I’m half-way through the biography of Chiara Petrillo, the young Italian woman who died of cancer at such a young age in 2012, leaving behind her husband Enrico and young son Francesco. It is profoundly moving, and such a powerful witness to her utter trust in God even when humanly speaking her life seemed to be overwhelmed with tragedy.
This is from Francis Phillips’s article about her:
What is unusual in this story is the way Chiara comes to terms with her terminal disease. Having already experienced the loss of two babies soon after birth she and her husband, Enrico, have to face not sharing in raising their third baby, a little boy called Francesco, and not growing old together.
What is inspiring about the story is Chiara’s radiant faith. She truly was a “witness to joy”. Where others would consider her sorrows too much to bear – her cancer of the tongue and throat was particularly painful and debilitating – she transformed her situation and those around her by her vivid sense of the reality of eternal life with God that awaited her. As her friends relate in their book, “One of the greatest gifts [Chiara and her husband] demonstrated to us was that we only have today. And in the present you can be happier than you ever had the courage to imagine.”
The fashionable new behavioural therapy, “Mindfulness”, is also a way of helping stressed modern secular people to cope with their lives by a technique of concentrating on the present moment. But the Christian life, which those like Chiara and Enrico exemplify, has always taught this in its deepest sense; it is called “the practice of the presence of God”. It is a way of living that we Christians often forget.
Chiara’s book also teaches an implicit lesson about being pro-life. Warned by the doctors that her first two babies would not survive birth (Maria Gracia Letizia had anencephaly and Davide Giovanni an undiagnosed life-limiting condition), Chiara refused to contemplate a “therapeutic” abortion, pointing out that “if I had aborted [them] I do not think I would have remembered the day of the abortion as a day of celebration” – the day her babies, baptised straight after birth, entered eternal life. Indeed, she had the courage and insight to explain to those around her that the amount of time “does not matter. What matters is that we have had this gift.”
Almost as soon as she became pregnant with her healthy son, Francesco, Chiara developed the cancer that was to kill her. The doctors wanted to induce his birth as soon as life outside the womb was viable, in order to begin radical treatment to save Chiara’s life, but his mother would not hear of it; she delayed treatment for 37 weeks in order to give her son the best chance of a healthy birth. By then it was too late to save her. In effect, she sacrificed her own life for his.
Chiara’s joy did not mean that she never questioned God or never experienced dark moments. She did not want to die, to leave her husband alone or her son to the care of others. But having accepted her crosses and passed through her own dark night of the soul, she lived with hope, not despair, believing that God “knows what he is doing, and up to now He has never disappointed.”