I met her in Loreto last November when she gave a talk here at the Basilica of the Holy House of Mary. I introduced myself and, as a fellow American, we had some things in common. We exchanged contact information and after she returned home, began corresponding. After we got to know one another, I agreed to translate for future conferences. Thus I had the privilege of spending four days with her (and the two event organizers) in the region of Campania, near Naples, in southern Italy.
Gianna started coming to Italy to speak in 2012. By now she has become something of a sensation. The three conferences I interpreted in Benevento and Caserta drew crowds between 500 and 600 people each. A conference she just did yesterday drew upwards of 1,500 people. Her story is moving Italians in a powerful way.
This grisly procedure involves the abortionist administering a saline solution into the mother’s womb which the child drinks and is, in turn, blinded, burned inside and out, and suffocated. Then, after twenty-four hours, the child is delivered dead. Gianna, however, was born alive.
It was 6:00 in the morning when she was born, a fact Gianna emphasizes: had she been born while the abortionist was at work, he would have strangled her, suffocated her, or otherwise left her for dead. Instead, a nurse (whom Gianna sometimes refers to as an angel) called an ambulance.
Thus began Gianna’s journey from what should have been death, to life. Yet, her difficulties only increased.
After being placed in an NICU incubator and surviving (the medical staff did not think she would make it… and Gianna jests that “she does not die easily”), she was placed in emergency foster care. Yet, even there she experienced ill treatment.
It wasn’t until Gianna was taken in by a woman named Penny and her daughter that her life began to change. By now she had been diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a burden she refers to as a “gift.” Even though they said she would live as a “vegetable,” Penny taught Gianna how to sit up, crawl, stand, and even walk. When Gianna speaks of Penny, who died just three years ago, it is clear how much she loved her.
On Christmas Day, when Gianna was twelve years old, she was told of the conditions of her birth (though she inexplicably already knew in her heart). Two years later, she was asked to tell her story to a group of ten or so people in a Mexican restaurant. Little did Gianna know that a journalist happened to be there taking notes: she soon published an article and Gianna became known throughout the world.
Today Gianna works full time as a Pro-life advocate and speaks in the US and beyond. She has met Presidents at home and Prime Ministers abroad, and has told her story to the US Congress and Parliaments.
Yet, a keen listener will discern that her message is really not about her birth or abortion, which takes up just a few minutes at the beginning of her talks. The thrust of her witness, instead, is about life and overcoming adversity.
And this in the crux of her message: she constantly gives honor, praise, and thanks to God the Father, her “best friend,” Jesus Christ, and the Spirit for saving her and giving her the strength to overcome.
In this, her name is telling. The name, Gianna, is actually Italian; it is the diminutive form of Giovanna, which is the feminine name of “John.” (It was given to her [casually or providentially?] by her adoptive father who had an Italian business associate.)
In Hebrew, John (Yohanan) means “YAHWEH is gracious.” Indeed, it only takes a few minutes in the presence of Gianna to know just how gracious He has been with her. Her name was providential as she seemed destined to follow in the footsteps of the Baptist -- the preacher, prophet and "Herald of the Messiah". Yet, it is also clear that she easily fits the role of the other Evangelist -- the beloved disciple “whom Jesus loved.”
Or perhaps her adoptive father knew something about Gianna Beretta Molla, the Italian doctor who gave her life for her child. When she was pregnant with her fourth child, she developed a benign tumor on her uterus leading to the doctors suggesting she abort the child. Gianna refused and the tumor was removed during the pregnancy, but she developed complications and died about a week after the baby was born. Gianna Molla was canonized a saint in 2004.
Indeed, spirituality comes naturally to Gianna, as she frequently digresses from her story during her talks. “And another thing…” she begins before offering spiritual nuggets and pearls of wisdom on issues like relationships, roles between the sexes, forgiveness, and avoiding bitterness and victimization.
Directing a message to women, she encourages them to seek love and acceptance first in God the Father before seeking it in men (particularly if their fathers were unavailable). To the men she frequently apologizes on behalf of “angry marching feminist women who seek to emasculate them”; yet, she also admonishes them to seek purity by avoiding pornography, making covenants with their eyes, and to honor a woman by marrying her before sleeping with her.
And in all this, Gianna arrives at one of her main themes: the difference between “average love” and “epic love.” Average love is what most people experience; “epic love” is what God wants.
And here Gianna’s evangelical faith becomes evident, as few people in Catholic Italy are accustomed to hearing such language and expressions in church settings (and some were not easy to translate, either).
But none of this matters to Gianna: she is not here to “put on a show.” She lets everyone know that she is not ashamed to proclaim the Name of Jesus Christ. Were she to avoid mentioning the Name of Jesus, everything about her would be for naught.
In fact, underlying everything about Gianna is her absolute conviction that hers will be “Victory.” Some years ago, to this end, she ran two marathons (on her toes due to her cerebral palsy). And she frequently does things like this in order to “live the impossible” and “make God real.”
Today, though she is now experiencing difficulty with her balance due to her cerebral palsy (which makes walking unassisted difficult), she nonetheless wants to climb a mountain. Gianna, in fact, has no doubts: she will do it. And neither does anyone who hears her story: everyone knows that she will be “victorious.”
Yes, it is clear that something happens when Gianna speaks. One of the more moving moments took place when a woman of thirty or so came up to speak with her after the first talk I translated.
“Please ask Gianna to forgive me,” she said in Italian sobbing. I nodded and told Gianna what she said.
“I wanted to end it… End it all… I tried to… I did not deserve it…” she continued rambling and obviously so broken she was having difficulty speaking.
“You tried to commit suicide?” I asked trying to make sense of what she was saying.
“Yes… Five years ago…” she said between choking sobs.
“It was the right thing to do… A life for a life… I had to…” she said before finally revealing what she was trying to say.
“I took my unborn child’s life, so it was right for me to give my own for my child… A life for a life… Please ask Gianna to forgive me…”
I told Gianna what she said. Based on her composed reaction, it was clear that she was accustomed to encounters like this.
Speaking gently and peacefully, Gianna told her that she forgave her on behalf of her unborn child. Yet, she added that she is worthy of mercy and that Jesus can forgive her, too. Gianna made her promise that she would do no harm to herself, and said that she should work on forgiving herself, perhaps through a Christian counselor or spiritual director.
Though this was one of the more dramatic moments, it was clear that many other people were also moved. After another conference, another woman came up to her. There was a sparkle in her eyes as she explained how she had watched one of Gianna’s talks online over “twenty times.” She said that each time she listens to Gianna speak, her heart is filled with a peace and joy she cannot explain.
Indeed, it is clear that something about Gianna is moving and touching the hearts of the Italian people in a deep way. Perhaps it is because of her infectious laugh and radiant joy, or her pretty face and beautiful smile. Or perhaps it has something to do with the fact that she comes from a faraway land, a place where so many Italians once emigrated to so many years ago where they were welcome and made their fortune.
Or, perhaps, it may be that Gianna gives hope to people whatever their circumstances. Certainly very few people can relate to being born into the world as she was. Yet certainly there are many among us who can relate to rejection and refusal, not being wanted, being a burden, and being unloved.
To all these people, Gianna is the embodiment of the Gospel and God’s Promise never to abandon His people. She is a living example of that Scripture that consoles and shows how close God is, especially to the brokenhearted:
Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you (Isiah 49:15).
Yes, Gianna shows us that “God is gracious.” Indeed, gracious.