Father Thomas Rosica
Father Thomas Rosica
HAMDEN – When organizers for the cause for canonization of St. Gianna Beretta Molla were looking for a film about the saintly mother, wife and doctor who died following childbirth, they turned to Father Thomas Rosica, chief executive officer of Salt and Light Television, Canada’s first national Catholic Television Network.
Father Rosica, who has been a close friend of the Molla family since 1999, was in Connecticut to give a retreat for the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in July. He agreed to sit down with The Catholic Transcript to talk about his role in the saint’s canonization and his 12-year relationship with the family.
"I became involved after the last miracle was approved," said Father Rosica about St. Gianna, who often is called "the pro-life saint" because she put her unborn child’s life before her own.
"I’ll never forget," the Basilian priest said. "Mr. Molla (Gianna’s husband, Pietro) phoned me in September 2003 and said, ‘A miracle has been approved. I know you’re doing television. I’d like you to make the movie on my wife.’"
"I said, ‘What does that mean?’ And he said, ‘When can you come to Italy?’ So I went to Milan. I had been a guest at their home several times before. And he literally gave me a ton of stuff – the family photo albums, the wedding films, testimonies and written documents.
"I remember coming back on the plane with them in January 2004," said Father Rosica. "I carried the suitcase above on the plane. I didn’t check it in. I was afraid of losing it, because it was really precious stuff in there. And we used everything in making the movie."
The result of his investment is the touching film, "Love is a Choice: Life of St. Gianna Molla," an award-winning documentary of the saint who, upon discovering a large ovarian tumor while pregnant with her fourth child, insisted that surgeons only remove what was necessary and let her baby live.
At the time, she pleaded with family and doctors: "If you must decide between me and the child, do not hesitate. Choose the child, I insist on it, save the baby."
The film traces the influence of Gianna’s saintly parents and 12 siblings (she was the 10th child); her choice of her professional career; her courtship with and marriage to husband Pietro; the births of their four children, and her death at the age of 39, one week after the birth of their daughter, Gianna Emanuela, who was born on Holy Saturday 1962.
The Molla family gave Father Rosica and his crew access to themselves, her close personal friends and her personal artifacts for filming the "official" documentary of her life that the Vatican requests during the process of considering the beatification and canonization of saints.
"Two nights before the canonization, we had about 50 minutes of the film done; and we showed it at a theater near the Vatican with about 200 invited guests, including the Molla family," recalled Father Rosica.
"They hadn’t seen the film until then; and when they saw it, Mr. Molla got up and said in Italian, ‘Finally, someone understood my wife.’"
After the canonization of St. Gianna – who was the last saint to be canonized by the Blessed Pope John Paul II – Salt and Light Television added 10 minutes to the film with footage of the canonization and a theological commentary by Father Rosica on her life. (Available in eight languages, the 52-minute film may be purchased for $19.95 through www.saltandlighttv.org.)
Among the theological points he drew were the significance of a lay saint for the Church today as an alternative to the culture of death; her role as both mother of a family and a professional woman; and the reasons the Church holds her up "as a shining example of the culture of life."
"She embraced a consistent ethic of life," he said. "That was Gianna’s story … not just abortion, but all of life through her concern for the poor, the suffering, the handicapped and the aged.
"Her husband begged me right up to the end, ‘Make sure you let people know that she stood for life from the earliest moments to the final moments,’" he said.
"She took care of poor people, she was extremely good with aging people, and she was a pediatrician who specialized in children’s diseases," said Father Rosica. In fact, following in the healing mission of her mother, daughter Gianna is a medical doctor who specializes in gerontology and Alzheimer’s disease.
St. Gianna’s son, Pierluigi is a senior partner with Ernst and Young in Milan, and has one daughter now in her early 20’s; Laura is involved in real estate and was married, wearing her mother’s wedding dress, after her mother became a saint; and Mariolina died at age 7 of a kidney ailment. Husband Pietro died on Holy Saturday 2010 at the age of 97.
The making of the film, Father Rosica said, "was really a very moving experience. This wasn’t someone of the remote past. This is somebody who liked music, opera, theater, mountain hikes, skiing, tennis, fine clothes, and who played piano," he noted. "We saw the clothing, her fashion catalogues, her dishes, the wedding dress and her house. She was a painter so there were all kinds of beautiful paintings that she did."
Gianna was beatified in 1994 during the Year of the Family and canonized 10 years later. Both miracles required for her canonization occurred in Brazil and involved pregnancies. Interestingly, Gianna had always wanted to go to Brazil as a missionary and never was able to go. Her brother, however, was a Franciscan who worked in Brazil, and his cause for canonization has been opened.
"There’s holiness in the whole family," said Father Rosica. "When you see the whole Beretta family, there’s something there. Her sister, Sister Virginia, is a nun who is superior of the Canossian Sisters in Italy. You just feel when you’re with both families that there is something very spiritually solid."
A Scripture scholar who studied for four years in Israel, Father Rosica was working as executive director of the Newman Center at the University of Toronto when he was appointed in June 1999 by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops as the CEO and national director of World Youth Day and the visit of Pope John Paul II to Toronto in July 2002.
Father Rosica was invited to sit with the Molla family at the beatification of Pope John Paul II, and later spent time with Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, an organization that also maintains a close connection to the Mollas and St. Gianna.
Father Rosica has served as CEO at Salt and Light since July 2003, and is a consultant for the Pontifical Council for Social Communications at the Vatican. This year, his Basilian community also asked him to take over the reins as president of Assumption University in Windsor, Ontario.
But, making the film about St. Gianna is something that remains very dear to him.
"She’s a role model for all mothers. She’s a role model for lay people and youth who want to be professionals and have a career but remain Catholic and holy. She’s a role model for the medical profession where she maintained her faith, her dignity, her ethics, and never equivocated; and was number one in her class. And she’s a role model for children who have lost their mother," said Father Rosica.
"She’s really quite remarkable," he said. "She’s a saint who announces with her life the culture of life and that’s important in a culture that doesn’t recognize the importance of God and doesn’t see value in preserving and upholding the dignity of human life."
"Today, we deny pain and suffering. Life is a nuisance, it interrupts," he noted. "But Gianna represents a different way. She shows us the risks of life. She made a terribly risky decision. She knew what the risks were, but she was willing to die for what she believed, for her faith."