I love the Saints. I love that the Church gives them to us, raises them up so that we can see what holiness looks like lived out in this life. I love that they point to something better, brighter. What we see in shadows, little hints in the sacrament of the everyday, the heavenly saints behold in full glory. Here in the shadowlands we strain for a pale shimmer of heavenly sunrise, while they stand in full sun.
But even then, the Lord permits them to bend back down to us below in our dim places, carrying lanterns of hope, little lights of grace like tabernacle lamps telling us, God is here.
Sometimes one of these saints will burst in on us like a summer morning, sliding through the cracks of our hearts like the rays slipping in through closed shutters in the early hours. And we wake up to new truth, or at least truth framed in a freshness we have never tasted before.
Sometimes these saints themselves will be so new that they are not saints yet, but on their way, and wanting to be introduced to us, to be light for our dark times. I am for you, they seem to say, I have hope for you and truth for you, take me as your friend and let me show you how to give your life away in love.
When this Servant of God’s name means Light, and when her name is the Italian version of your own, you can’t help but be inspired. That’s what happened to me when I “met” Chiara Corbella Petrillo. Just named a servant of God this year, she has a story that left me crying – weeping in the wonder of how God brings such beauty out of suffering. Wishing I, too, could transform my little crosses into wreaths of joy. Chiara said, you can.
We all can.
But first, her story.
Chiara was born in Rome in 1984, the second of two daughters in a devout Catholic family involved in the Charismatic Renewal. She met her future husband, Enrico, in Medjugorje while on a pilgrimage in 2002, and they began a long and tumultuous relationship – on again, off again.
Finally, on separate retreats in Assisi, they found a spiritual director, Fr. Vito, who would help them find clarity and peace. He encouraged Chiara to surrender even Enrico to God, to allow Him to lead and to trust His Will. It would be the first of many such lessons, and this time, it was one rewarded with an engagement.
They were married shortly after, on September 21, 2008. Soon, they discovered that a baby was on the way. During her second prenatal exam, at fourteen weeks, it was discovered that their baby girl had anencephaly – there was no skull forming in the little body, and therefore no chance of survival after birth. Chiara and Enrico were heartbroken, but resolute from the beginning. Although many suggested they abort, it was unthinkable to the faithful couple. This child was a gift, and her life was precious. They would accompany her as far as they could.
Little Maria Grazia was born on June 10, 2009, embraced by her family, baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, and born into new life 40 minutes later. Enrico and Chiara would reflect later that they were not prepared for how beautiful the experience would be. On returning home from the hospital, Chiara told Enrico, “You know, I would do it again.”
And she would. A few months later, another pregnancy, another ultrasound, another shocking diagnosis – this one so rare, it did not even have a name. Little Davide Giovanni, with no legs, no kidneys, no possibility of his lungs developing, was also given no chance at life outside the womb.
Tests showed no correlation between the two pregnancies. It was a simple chance. Or, Providence.
Sorrowful but serene, Chiara and Enrico left the exam, went straight into an Adoration Chapel and spiritually surrendered Davide over to God. Over the next few months, those who came to comfort Chiara left feeling consoled themselves. She radiated peace.
Davide’s birth was orchestrated by the Lord, bringing Fr. Vito to the hospital just in time to bless Chiara and baptize Davide, ushering him into the homeland in the arms of his parents.
In his tiny life, Chiara would reflect later, Davide had managed to slay the Goliath inside of each of us, the idols we put before God and His perfect plans. “I thank God,” she wrote, “for my having been defeated by my little Davide; I thank God that the Goliath that was inside of me is now finally dead, thanks to Davide.”
Soon another life began to grow inside Chiara, and this time they were expecting a healthy baby boy whom they named Francesco. But something else was growing within her, too – cancer. After a preliminary exploratory surgery, a persistent white lesion on her tongue turned out to be the first symptom of an aggressive cancer in her tongue and lymph nodes.
Doctors wanted to deliver Francesco prematurely in order operate again as soon as possible. Chiara, thinking of Francesco’s safety, insisted on waiting to schedule the surgery until he could be born without needing incubation. And so he was, coming into the world perfectly healthy.
But Chiara was far from well. Delaying her treatment had allowed the cancer to spread, and despite months of radiation and chemotherapy, Chiara was declared a terminal patient before Francesco’s first birthday. She accepted the news in front of the Tabernacle in the hospital chapel with characteristic peace, renewing her marriage vows with Enrico. Smiling and thanking the nurses as she packed her things, she urged her roommates at the hospital to continue to pray as she had taught them during the long nights of suffering.
And so, refusing treatment that would have caused much pain and only prolonged her life a little while, she went home to prepare to meet her Lord. Her last months were spent with her family, consumed by prayer and love even as the cancer consumed her. Rosaries with friends, Mass and Eucharistic Adoration with the attentive Fr. Vito – slowly a light began to burn brighter and brighter within Chiara, even as her earthly breath was being extinguished.
Fr. Vito, hearing that the end was near, rushed to Chiara’s home on June 12 and began to prepare for her final Mass late that night. “The lamps are lit,” Enrico messaged their friends. “We are waiting for the Spouse.”
She was alert to the Gospel that night, from Matthew: “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world…”
Fr. Vito asked Chiara during the homily, “What was Jesus’ lamp stand?” “The Cross,” she answered. “Chiara,” he told her, “you are luminous because you are on the lamp stand with Jesus.”
She died in her room the next day, at noon, June 13, 2012. Her funeral was a few days later in the same Church in Rome where she had said goodbye to Maria Grazia and Davide. Filled with flowers, praise music, twenty priests, and hundreds of friends, it was a testament of joy. It was a display of hope and trust in a God who redeems all of our suffering, if we can learn to unite it to His, as Chiara did.
Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints. – Psalm 116
There are many lessons that Chiara taught through her short but profound life, but here are a few that burned the brightest for me:
- Our bodies are made for self-giving and love. Just as through the Body of Christ comes our salvation, we are to literally spend our bodies in service of the other. Chiara believed that in pregnancy and birth her body was for the child, even while knowing the child was not for her.
- Life is sacred. All of it. Chiara and Enrico welcomed each child with reverence, as purely a gift from God, entrusted to them only for a little while, and then to be given back. They realized that “we are born, never to die.”
- God is hiding in our suffering for the purpose of leading us closer to Him through the Cross. She compared her cancer to Christ on the road to Emmaus, who was not recognizable at first, but present all along. She recognized Him in the breaking of her body, as the disciples had recognized Him in the breaking of the bread.
- And the bread that is broken for us, the Eucharist, is what sustains us. At every turn, Chiara and Enrico could be found in front of the Tabernacle. Christ journeyed with them in the Blessed Sacrament.
- The Blessed Virgin Mary reveals to us the sweetness of the suffering face of Christ. Mary, Enrico would say, “told us the truth: that there is neither past nor future; the only certainties are the present moment and the fact that we shall die. It was she, the model, who taught us to base our lives on the Word of God.”
- Living in the present moment is the key to peace. God, they both knew, would meet them in the moment and give them the grace to live it. The past they entrusted to His Mercy and the future to His Providence. Chiara, it was said, “was obedient to each day.”
I am determined not waste the illuminating wisdom from this woman the Church has recognized, this little watt of power, throwing light over all the mysteries of life. First she lit up life from the suffering of love, now she lights up faith from a place of promise.
Servant of God, Chiara Corbella Petrillo, pray for us.
** All quotations were taken from “Chiara Corbella Petrillo: A Witness to Joy” by Simone Troisi and Cristiana Paccini, Sophia Institute Press.