Love and Sacrifice
(6th Sunday of Easter)
In 1961, an Italian woman, by the name of Gianna Molla was expecting her fourth child. During the second month, Gianna developed a fibroma (a cancerous tumor) on her uterus. After examination, the doctors gave her three choices: an abortion, which would save her life and allow her to continue to have children; a complete hysterectomy (removal of the uterus), which would preserve her life, but take the unborn child’s life, and prevent further pregnancy; or removal of only the fibroma, with the potential of further complications. Under these circumstances, the Church teaching would have allowed her to obtain a hysterectomy, but would forbid an abortion. Yet, wanting to preserve her child’s life, she opted for the removal of the fibroma.
After the operation, complications continued throughout her pregnancy. Nonetheless, Gianna was quite clear about her wishes, and told her husband “If you must decide between me and the child, do not hesitate: Choose the child; I insist on it. Save the baby!”
In biographical book co-authored by her husband–Saint Gianna Molla: Wife, Mother, Doctor (by Pietro Molla and Elio Guerriero), the former talks of Gianna knowing she will probably die in childbirth, but of trying to keep from worrying him. He writes, “I watched you silently tidying up every corner of our house, every drawer, every dress, every personal object, day after day as if for a long trip. But I did not dare to ask myself why.”
On April 21, 1962, Good Friday of that year, Gianna went to the hospital, where her fourth child, named Gianna Emanuela as well, was successfully delivered via Caesarean section. However, Gianna continued to have severe pain, and died of septic peritonitis (an infection of the lining of the abdomen–a result of her choice to preserve the life of her child) 7 days after the birth.
In 1997, at a Conference of the Family held in Brazil, Pope John Paul II was visibly touched by then-Blessed Gianna’s family testimonies about her. The Pope began to cry as he listened to young Dr. Gianna Emanuela Molla – for whom Blessed Gianna gave her life – address a word of thanks to her beatified mother. “Thank you mother, thank you for having given me life two times: in conception, and when you permitted me to be born, deciding for my life. Intercede and help always all mothers and all families that come to you with confidence.”
The Church does not formally recognize many saints until centuries after their death. But Gianna’s cause for canonization began within three decades after she died. The miracles necessary for the process occurred in a relatively short period of time, so that her husband, three surviving children and siblings were all able to attend her canonization by Pope John Paul II on May 16, 2004.
My dear friends, I am sharing to you this wonderful story of Gianna because it perfectly illustrates the message of our Gospel today: “There is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13). I truly believe, the life of Saint Gianna and our gospel today are strong messages of contrast, are words against our modern world where the culture of death thrives and the sanctity of life is belittled and given less importance. I find it boldly touching that Gianna is ready and willing to sacrifice and suffer for the sake of her unborn child, for the sake of a nascent life in her womb.
Above all else, her life and story is a testimony that the example of Jesus and his teaching of love and sacrifice can be lived by men and women of all walks of life and that following Jesus is very possible in our modern and digital world. Following Jesus is not only for priest, nuns, and missionaries like us but for all, whether she or he be a teacher, a government or private employee, an accountant, a diplomat, or a doctor and a mother like Saint Gianna.
Finally, in our gospel today, I find it interesting to note the words of Jesus to his disciples: “This I command you: love one another.” (Jn 15:17) So, I asked myself a question: can love, like what we do with paying taxes, be made into a law? Can we command love? My response is in the form of another question, can you refuse love? I believe when Gianna, the mother decided against safer treatment for her in order to save the baby in her womb, the yet to be born Gianna could not refuse the offer of love of her mother. What is true of the effort of Gianna to offer love for her unborn child is also true of Jesus who offered his life for all. I for one will not refuse Jesus gesture of love on the cross. How about you, will you? Now, when great love freely offered and received, I cannot help but respond with the same love, because I am duty bound—commanded by the same love—to share the same love to others as well. Jesus would have likely said as well: in the name God’s greatest love for you, love one another!