In the Fall of 2009, I was a sophomore in college and studying abroad in Austria. In November, near the end of the semester, the whole school shut down for 10 days and everyone went on a pilgrimage to Rome and Assisi. Students had the option of taking the bus with the school, or traveling by train and making some stops along the way. My friends and I decided to do the latter. We wanted to visit two small towns north of Rome: Magenta & Mesero.
Only five years earlier, a woman named Gianna Beretta Molla had been canonized by John Paul II (my favorite pope and saint). She was a wife, a doctor, and a mother of four who had died in 1962 from complications of a high-risk pregnancy that she refused to abort. In the years following her canonization, her story had been highlighted by many pro-life organizations. That was how I knew her name. Other than the fact that she had died a few days after giving birth to her daughter, there was little I knew about her. Which is why my friends and I had decided to travel there.
During the hours spent on the train, I took the time to read a little more about her. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that we had a lot in common.
- She was a doctor; I was in Nursing school
- She had serious struggles with her studies; I was seriously struggling with mine.
- She had gone on a mission trip to Lourdes, France; I had done the same thing a little over a month earlier
- While on said mission trip, she received confirmation of her vocation in life; I had received confirmation of my own vocation at Lourdes as well (a story for another time).
It was really interesting– and soul-stirring– to read about a modern saint with whom I had so much in common. I vividly remember sitting on that train, being filled with wonder, and closing my eyes to pray.
“St. Gianna,” I whispered, “please pray for me, for my studies, for my vocation… and just… pray for me about my whole life.”
It wasn’t a huge moment or anything. In fact, I probably would have forgotten that I ever prayed that prayer if it wasn’t for what happened only a few hours later…
We arrived in Magenta and immediately went searching for a hostel; we wanted to drop off our bags before exploring the town. Typically, we made reservations ahead of time, but Magenta was so small, we hadn’t been able to find anything online. After about 30 mins of unsuccessful searching, we decided to just head to the Basilica to see if anyone there could help us.
As we approached the steps of the Basilica, the doors opened wide and a friendly priest with a wide smile and broken accent asked us excitedly, “are you here for St. Gianna?!” He and a female colleague welcomed us inside. Though they spoke very little English and we spoke absolutely no Italian, we were able to communicate that we were in need of a place to stay for just one night. The woman immediately started making phone calls and the priest showed us all around the Basilica. This was the church where St. Gianna and her husband had been married, and where she and their children had been baptized. We saw all sorts of relics– a marriage license, baptismal font, baptismal gowns, pictures– we even got to venerate a first class relic of St. Gianna.
After spending about an hour exploring the Basilica with our new Italian friends, we realized that we were the only people there. This was strange as most Basilicas in Europe have tourists and pilgrims constantly weaving in and out. It was then that we realized what time it was. We had arrived at the Basilica right as “siesta” was beginning. Our kind Italian friends had actually been on their way home to rest for the afternoon. However, upon seeing us, they welcomed us with open arms and were so hospitable that we failed to notice anything else about realty (it’s also possible that we were a little disoriented from sleeping on a train).
Incredibly grateful and not wanting to take up anymore of our gracious hosts’ time, we began to say our goodbyes. The woman returned with a map and was showing us how to get to a building in town that housed pilgrims for free. When she finished gesturing and pointing to the map, she held up a single finger and told us, “un momento…” and quickly dialed a number on her cell phone. She said something brief in Italian, before telling the person on the other end to speak English. Then she handed the phone to my friend Christina. The voice on the other end spoke softly, but confidently,
“Hello, this is Gianna Emmanuela. Thank you for your devotion to my mother.”
Of course, only Christina heard this at the time. All we heard was Christina’s shocked response, “Excuse me? You’re her daughter?!” Christina was speaking to the daughter of St. Gianna.
At this point, we all started freaking out, and we freaked out all the more as the phone was passed from person to person and Gianna Emmanuela spoke to each one of us.
When the phone was handed to me, I pressed the receiver to my ear, heard the sweet and smooth voice,and got lost in my own thoughts… “holy crap… I’m talking to the daughter of a saint….”
Then I realized, “Holy crap! I’m talking to the daughter of a saint and I’m not even listening to her!“
“I’m so sorry,” I laughed nervously. “Would you mind repeating that?”
“Of course!” She said sweetly and continued,
“I just wanted to tell you, that my mother is praying for you… for your studies, for your vocation, and for your whole life.”
Those words struck my heart. I don’t really remember what I said in response before handing the phone off to the next person; I was in shock. I had not spoken of my prayer on the train to anyone. I had not written it down in a prayer journal. I had simply whispered it within my head. That’s why I was so astounded –not only to hear Gianna Emmanuela tell me that her mother is praying for me– but to hear it in (almost) the exact phrasing in which I had prayed only a few hours earlier.
Needless to say, this whole experience led me to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Communion of Saints. I truly feel as though I “met” St. Gianna during this pilgrimage, and she’s been my friend and sister even since. Even though our conversations aren’t frequent, they are always deep and meaningful. I know I have a powerful friend in heaven who is always interceding for me… and that’s a magnificent feeling.
Who are your heavenly intercessors? I’d love to hear your own experiences with the Saints!