By Laura Melius
As we look to the saints of the Church, our friends in heaven and heroes of the faith, it can be tempting to see their holiness much as we would the accomplishments of world-record breaking athletes. Their holiness may seem unattainable to those of us who see our lives as anything but heroic. What can be easily overlooked is that this great holiness so often shown by the end of these saints’ lives did not happen at once.
Holiness, setting themselves apart for God, was accomplished little by little, often in their ordinary days spent with families and those closest to them as they sought to follow God’s will.
One such saint had very ordinary beginnings in Magenta, Italy. Gianna Beretta was the tenth child born into her family on Oct. 4, 1922. From the time of her birth, Gianna’s parents and siblings passed on the importance of the Catholic faith within their family.
Monsignor Charles Mangan said of her, “Already as a child, Gianna cultivated holiness through prayer, the frequent reception of the sacraments, devotion to Our Lady, obedience to her parents and diligence in her studies.”
This laid a firm foundation and her faith carried through in her care for others as she grew. As a young adult, she became a member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society in which she served the poor and the elderly. Gianna continued these practices as an adult, even while earning degrees in medicine and surgery in 1949. As a doctor, she was generous to her poor patients, giving medicine and money to those in need.
“Later, she specialized in pediatrics. She loved to care for mothers and children,” Monsignor Mangan said.
After marrying Pietro Molla on Sept. 24, 1955, the couple would have three children while she continued her practice of pediatrics alongside her vocations as wife and mother. Within her family and in her profession, Gianna understood the intimate relationship between love and sacrifice. She once said, “Love and sacrifice are closely linked, like the sun and the light. We cannot love without suffering, and we cannot suffer without love.” This understanding of love and sacrifice, built by small steps throughout her life, certainly helped prepare Gianna for what she and her family would face in her fourth pregnancy.
“When she conceived in the summer of 1961, a fibroma formed in her uterus,” Monsignor Mangan said. “Before the operation, Gianna begged the surgeon to save her unborn child. The surgery was successful, for which she profusely thanked God.”
During the next seven months of her pregnancy, Gianna pleaded with God to prevent her unborn child from suffering pain. Monsignor Mangan said, “A few days before she was to deliver her child, Gianna said to her doctor, ‘If you must decide between me and the child, do not hesitate. Choose the child. I insist on it. Save the baby.’”
Pietro and Gianna’s daughter, Gianna Emanuela, was born April 21, 1962. One week later, on April 28, 1962, Gianna died at the age of 39. Pope John Paul II beatified Gianna on April 24, 1994, and later canonized her on May 16, 2004. St. Gianna Beretta Molla, whose Feast Day is April 28, is the patron saint of mothers, preborn children and physicians.
St. Gianna’s example of everyday faithfulness has guided Monsignor Mangan in his own spiritual life. “She has helped me to focus on what really matters,” he said. “Fidelity to God here on earth leads to everlasting life in heaven.”
Ordinary rural life
Another example of ordinary holiness can be found in the example of Michelle Duppong, of the Diocese of Bismarck, North Dakota. Not yet declared a saint, Michelle’s case for canonization was presented for the first stages of canonization this past summer.
Michelle grew up on a farm in Haymarsh, North Dakota. She loved the simplicity of farm life and the memories she made there with her family. After completing her college education, Michelle became a missionary for the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) for six years and then was named the director of adult faith formation for the Diocese of Bismarck in 2012. After a cancer diagnosis in late 2014, she died on Dec. 25, 2015, at age 31.
Father Brian Eckrich came to know Michelle while she was a campus missionary at South Dakota State University, noting her love of Jesus and her desire for others to know him, too.
“Her invitation was authentic,” he said. “She was not asking you to something so that she could brag about getting so many people to attend Bible study or Mass. Her invitation was rooted in her real desire for you to know Jesus. It was evident that Michelle had a personal friendship with Jesus Christ, and from that, lived life with an authentic happiness.”
Father Eckrich remembers Michelle as a woman of simplicity, from simple roots, who did not complicate her faith.
“There was no lofty theology or poetic rhetoric, just simple conversations with a friend Michelle knew well,” he recalls. “The example of the old farmer praying in the parish of St. John Vianney comes to mind—Father Vianney asked this farmer how he prayed, and he answered, ‘I look at Jesus and he looks at me.’”
Michelle’s desire for seeking holiness through simple faith had been inspired by another saint she admired. In a 2015 column written for Dakota Catholic Action, Michelle had shared that her faith life had been inspired by St. Pier Giorgio Frassati, a young Italian who died in 1925 at the age of 24 after contracting polio from those he served.
“Reading about Pier Giorgio’s life made holiness seem so practical, so attainable. He was an ordinary young person who loved Jesus and allowed this love to pour forth into his relationships with others. … He’s a hero to me; and I want to be like him,” she wrote.
Father Eckrich also remembers Michelle’s desire to reach whomever God desired each day. “At one moment when I was lamenting my failure to attract many people to a Newman Center event, Michelle said to me, ‘Don’t be discouraged if you are unable to win the acceptance of many people. Perhaps God does not want you to encounter many people; perhaps he only wants you to meet one person today. Remember that Jesus had only 12 apostles with whom he changed the whole world. Make it your prayer, ‘God, who is the one person you want me to encounter? Help me meet them today.’”
Calcutta is everywhere
One of the most well-known saints of our time, St. Teresa of Calcutta, began the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, India, in 1950. The sisters served, and continue to serve to this day, the sick and dying who are discarded and forgotten, sometimes by their own families. As her mission grew and more lives were comforted, healed and sometimes saved through Baptism in dying moments, the world around her took note.
“How can we help?” people would ask. Mother Teresa’s answer was simple: she encouraged others to not necessarily imitate her by traveling to Calcutta or far-off destinations to become missionaries, but to serve those closest to them. “If you want to change the world, go home and love your family,” she famously advised.
“Stay where you are. Find your own Calcutta,” Mother Teresa wrote during her time in Calcutta. “Find the sick, the suffering, and the lonely, right where you are—in your own homes and in your own families, in homes and in your workplaces and in your schools. You can find Calcutta all over the world, if you have eyes to see.”
As we recall the great holiness achieved by the saints, may we also have eyes to see how they lived their lives each day, in the ordinary moments with their families, friends and the lives they touched. May we not be overwhelmed by the saints’ living lives of holiness, but instead be inspired by the attainability to do the same as we live each day.