any effort, to face any sacrifice, in order to pass on to them the best of themselves.”
Her Roots: The family of origins
“Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” (Genesis 2: 24)
My grandparents, Alberto and Maria, were profound believers. They raised a large and hard-working family, dedicated to charity and participating in the local Church. A solid Christian education in an atmosphere of serenity and mutual respect formed the first “school” of holiness for Gianna, who would grow to reflect the moral stance of her parents and the spiritual richness inherited from the family. Their example was passed on to the children through the small and simple gestures of a daily life lived according to the Word of God, which has borne fruit. My mother was surrounded by many brothers and sisters who all followed the light of faith, mutually supporting each other throughout their lives.
My mother’s brothers and sisters have been for us children a constant and a guiding light during our lives. I would like briefly to mention them:
-Mother Virginia is a Canossian Nun and physician who served as a missionary in India;
-Aunt Zita, who graduated in Pharmacy and was really close to Gianna, became our shelter after the death of my mother;
-Uncle Ferdinando, who was also a physician and shared the outpatient clinic with my mother, followed her as private doctor and personal confidante. He was the only one of the brothers who got married and he and his wife had 5 children.
-Uncle Francesco, an engineer and Uncle Monsignor Giuseppe, an engineer too, worked with Uncle Father Alberto, a physician and capuchin missionary, in the project of constructing a hospital in a leper colony in Grajaù in the region of the Maranhao in Brazil. The Church has proclaimed Father Alberto Servant of God and began in 2008 the process for his beatification.
These are the roots from which my mother was born, and from where she started her path of integrity towards her heroic sanctity.
Catholic Action and St. Vincent de Paul Society
“But many of those who had listened to their message became believers; the total number of men had now risen to something like five thousand.” (Acts of the Apostles 4:4)
In Italy there is an association called Azione Cattolica (Catholic Action). Founded in 1868 with its program of Action Prayer and Sacrifice, it was fully accepted by Gianna and lived out in the duties and responsibilities given to her. The purpose of Catholic Action is to spread the name of Christ through acts of the apostolate, maintaining always a strong bond with the Bishop and priests of the local Diocese. During the difficult years of the World War II, a time when many forces were acting against Christian values, this association adopted the role of preparing many lay catholic people to work sustaining the Kingdom of Christ as true supporters of the Church.
Gianna became a member of this association early in her life, at the age of twelve. It was an important factor in her spiritual formation and her apostolate. By reflecting well in her life and spirituality the program of Catholic Action, she has become a role model of holiness for lay people.
As Blessed Paul VI said, she has brought to light the heroism of many Christian mothers. Her exemplary life has been a role model for all mothers of families; her heroic gesture an encouragement always to welcome life with love; her spirituality an example of the path of perfection for the laity. Her life and witness is an invitation to rediscover the Christian love of life and the joy of maternity.
In addition to Catholic Action, my mother was also an active member of another association called St. Vincent de Paul Society, also found throughout the world – even here in Canada. Mom formed a group in which she was also secretary and animator. This is an apostolate of charity, a group which especially helps those who suffer: sick people, those who live in solitude or in difficult situations, the elderly, those in need of assistance, and those who have been abandoned by their families. To these people, in addition to material help they try to bring joy and serenity. A smile! In these and other situations she wrote that one should always “smile and forgive offenses”.
Her profession of Physician
“I was sick, and you visited me” (Matthew 25:36)
An ancient title for Christ was Christus medicus, meaning the one who cures. As a physician my mother used to say: “It is necessary to act. It is important to bring Jesus to souls and in order to do this he needs us doctors.”
Mom graduated in medicine and surgery in 1949 and she specialized in pediatrics in 1952, finishing first in her class! She chose this specialty not only because of her love for children, but also to be close to mothers – being able to understand them as both a doctor and a woman. When she became a mother herself, she remained a mother for her patients too. It has been said about her that “… in her professional activity the thought of her family never limited her generosity in serving the sick; on the contrary it made her more able to understand the problems of other mothers”. She lived her profession as a true mission as she said herself in one of her reflections: “Do your part well and study your science well”.
A woman and a professional, Gianna lived in full coherence those ideas and beliefs, which were the result of her deeply Christian and genuinely evangelical formation, and of her excellent professional and moral preparation, and which arose from her genuine humanity, competence, honesty, devotion and respect for people. In confirmation of this, the first after her death to recognize her stature and influence was the lay governmental authority of the Province of Milan. In 1950 she opened an outpatient clinic in Mesero, which had added to her responsibility as district municipal doctor and where she would work until her death. In addition, after her wedding, she was responsible in the town of Ponte Nuovo for the pediatric clinic, and school physician of the private day care run by the Canossian Nuns in the State Primary School.
She devoutly employed herself for the healing, body and soul, of her patients. From the first period of her work, we still have 5 sheets of her prescription book, in which she noted her thoughts on the medical profession, about which she had very precise ideas. She placed the profession of the doctor squarely in the real word, but also having the particular prerogative of standing before a body in which God has “grafted the divine”, before that bodily and spiritual greatness of the human being, through whom God, not wanting to be an abstract idea, has chosen to reveal himself. For this reason she helped the needy not just with her professional skills but also financially. She wrote: “ If I cure a sick man who does not have anything to eat, what will the medicine do?” “… We doctors, we work on the man. He is not just a body…. He is a body but also a supernatural soul… . We doctors, we touch Jesus in the body of our patients.”
