A few months ago I received an email from a friend of mine who had recently encountered the life of an extraordinary woman while in Rome. I was so moved by the story I shared it last week with the women at SEEK 2013 and now want to share it with you. It’s the story of a life often seen as full of folly and tragedy. But if you understand the Christian life and if you can see the joy that can come from suffering, you can recognize that it is anything but sad. You can see that Chiara’s life is a reason for rejoicing, a reason for hope.
Chiara Corbella Petrillo met her husband Enrico while on pilgrimage. Several years later they married and conceived their first child. They were no doubt thrilled with the news of the life growing inside of Chiara, but in the middle of the pregnancy the doctors informed Chiara that the child was not developing properly and would not be able to sustain her own life outside of the womb. Rather than abort baby Maria, Chiara carried her to full term, held her briefly, and watched her pass into the next life.
Again Chiara became pregnant. And as I can only imagine they began preparations to welcome their new little one. But again, in the middle of the pregnancy the doctors informed Chiara that the child would not be able to sustain his life outside of the womb and for a second time Chiara carried her baby, David, to full term, held him briefly, and watched him pass into the next life.
Rather than become bitter, angry, and shut off from life Chiara and Enrico began speaking publicly about the gift of life, even a brief one. Chiara had this to say:
“God gave us two special children, but He asked us to accompany them only until birth. He allowed us to hold them, baptize them, and return them to the hands of the Father. There was a peace and joy that was unlike anything else we had experienced.”
A video of one of her testimonies was recently translated into English by a friend of mine, and you can view it on her official site. It is a beautiful example of God’s peace in the midst of suffering.
For a third time Chiara conceived a child. And this child was healthy and growing. But in the middle of the pregnancy the doctors informed Chiara that while the child was well, it was she who was sick with cancer. Because of the intensity of the prescribed treatments Chiara decided to postpone them until her son, Francesco, was born in order to ensure that he would in fact be born and have life.
Baby Francesco arrived happily and healthily, and Chiara began her treatments. Soon it became clear that death was immanent for Chiara, so she prayed, “Lord, you can ask me anything, but I can’t do it if I am surrounded by such sad faces.” Her prayers for joyful visitors were answered, and with much peace she bore her suffering.
The joy and peace that surrounded Chiara and Enrico was so tangible Chiara said: “Even if the Lord heals me, the greater miracle will have been that He helped my family and I live this trial in peace.” In response to the negativity Chiara and Enrico received from those who called their situation sad and tragic they said, “Where is it written that death is terrible and undesired? That having two children who lived only a half hour is a tragedy?” Enrico once heroically remarked, “If my wife is going to be with Someone who loves her more than I, why should I be upset?”
About a year after the birth of Francesco, Chiara laid on her deathbed. In an interview with Vatican Radio, Enrico had this to say about her final hours:
“I spent a lot of time this year reflecting on this phrase from the Gospel that says the Lord gives a cross that is sweet and a burden that is light. When I would look at Chiara when she was about to die, I obviously became very upset. But I mustered the courage and a few hours before – it was about eight in the morning, Chiara died at noon – I asked her.
I said: ‘But Chiara, my love, is this cross really sweet, like the Lord says? She looked at me and she smiled, and in a soft voice she said, ‘Yes, Enrico, it is very sweet.’”
On June 13, 2012 Chiara passed from this life into the next. My friend in Rome was able to attend her funeral. She described the event as full of joy with jubilant songs written and sung by Enrico, clapping, hugging, and tears of joy. In reflecting on the experience she said:
“What they lived was, by human standards, very intense and difficult. We might be tempted to say, ‘I could have never done what Chiara did.’ What Chiara did though is take little doable steps each day (‘Piccoli Passi Possibile’, literally ‘small possible steps’). Her prayer was that they would have the ‘grace to welcome the grace’ which God would give them to keep going forward. No matter what circumstance we are in, personally, this is what we should pray for with great faith: grace to be open to receive the grace needed to face everything in our lives.”
When I look at the picture of Chiara above all I can think is “Look at that joy.” Despite the marks of cancer that were clearly taking her life, look at that joy. That joy only comes from holiness. That joy only comes from living a life for Christ, from taking small steps each day to live as He has called us to live. I want that joy and I want that joy for you. Piccoli Passi Possibile, small steps can.
Be saints, it’s worth it.
Chiara and Enrico’s letter to their son, Francesco, for his first birthday.*
Today we celebrate your first birthday, and we were asking ourselves what we can give you that will last through the years. So we have decided to write you a letter. You have been a tremendous gift to us in our lives because you have helped us to look beyond our human limits. When the doctors wanted to scare us, your life that was so fragile gave us the strength to go forward. For what little I have learned during these years, I can tell you only that love is the center of our lives, because we are born from an act of love, we live for love and to be loved, and we die to know the true love of God. The goal of our life is to love and to be loved, always ready to learn how to love the others as only God can teach you. Love consumes you, but it is beautiful to die consumed, exactly like a candle that goes out only when it has reached its goal. Anything that you do in life will make sense only if you look at it in view of eternal life. If you are truly loving, you will realize this from the fact that nothing belongs to you, because everything is a gift. As St. Francis says, “The opposite of love is possession.”
We loved your brother and sister –Mary and David– and we love you knowing that you all are not ours, that you all were not for us. And this is how it should be for everything in life. Everything that you have never belongs to you, because it is a gift that God gives you so that you can make it bear fruit. Never be discouraged, my son. God never takes anything away. And if He takes away, it is because He wants to give you so much more. Thanks to Mary and David, we are even more in love with eternal life and we have stopped fearing death. God has taken from us only in order to give us a heart that is bigger and more open to welcome eternity already in this life.
In Assisi, I fell in love with the joy of the friars that live believing in God’s providence. So I ask the Lord for the grace to believe in this providence that they spoke of– to believe in this Father that truly does not make you lack anything. Brother Veto helped us on this journey in believing in this promise. We got married without anything, but we put God in first place and believed in the love that he asked us to, taking this big leap; we have never been disappointed. We have always had a house and much more than we have ever needed. Your name is Francesco because St. Francis changed our lives, and we hope that he can be an example also for you. It’s beautiful to have examples of lives that remind you that you can expect the greatest joy already on this earth, with God as our guide. We know that you are special and that you have a great mission. The Lord has wanted you from eternity, and He will show you the road to follow if you open your heart. Trust Him. It is worth the while.
Mom and Dad
*A special thanks to Tatum from the Apostles of the Interior Life for translating this letter and many other articles and interviews on the amazing life of Chiara Corbella Petrillo.