No one ever told me that marriage prep would be easy, but as I soon discovered, it involves sacrifice, time management, communication, honesty, and humility. It demands both patience and inconvenience, and perhaps an uncomfortable truth or two. There's work to be done, yes, but this cannot compare to the countless joys and the excitement I share with my beloved. Preparation for marriage, however, does not conclude with the certificate of participation. The work continues and never stops! Our efforts may not be recorded by the diocese but are a natural part of this holy vocation. That afternoon, my fiancée and I were thankful for the work and sharing that was accomplished that day, but even more so for the time afterwards we had in order to further share, process, and discuss the details of our sacramental future together.
While this time of year may call to mind Valentine’s Day, the bishops of the United States have designated the observances of National Marriage Week (February 7-14) and World Marriage Day (Sunday, February 11) as “opportunities to focus on building a culture of life and love that begins with supporting and promoting marriage and the family.” The Church is invited to reflect on the role of marriage in the world and its influence on each of us, no matter our state in life. Of course, no two marriages are the same—a truth that reflects the beauty and depth of the sacrament and this mystery of love.
Growing up, my parents were my first heroes. Their marriage was inspiring for a number of reasons, but I simply admired its endurance. Marriage, as they knew—and I am continuing to learn—is a lifelong commitment in the sight of God to offer the gift of self to one another in love and for the building of the domestic church, the family. Those called to marriage are entrusted with the awesome responsibility to answer God’s first command to humanity: be fruitful and multiply (Gaudium et spes 48). I was born out of my parent’s married love to bear witness to Love itself. Like my parents, my love is imperfect, yet I continue to offer it as they do: in order to sustain their marriage and continue to live out their vows to love each other in all circumstances of life. Seeing their efforts inspires and shapes my own for my future marriage.
Thankfully, I can look not only to my parents’ example, but also to a number of saintly married couples whose lives of holiness are models for the rest of us. The heroic virtues that they exemplified through their marital love are a great source of encouragement and hope to those who face similar circumstances in their lives. My favorite is St. Gianna Molla and her husband, Pietro, who throughout their journey of love composed many beautiful letters to each other. In an increasingly secularized world where marriage is little more than cohabitation, holy couples such as the Mollas are refreshing witnesses to the sanctity of marriage and family life. They model for us the surrendering of all difficulties and hardships to God.
Though marriage has its challenges and responsibilities, let us not be intimidated by the reality of this vocation! As in all the other sacraments, God’s grace flows throughout married life and sustains us through this calling. Yes, there are demands and difficulties, but these serve to purify our love in the example of Christ’s total and perfect love from the cross. As Pope Francis advised 10,000 engaged couples four years ago:
We are all aware that the perfect family does not exist, nor does the perfect husband, nor the perfect wife. We exist, and we are sinners. Jesus, who knows us well, teaches us a secret: never let a day go by without asking forgiveness, or without restoring peace in your home. If we learn to apologize and forgive each other, the marriage will last.
May the Holy Family pray for us as we continue to build the domestic church!
For more resources on Marriage and Family, click here.
Questions for Reflection: Can you think of examples in your own life of a married couple who lives out their vocation with joy? How has their witness impacted your understanding of marriage?
Changing diapers. Making dinner menus for the week. Vacuuming raisins out of the deepest crevices of the car’s backseat. Often, the daily tasks of running a household and raising a toddler feel more to me like mindless drudgery than fruitful and productive labor. My inner monologue ends up sounding like this: My husband works eight hours a day at a meaningful job that he enjoys, and his income puts a roof over our heads, food on the table, and clothes on our backs. And what do I do? Sweep floors that are just going to instantly get dirty again and scrub toothpaste off the bathroom mirror—which is my own fault because I left the toddler alone while he brushed his teeth this morning.
Lately I had found myself searching for examples of saints whose primary vocation was parenthood and family life. And I began to read The Journey of Our Love, a collection of letters written by St. Gianna Beretta Molla and her husband, Pietro.
Prior to reading the letters, all I had known about St. Gianna was that one of her pregnancies was extremely difficult and that she ultimately sacrificed her life for her child. I thought this was the only reason that she was canonized in 2004. But as I read the letters St. Gianna and her husband wrote to each other, I gradually realized that Gianna’s self-sacrifice was only the final heroic act of a life filled with profound joy and holiness.
On the surface, the Mollas’ married life looks quite typical for the contemporary western world: St. Gianna was a pediatrician who split her time between her clinic and her duties at home, while Pietro traveled frequently for his job as an upper-level administrator for a manufacturing company. Their older children suffered from persistent, but not life-threatening, health issues like severe reflux and hip misalignment. Where the Mollas differ from most modern parents is in their deep devotion to God and in the trust, love, and joy that flowed from placing Christ at the center of their lives.
