What’s in a name?April 22nd, 2014
My husband and I chose not to know the sex of our unborn baby before birth and kept our name selections a mystery to friends and family. So when labor lasted a day and a half, our midwives and nurses in the hospital appeared quite anxious for the child’s identity to be revealed.
We held our baby girl during her first few minutes freshly out of the womb. During the hustle and bustle of post-delivery, there was so much to take in that we temporarily forgot about names. A nurse finally asked, “Well, what’s her name?” There had been so much suspense for so many hours about who this little baby was going to be, and it seemed like an important moment when I turned to my husband, who answered after a pause, “Gianna Emmanuela.”
“That’s a beautiful name,” the nurses and midwives responded. “Where did you get the name Gianna?” Within the first few minutes of our daughter’s life, we were granted the opportunity to share briefly that St. Gianna Beretta Molla (the last saint canonized by Bl. John Paul II) was an Italian wife, mother and doctor in 20th century Italy. When she was pregnant with her fourth child, a uterine tumor was discovered. The only way to save St. Gianna’s life would result in the death of her unborn child – either directly through an abortion or “indirectly” (morally speaking) through a hysterectomy. St. Gianna refused any treatment that would endanger her child’s life, electing to have the tumor removed without harming her baby.
Even before delivery she said, “If you must decide between me and the child, do not hesitate: choose the child – I insist on it. Save the baby.” On Good Friday in 1962, St. Gianna went to the hospital to give birth. Her daughter, also named Gianna, was born on Holy Saturday. On the following Saturday, April 28, St. Gianna died from complications following the birth.
St. Gianna was not canonized only because of her generous sacrifice for life. Bl. John Paul II said at her beatification, “A woman of exceptional love, an outstanding wife and mother, she gave witness in her daily life to the demanding values of the Gospel. By holding up this woman as an exemplar of Christian perfection, we would like to extol all those high-spirited mothers of families who give themselves completely to their family, who suffer in giving birth, who are prepared for every labor and every kind of sacrifice, so that the best they have can be given to others.”
St. Gianna is a wonderful witness of living marriage as a Sacrament and as a vocation. Reading about her daily life reveals that she saw her state in life as her call to holiness.
So when we first said the name of our daughter – Gianna Emmanuela – and were invited to share St. Gianna’s story, it was a wonderful opportunity to plant seeds of a culture of life in our hospital room. A couple of hours later, a nurse on the postpartum wing asked why we chose the name Gianna. Family wanted to know the origin of the name. Friends of family had questions too.
We soon learned that people were using Google to learn who this mysterious St. Gianna was. And our newborn daughter, who could not yet speak or “do” anything became a little evangelist. Just by the fact that she existed, Gianna was building a culture of life and a civilization of love.
St. Gianna sacrificed her life because she saw and loved the profound dignity of the human person. Now 52 years after her death, a little girl named in her honor highlighted how profound that dignity really is – that what is freely given to us out of love is more meaningful than what we can accumulate or achieve for ourselves.
Gianna was given her existence, her body and soul, her family, her name. We are each given these things, and yet it is so easy to think that evangelization rests on our own efforts and achievements. How well do we use social media? How much do we speak? How effectively do we use our talents? But what we often forget is that before anything we might do, evangelization can occur because of God. He exists, and because He gives us our existence, we can evangelize. Perhaps this occurs through our name, our smile, our words, or our sacrifices.
Either way, little Gianna’s ability to inspire friends and strangers to learn more about our call to holiness reminds us that evangelization is not a checklist we have to complete. By joyfully receiving and living the gifts God has given to us, we point people to Him more fruitfully and surprisingly than the very best strategizing sessions would ever allow us to do.