by Archbishop Joseph Naumann
Last week, I shared with you the story of Enrico and Chiara Petrillo, whose first two children both died less than one hour after their births.
Chiara’s and Enrico’s ability not only to accept but to embrace what, humanly speaking, was an incredible double tragedy was the fruit of their remarkable faith and trust in God’s providence.
Within a few months of their second child’s (Davide Giovanni) death, Chiara became pregnant again with their third child. Before they knew that the baby was a boy, Enrico declared, “We shall name this child Francesco.” St. Francis had played a very prominent role in their spiritual lives as a couple.
Naturally, with the fatal health problems experienced by Maria Grazia Letizia and Davide Giovanni, Chiara and Enrico were concerned about the health of their third child. As the pregnancy progressed, all of the examinations and tests revealed that Francesco was healthy.
However, shortly before the pregnancy, Chiara had noticed an abnormality with her tongue. After being examined by several medical doctors, she was advised to have a biopsy performed. The results of the biopsy were inconclusive. However, because the lesion on her tongue continued to grow, the doctors decided that it was prudent to surgically remove it.
The night after the surgery was one of the most difficult of Chiara’s life. She described this dark night in these words: “Without being able to speak and not being able to swallow saliva, I lived the longest night of my life. While crying silently, I said to God, “Why don’t you help me? I know that you can do it!” At a certain point, nearly delirious, I said, “God does not exist; otherwise, he would not do this to me.” But at that moment, I felt a strong pain in my heart and felt very much alone, as alone as I had ever been. And I was saddened for having had such a thought.”
The surgery revealed that Chiara had a very virulent form of cancer, which had spread to her lymph nodes and perhaps beyond. It was arranged for Chiara to go to Milan to receive the advice of Italy’s leading experts for cancer treatment.
Sadly, the standard medical practice was to abort the child so that Chiara could have a second operation that hopefully could remove all of the cancer. This was not an option for Chiara. Some of the doctors urged her to allow them to induce labor as soon as the baby was viable.
Chiara’s focus was not on herself, but what was best for Francesco. She wanted to allow the pregnancy to continue until the risks to Francesco were minimal. She did not care if this diminished the possibility of her surviving her cancer. Chiara insisted that they wait for the induction of labor until there was minimal risk to Francesco.
To Chiara’s delight, on May 30, 2011, Francesco was born completely healthy, just a few weeks shy of the normal length of pregnancy. It was a great joy for her to be able to nurse him a few hours after his birth.
A few days after Francesco’s birth, Chiara underwent her second surgery. The doctors were hopeful that the combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation would liberate Chiara from the clutches of her cancer. However, during Holy Week of 2012, Chiara and Enrico received the sober news that there was nothing else medically to be done. Chiara’s condition was terminal.
A few days after this bleak prognosis, Chiara wrote to her many friends: “The tumor for which I was operated on a year ago has spread to other parts of the body and humanly we can do nothing more about it, except to pray and to ask God for the strength to live this trial in sanctity.” Chiara was only 28 years old.
Chiara and Enrico invited their friends to join them on a pilgrimage to Medjugorje during which they gave to each of their fellow pilgrims a rosary as well as an image of Mary.
After having distributed these gifts, they echoed the words of Jesus from the cross to John: “Behold, your mother!” Chiara and Enrico explained the purpose of the pilgrimage: “This is why we wished you here, why we have brought you here — so that we may hand over to you our secret. That is, to give one another that same help that Jesus offered to the world from the cross: his Mother, the star to follow, the one to look for in the storm.”
Enrico confided to their friends: “Without Mary, all that we were able to do would have been impossible. It was Mary who 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.”
Chiara composed a letter to Francesco that she hoped some day would nurture his faith and give him some insight into his mother. Chiara wrote: “For the little I have understood during these years, I can tell you only that love is the center of our life. Because we are born from an act of love, we live in order to love and in order to be loved, and we die in order to know the true love of God. The goal of our life is to love and to be ready to learn how to love others as only God is able to teach you. Love consumes you, but it is beautiful to die consumed precisely as a candle that goes out only after it reaches its goal.”
A few days before her death, Enrico and Chiara were praying before the Blessed Sacrament. Enrico kept thinking of the words of Jesus in the Gospel, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Mt 11:30). Enrico asked: “Chiara, is this yoke, this cross, really sweet?” Smiling and turning her glance from the tabernacle to Enrico, she said: “Yes, Enrico, it is very sweet.”
In describing what Chiara had meant to him and revealed to him, Enrico wrote:
“We have climbed this hill together.
We promised him (God) to love each other all our days.
We wait for his coming from afar, always with our lamps lighted, day and night.
We dreamed of seeing him together, but he wanted more for us.
Like the spring, he arrived in silence; under us he made the flowers come up.
He must have accompanied us; alone, we could not have made it.
The peace of the flowers was his perfume: unforgettable that eternity in your eyes.
I had already encountered them, but I could not believe it.
His eyes in your eyes and to that peace.
Only he is peace.
Regardless of whatever difficulties plague us at this moment of our lives, may the witness of Chiara Corbella Petrillo inspire us to pray for the strength to live our trials with sanctity!
If you want to know more about Chiara and Enrico, I encourage you to read: “Chiara Corbella Petrillo: A Witness to Joy.”