The Forming of her own family
“Who can find a virtuous woman for her price is far above rubies? … She opens her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness.” (Proverbs 31: 10-26)
The first dream of my mother was to travel as a missionary doctor to Brazil, where her brothers, Alberto and Francesco, were building the hospital in Grajau. Because of her health, which would not have been able to endure the climate, she was strongly advised against going to Brazil. At the same time she also felt attracted to married life and having children of her own. She prayed much to understand the will of God. She once wrote to a friend: “The paths of God are all beautiful, in that the end is always the same: to save our soul and manage to draw many other souls close to Paradise to glorify God”.
In June 1954 mom went with a train of sick people to the shrine of Lourdes, in France and coming back she signed up for the Association of Catholic Doctors and the Medical Association of Notre-Dame of Lourdes. She wrote: “…I went to Lourdes to ask to the Holy Virgin what I should do: leave for the missions or get married?” In December of that year she met my father Pietro Molla. Of that decisive encounter, the day after it happened, my father wrote in his journal: “I feel the serene calm which tells me how good an encounter was the one I had yesterday. The Immaculate Madonna has blessed me.”
Pietro contributed to Gianna’s deeds of charity towards her sick patients and set up in his house a new and more inviting outpatient clinic. They started to exchange letters, the first of many they would write to one another throughout their years together. My father shared fully my mother’s point of view and once he wrote her these words: “Since we have known each other I have witnessed your faith, lived in a clear and complete way, and a spirit of praying so intense, profound and sure of its efficacy.” My parents were married in Magenta on the 24th of September 1955. Their married life would be very short, only six and a half years, but it was lived with the intensity of a vocation. Convinced that God has placed in men and women the call to life, she immediately wanted children of her own. I was born on November 1956; my sister Mariolina in December 1957, and Laura in July 1959. Finally, Gianna Emanuela was born on the 21st of April 1962.
My mother cared for our moral and religious education, bringing us to Church, teaching us to make small sacrifices, making us reflect in the evenings on the defects of our day. The family was for her not only a mission, but also the starting point and fulcrum of a life full of many activities, the place of the mind and of the body, from whence comes the energy to face the day ahead of us. In us, her children, there still live many of our mother’s passions – like music and love for the mountains. From the many photographs that we have of her pictured on her skis or during a steep climb, she smiles happily at us, communicating always even after all these years her joy of living those moments in communion with nature and with God. One of my clearest memories I have of mom is being with her in the car when she would ably drive very fast on the roads of those towns where she exercised her medical profession. She would pretend to drive erratically for my own pleasure and hers too! I have always thought that my passion for driving and for cars came from those memories of pure happiness I had with her.
Her Life as Example
“Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.” (Luke 10:37)
One of her classmates who remembers her well once said: “Gianna had such a communicative faith that all the people who were with her, after only a short period of time, felt attracted to the Church and wanted to attend with greater fervor to the Christian life, thanks to her example”
Many witnesses affirm that they have rediscovered their faith thanks to Gianna who helped resolve doubts and moments of crisis by facing problems with not only reason but also the light of the Gospel. One of her priorities has always been that of defending her beliefs with courage. Every year of her youth was characterized by an intense apostolate. Even later, as a doctor and in her family she would be a full time apostle. Not satisfied merely with words, my mother’s relationship with the Lord led her to action. She was a genuinely human woman, rooted in life, who was so able to unite her rootedness with higher ideals as to reach the highest point a human being can aim for: an authentic witness of Christ. She was a witness to authentic Christianity, that of the Gospels, not one practiced simply by force of habit, motivated mostly by conformism.
When life demanded more of my mother, her faith never wavered for a moment. Her last pregnancy was immediately problematic and she was fully aware of the risks she was about to face. Yet she always gave first priority to the new life she was carrying within her rather than to herself. There is a certain hostility to this idea in today’s prevailing culture. Yet in the case of my mother, her consideration for the child simply flowed from everything she ever believed and lived. Mom knew perfectly well how her children needed her, but the unborn child had a primary necessity because the child could only depend on her. The others, already born, could have the help of the Divine Providence, in which she firmly believed. My father remembered very precisely her last days and of that time he wrote: “ With incredible strength and with unchanging commitment she carried on her mission of mother and doctor…she prayed and meditated. She prayed for her child to be born without suffering. A few days before the delivery, with a tone both firm and very peaceful and with a deep glance which I have never forgotten, my mother said: If it comes to choose between me and the baby, no hesitations, choose, and I demand it, the baby, save it.”
Sadly her conditions after the birth of my sister on the 21st of April 1962 took a turn for the worse and despite the medical care she died with much suffering on the 28th of the same month. Her last thoughts and her last words during those terrible days were of Jesus and her children whom she was leaving behind, as she confided to her sister Mother Virginia.
My mother’s action at the end of her life, in saving my sister, Gianna Emanuela, was heroic in that she prepared for her final action every day of her life. Her final decision for life was the natural culmination of an extraordinary life of virtue and holiness, selflessness and quiet joy. Through the gift of her life, she accepted and honored every human being. Through her married love she became a sign of Christ’s love for the Church and for humanity.
Virtuous people know what to do because of their informed conscience. They no longer do good out of a sense of obligation, bur rather look for opportunities to do good. My mother, Gianna, continues to remind the Church and the world of the necessity of a consistent ethic of life, from the earliest to the final moments of human life. She shows this world, gripped by a culture of death, an alternative gospel way of compelling beauty. Is this not what a true Christian culture is all about?
On behalf of my sisters Gianna Emanuela and Laura, thank you, Fr. Rosica, and thank you, Assumption University, for this prestigious Gold Medal, which is really a recognition of my mother’s life and witness. May her shining Christian example of wholeness and holiness inspire each of us here present, and all those whom we serve, to bring this Christian culture to the world.