When I was seven or eight years old, my mother told me the story about a mother who while pregnant became ill with cancer. The woman had to make a very difficult decision: receive treatment and risk the wellbeing of the child, or wait until the child was born to be treated. The heroic woman of my mother’s story chose to wait. Six months after the birth of her daughter, the mother died.
When I entered the seminary in 2002 I learned the story of Gianna Beretta Molla, an Italian pediatrician who in 1961 faced the same distressing situation of the woman in my mother’s story. Having developed a tumor in her uterus during her fourth pregnancy, Gianna had to make a decision no family wishes to face. The tumor was removed in an attempt to save both the lives of the mother and the child. One week after delivering a beautiful daughter named Gianna Emanuela, Gianna Molla died. Pope John Paul II beatified her in 1994 and later canonized her on May 16th, 2004. Her husband and children, including Gianna Emanuela, attended the ceremony.
“Why was my great-grandmother not canonized?” I wondered when reading about Saint Gianna Molla for the first time. “They both did the same thing!” Having grown up knowing of my great-grandmother’s heroic choice to save her daughter’s life over her own had somehow made this extraordinary decision ordinary in my mind. From a young age, I had heard my mother’s telling of my great-grandmother Clotilde Coquis’ decision, so it seemed natural to me that a mother would chose this. I came to realize the power of a mother’s epic selfless love that is willing to lose it all for the sake of her child. During Saint Gianna’s canonization Mass, Pope John Paul II recalled that “Gianna was a simple, but more than ever, significant messenger of divine life… following the example of Christ, who ‘having loved his own… loved them to the end,’ this holy mother of a family remained heroically faithful to the commitment she made on the day of her marriage. The extreme sacrifice she sealed with her life testifies that only those who have the courage to give themselves totally to God and to others are able to fulfil themselves.” As Jesus gave life back to Lazarus in Bethany only to have his life taken away days later in Jerusalem, the courage of my great-grandmother and of Gianna Molla is in perfect imitation of the love of Christ for the people of God.
My grandmother kept a photograph of her mother on her night table, a black and white portrait enclosed in a beautiful silver frame. She was only twenty-two when her mother died in 1937, and she was left in charge of raising her two youngest sisters. Ordinary men and women make heroic choices everyday through which they conform more to Christ and grow in holiness. My great-grandmother will not be canonized like Saint Gianna Molla, yet her selfless act of love has certainly earned her a place among the saints of heaven.
Picture: the daughters of my great-grandmother Clotilde Coquis Chavez from left to right: Chabela, Elba, Yolanda (my grandmother) and Bertha.