Today is the feast of St. Gianna Beretta Molla. I have a special devotion to St. Gianna and so I thought it appropriate to post the origins of that devotion today.
Almost seven years ago, our first daughter, Therese Joy, was diagnosed in utero with a fatal neural tube defect called anencephaly. In the days and weeks following Therese’s diagnosis, I literally survived on the prayers of hundreds of friends. Some of these friends I have never met, and others I have had the pleasure of meeting after the birth and death of my daughter. One such woman mailed me a relic of then Blessed Gianna Beretta Molla. This woman wrote me a letter, promised to pray fervently for our intentions, asked me to read St. Gianna’s book, and to wear the relic.
I don’t wear jewlrey (other than my wedding ring), and this relic was huge! Yet after reading Gianna’s book, I felt very drawn to her life, and could very much relate to the suffering she must have felt during her last pregnancy. I drew great strength from her story, and began to pray for her intercession. I wore the relic daily for the remainder of my pregnancy. I even wore it during my labor and delivery of Therese.
After the birth and death of Therese I prayed fervently for the gift of another baby to love, and this time to keep. All the suffering of my pregnancy, all the pains of labor, were so worth it to hold Therese in my arms–even for just a few hours. I wanted to do it all again, and this time to have a baby to take home.
As the weeks and months passed, my grief over losing Therese grew deeper, and my prayers for a child grew more and more desperate. Each cycle brought about new feelings of hopelessness and sadness. I was consumed with doubt that we would ever have another baby, let alone a healthy baby. I grew more and more depressed. I felt sorry for myself, angry at God that my daugther had died, and frustrated that it was taking so long to be blessed with another baby. I felt like I had done everything God asked of me, I even gave him my only daugther. I never once asked God to heal Therese, because I felt very strongly that this was not His will. And yet there I was, feeling totally abandomed and alone.
I was self-consumed and full of anxiety. I cried almost every day. I felt totally helpless. Friends announced their pregnancies to me, and every time it was like a knife in my heart. Why were so many women blessed with multiple healthy children, and yet my baby died and I wasn’t getting pregnant! I then felt guilty for not rejoicing in their news. What a terrible friend I was! It was a vicious cycle.
At just about the lowest point in my grief–and my life–my spiritual director called me out on being self-consumed with my own problems. He challenged me to start thinking of other people and how I could, even in my own grief, serve other women. He assured me that I was not going to get out of my funk and depression if I kept thinking about myself.
Right around this same time, I heard the sad news that one of the couples we knew at the law school had just had their adoption fall through. Kristen worked at the law school library, and her husband attended the school with me and my husband. Kristen always greeted me with a big smile when I walked into the library. She and her husband had been struggling with infertilty for years, and doing so in strong Catholic circles where pregnancies are announced on a very regular basis.
The news of their failed adoption hit me very hard. I suddenly felt this intense sadness for someone other than myself. I remembered Kristen, who didn’t know me very well, crying when she heard the news of our daugther’s illness. It was the week after Therese’s diagnosis, and Kristen approached me after Mass with tears in her eyes as she told me how sorry she was about Therese. She promised to pray, and I knew she would. That moment in the past was suddenly clear as day, and I found myself crying tears of sorrow for her. I thought, she must feel like me, empty, lost, confused, and hurt. I began to pray for her immediately, and I helped to organize a spiritual bouquet for her. The roses we gave her lived for weeks, and I later discovered that she was very moved by the gesture.
Kristen responded to their failed adoption with a novena to St. Gianna. She asked for a baby girl, who she planned to name Gianna. Very shortly thereafter, in miraculous fashion, she received a call that a baby girl had been born and that they were chosen to be the adoptive parents.
I never remember feeling such joy at the birth of a friend’s baby. Kristen’s suffering had been so great, and it was a great blessing to know she had a beautiful baby girl to love and cherish. Ever since the death of Therese, I had to run and hide from the babies of friends and family. Each new child seemed to remind me so poignently of my own loss and suffering. But Kristen’s Gianna was an answer to my prayers, and every time I saw her I was reminded that God was indeed good, and that sometimes he does say yes to the intentions of our hearts.
Soon afterwards, Kristen informed me of her novena to St. Gianna, and she challenged me to pray the same novena, asking for a healthy baby girl who I would name Gianna. While it took me almost two months to feel ready for another novena, I eventually did as she advised. The next month, I discovered I was pregnant, and nine months later we met our own baby Gianna. And in typical Divine fashion, then Blessed Gianna was canonized just weeks after our Gianna’s birth. It was a joyous time indeed!
The life of a new baby brought great healing to my very broken heart. While the pain and sadness of losing Therese will always remain a part of who I am, much of the bitterness, anger, and fear disappeared when I heard our Gianna’s first cry. Gianna is always a reminder to me that life’s greatest joys are indeed accompanied by deep suffering. She reminds me daily of the sweetness of life, and that even amidst suffering, God hears our cries and answers our prayers.
You can read Kristen’s story here, and do check out her beautiful blog. She is an amazing writer, and just a beautiful person. When I came across her blog I cried tears of joy as I read about her Gianna. Through the intercession of St. Gianna, we both have beautiful young girls to love. May God Bless you all today on this great feast!