Thomas McKenna, founder and president of the St. Gianna Physician’s Guild, spoke at the luncheon sponsored by the local chapter of the Catholic Medical Association following Saturday’s White Mass. He is a leading authority on St. Gianna Molla, a 20th-century wife, mother, and physician whom Pope John Paul II canonized in 2004.
McKenna gave an overview of her remarkable life, and explained how she is a great patron for all Catholic laity, especially health care providers.
Leon Suprenant with the Catholic Key caught up with McKenna to learn more about the work of his organization.
Key: What is the St. Gianna Physician’s Guild?
McKenna: It’s an organization founded five years ago to inspire physicians and others in health care to practice their faith better and to stand up for their faith. We live in a secularized world where doctors are pressured to check their religion at the door when they put on their white coat. We help them retain their Catholic identity, helping them recall that they are Catholics first and physicians second.
Key: How do you go about implementing this vision?
McKenna: First, we encourage physicians to learn about St. Gianna. Then the physician can enshrine in his office or clinic a picture of St. Gianna that contains a relic. The enshrinement ceremony was written by Cardinal Raymond Burke. He helped me establish the Guild and remains closely involved with the organization.
The physician puts this picture in their office and invites their family, friends, and other doctors to come to this event. It’s a way of bringing up the faith in the setting of a physicians’ office where it’s not foreign or odd. Many doctors feel uncomfortable putting up a crucifix, but they’re often willing to put up a picture of a woman holding a child who was a doctor and a saint.
I tell them when you put that on your wall people are going to ask, “Who is that woman?” Since they are asking the question, you aren’t pushing anything; you are simply answering their question and have an opportunity to tell St. Gianna’s heroic story. Many, many doctors have called me back to request more literature, because the picture generates so much interest.
Key: How did you get to know St. Gianna’s family?
McKenna: I met them when I had the idea to create an organization for physicians. I wanted their support if I was going to make her our patron. So I got in touch with some pro-life friends in Italy who knew the family and asked them to arrange a meeting. I met the family, including Gianna’s husband, who has since died. I asked them what they thought of my idea, and they supported it enthusiastically and wanted to be a part of it. So they are very pleased and active in supporting the organization and glad to have their mother honored in this way.
Key: For those who may not know the story, could you explain the circumstances of Gianna Molla’s final pregnancy?
McKenna: St. Gianna had three children, and then she suffered two miscarriages. Then she became pregnant again. Two months into her pregnancy, they discovered a benign fibroid tumor in her uterus. It was not cancer. Nonetheless, the tumor posed a potential threat to her life and the life of the child, so the doctors recommended a hysterectomy.
St. Gianna asked if there were other options. The doctor said they could try to remove the tumor and see if she would carry the baby to term, but it was very risky and she could miscarry anyway. St. Gianna basically said, “If that’s an option, then that’s what I want, because the child in my womb has the same right to life as my other three children.”
So they did the operation and it was successful. Gianna took the baby to term. They had to deliver the baby by caesarean section. Her newborn daughter was healthy, but as a result of the C-section, St. Gianna developed an infection and died one week later.
Key: I’ve heard people mention of “Gianna babies.” Can you tell me a little about that?
McKenna: A couple years ago I was in Italy and asked St. Gianna’s brother about miracles attributed to St. Gianna, and he said by far the most miracles were couples who were infertile or not able to have babies, who then prayed to Gianna and were able to conceive and give birth. That phenomenon is taking place all over the world, and we’re talking about medical cases where it was thought clinically “impossible” for the couples to have children.
Key: Do you have any plans to come back to the KC area?
McKenna: Yes, we are actually planning a conference on end-of-life issues that will take place in July. Cardinal Burke will be coming to chair the conference. St. Gianna’s daughter, Gianna Emanuela, who was named after her mother, will also be here for that. In October, St. Gianna’s son will be visiting Kansas City to participate in a 4-day special exhibition on the life of St. Gianna that will be held at St. James Academy.
Key: Why is Gianna a saint for our time?
McKenna: She was a person who practiced virtue to a heroic degree in the 20th century. She drove a car, she went to medical school, and she faced many challenges we face today. She did things that you or I do; she endured trials that you or I do. When you learn about the life of St. Gianna, you find a life filled with suffering, suffering that she overcame with her Catholic faith. Her husband used to say that Gianna’s compass was her Catholic faith. She measured everything by faith and that’s what we as Catholics need to do. That’s why we say, “St. Gianna, pray for us.”
For more information on the St. Gianna Physician’s Guild, visit www.stgiannaphysicians.org.