The more I read of St. Gianna and Pietro’s letters, the more I was struck by my own inability to see the greatness that is possible within the most mundane, repetitive, and irritating aspects of domestic life. St. Gianna and her husband did not found any religious orders, nor were they publicly martyred for their faith, nor were they brilliant theologians. Rather, they were ordinary people whose love for Christ permeated every aspect of their lives.
One of my favorite examples of St. Gianna’s quiet holiness is when one of Pietro’s overseas business trips, already over a month long, was extended by several weeks. Gianna initially reacted as many wives would do and “had a good cry” (page 209). But then, rather than wallowing in her loneliness or in the difficulties of parenting alone, she writes that she “offered this sacrifice to the Lord for you [Pietro] so that he might protect you during your continual flights, and for the baby we are expecting, so it will be born beautiful and healthy.”
Pietro, too, often writes that while he suffers from the long separations from his wife and children, he offers those sufferings so that he and his family will continue to be blessed. Neither St. Gianna nor her husband ever express a sense of doubt about the apparent banality of their lives—they accept their ordinary trials with grace and humility, and are quick to turn their frustrations or sadness back into thankfulness for the good God has granted them in their lives.
Reading the Mollas’ letters helped me see that, like St. Gianna and her husband, I am called to be holy in every aspect of my ordinary and seemingly unremarkable life— whether it be caring for a toddler with a persistent cold or doing my fifth load of laundry in two days. For most of us, we are called to be saints not through grand gestures of faith, but in the love with which we embrace the ordinary burdens of our everyday lives.
Question for Reflection: What are some ordinary tasks in your everyday life that can help you become an everyday saint?
Today we celebrate the feast day of St. Gianna Beretta Molla, a wife, mother, and physician who gave the ultimate sacrifice of her life for her infant daughter. She is also one of my most trusted role models as a Christian, wife, and mother.
When I graduated with my master’s degree, my husband gave me a print of a quote of St. Gianna that reads, “Whatever God wants.” It hangs by my bedside table and is often my first short prayer as I get out of bed in the morning. It was very fitting for the journey that we had just begun: my husband and I had been married for almost an entire year and I had just finished a rigorous graduate program. Meanwhile, we were coping with the loss of my father, who had passed 6 months prior. With such joy, stress, and suffering, I often turned to this prayer of St. Gianna as a deep source of hope and consolation to remind me of God’s sovereign love and guidance in my life. I continue to turn to this prayer as God’s will for my life unfolds.
St. Gianna did not say “whatever God wants” with apathy but with joyful submission to Christ’s work in her life and confidence in God’s goodness. At her canonization, Pope St. John Paul II described her witness as a “significant messenger of divine love.” From her writings and letters, we know her love for God and her family was fervent and passionate. In a letter written to her future husband during their engagement, she said she would often pray, “Lord, you see my desire and my good will. Supply what is lacking and help me to become the wife and mother you desire.” Her letters to her husband often express their deep desire to raise a family that would love and serve the Lord with all of their hearts. They would soon have a son and three daughters.
During St. Gianna’s final pregnancy, doctors discovered a fibroid tumor in her uterus. St. Gianna’s life could be easily saved by an abortion or a hysterectomy, or she could undergo a risky operation to remove the tumor and save her baby. St. Gianna chose to save her baby. However, the impending birth could mean life or death for both St. Gianna and her unborn child. She consistently told her husband, “If you must decide between me and the child, do not hesitate: choose – I insist – the child.” And indeed, St. Gianna’s daughter who lived due to her mother’s sacrifice is a living testimony to her mother’s deep love for her children and her trust in God’s will.
Of her sacrifice, Pope St. John Paul II said this:
Following the example of Christ, who "having loved his own... loved them to the end" (Jn 13: 1), 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 of themselves totally to God and to others are able to fulfill themselves.
It is clear that her courage and love did witness to her simple prayer, “whatever God wants.”
As life has continued to present new joys, stresses, and sufferings, my husband and I continue to reflect on St. Gianna’s prayer that hangs in our bedroom: “Whatever God wants.” In eagerly awaiting the birth of our unborn son, our hope, like St. Gianna and her husband’s, is that we can raise him and our future children with a deep love for the Lord and total trust in his providence as we pray in confidence, “Whatever God wants.” We hope that through living out our vocation of marriage amidst the ups and downs of life, our love is another witness to our children, family, and friends of God’s faithfulness as we pray, “Whatever God wants.”
“Whatever God wants” is not a prayer of defeat or carelessness. For St. Gianna, it was a prayer of courage, strength, and complete trust in the power of God. May we, too, come to find the joy of this submission and love for Christ.
St. Gianna, pray for us!
Alyce Shields is a teacher in Washington D.C