The story of 28-year-old Italian Chiara Petrillo, who died in 2012, can be summed up in two words: love and death. She and her beloved husband Enrico lost their first two children soon after their births. This was balanced by joy when their third child was born and with heartbreak as Chiara prepared for death. Nonetheless, in Chiara’s life, it was love that was to have the last word.
by Maria Zboralska
Chiara Corbella, born January 9, 1984, was 18 years old when she met 23 year old Enrico Petrillo. The young couple fell in love immediately, but up to the time of their marriage the relationship was not easy. They quarreled frequently, split up, and got back together again. The character of the Petrillo’s relationship changed into a mature one because of two things: the marriage preparation they received under the guidance of Fr. Vita D’Amat, and the sacrament of matrimony, which they entered into on August 21, 2008 in Assisi. It was then that Enrico came to understand that “life is worthwhile only if you are ready to truly love”,and Chiara learned to put her faith in God, accepting that the other people in her life were gifts from God and not objects that belonged to her. From that point forward the spouses would repeat the words of St. Francis that love must be purified above all from the temptation of possession. Chiara wrote that: “To love someone means to accept that you can’t understand everything about them, and to be ready to change and to sacrifice; to give something up for them.”
God very quickly blessed the Petrillos’ marriage with pregnancy. However, during a check-up in the 14th week of Chiara’s pregnancy, it was discovered that the child – a girl – suffered from anencephaly, that is, her skull and brain had not fully developed. This meant that she would not survive long after birth. The doctors alluded to the possibility of an abortion but Chiara was appalled by the suggestion. She understood that even though her child would not survive long after birth, it was up to her to ensure the baby’s best development throughout pregnancy. She would support her as best as she could and not deprive her of her life. Enrico was of the same mind which was a great support for the young wife and mother. He recounted: “Maria Grazia Letizia [the name they had chosen for their daughter] opened our hearts. Open the doors and grace will enter; true love, eternity, and the sense of living will enter. This is exactly what Maria Grazia Letizia accomplished. God commanded us to proceed step by step, and slowly everything became clearer for us. And when we discover God’s true presence, we manage to love even more.”
“During the subsequent months of the pregnancy, the young couple loved their daughter in a way that confounded those around them. They were not embarrassed by their daughter’s condition, and spoke of her with the pride possessed by all expectant parents. For them her life was not a mistake, and they did not believe it would be better if their daughter were different. The happiness and joy evident in the faces of the baby’s parents embarrassed not only the doctors, but also many of Chiara and Enrico’s friends who had heard the diagnosis and were surprised that the young couple had decided not to “terminate the pregnancy”. However, as Chiara admitted: “Each time that Maria kicked it was a gift. She truly so wanted for me to feel her… It was as though she wanted to remind us that she was there for us.”
Maria Grazia Letizia came into the world on June 10, 2009, and in the half hour of her earthly life she managed to delight her parents and the others who met her. She received the sacrament of baptism which Chiara called “the greatest gift that God could have given us”. Later the young mother said: “I will never forget the moment when I saw her for the first time. I understood then that we would be united forever. I was not thinking that she would only be with us for a short time. It was an unforgettable half hour. If I had terminated the pregnancy, to ‘alleviate the problem’, I certainly wouldn’t have thought of the day of my abortion as a happy one. I would have wanted to forget about the day because it would have been one of great suffering. Instead, I will be able to remember the day of Maria’s birth as one of the most beautiful days of my life, and I will be able to tell my future children that God wanted for them to have a unique little sister who would be praying for them in heaven. I would like to tell mothers who have lost children that we became mothers and received the gift of children. It doesn’t matter how long they were given to us for, whether it was a month or two, or just a few hours. The only thing that matters is that we received them as gifts and this we can never forget.”
Nor was it possible to forget the little girl’s funeral. People in attendance were amazed that the girl’s parents were dressed in white for the ceremony. To praise God for guitar. They had prepared a picture of Our Lady, on the back of which they her violin, and Enrico, his guitar. They had prepared a picture of Our Lady, on the back of which they had written an emotional letter to their daughter, saying: “We can get along without everything else. We need only to know the Father and prepare ourselves to meet Him. You were born ready for this meetng, and we can not find the words to tell you how proud we are of you.”
Half a year later Chiara and Enrico became expectant parents again. This time they were expecting a son - David Giovanni. Like his sister, he was also an invitation to his parents to greater love. During a prenatal examination it became evident that the little boy was missing one leg and had only a stub of the other. Chiara explained: “The first time God asked us: ‘Are you ready to accompany the child to the place where I am leading you?’ We consented, and it turned out to be beautiful. A second time God asked: ‘Are you ready to welcome a handicapped child, even if he will have serious disabilities?’ Once again, our answer was ‘yes’. We were ready to accept the gift of grace.”
The gift of grace appeared in a new guise. Due to a deficiency of amniotic fluid in his mother’s womb, David’s internal organs did not fully develop. This meant he would not live long after his birth. In St. Anastasia Church, where the parents went after the doctor’s visit, Chiara repeated once again: “I don’t understand, but I consent.” Enrico thought the same: “We should not expect to own anyone. We have no right to the life of another, and that's that. The Lord has given me this cross, and I have to bear it. It is by carrying this cross that I can learn what God wants to tell me.” During Chiara’s pregnancy, the couple once again displayed tender love for their child, through their peacefulness, their serenity of spirit, and by focusing their concern on others and not on themselves. They went on a pilgrimage to Turin in order to pray before the Shroud “for the healing of their child, but above all for grace to be able to welcome this great gift with open hearts.”
In his sermon at David Giovanni’s funeral on June 26, 2010, Fr. Vito referred to the Shroud of Turin as a witness to the wounds of Jesus’ love and His subsequent passing through death to Life in the Resurrection. The little boy lived only 38 minutes. He received Baptism and brought joy to those around him. Chiara and Enrico bid him farewell with music and song. They also prepared pictures expressing their faith: “You taught us that love doesn’t create anything imperfect. You are a unique, unrepeatable, and exceptional miracle. You gave us so much love!... Your mere existence glorifies God better than we are able to.”
Soon, the Petrillos’ openness to life brought about the conception of Francesco. From the beginning his development was normal and there was no indication that he would share the fate of his siblings. The blow to the family came from an unexpected direction. It began with ulcers on Chiara’s tongue. Despite taking appropriate medications, they grew bigger. After a series of tests, when Chiara was in the sixth month of her pregnancy, there was no longer any doubt: the 27-year-old had an aggressive form of cancer. The operation to remove large portions of Chiara’s tongue did not solve the problem. It would be necessary to operate to remove her lymph glands and follow up with radiation therapy and chemotherapy. In order to protect the child in her womb, Chiara did not consent to these treatments. She also refused inducing a premature birth, reasoning that her role was to provide Francesco with the best possible developmental environment, and not put his life at risk. After his birth, and with her husband’s support, she accepted invasive treatments for the cancer but refused them during the pregnancy.
The couple came under harsh criticism for their decision but were determined to find their support not among men but from God. During a stay in Assisi, they prayed, read the Scriptures and grew in faith. Enrico’s words attest to their great faith and obedience to God’s will: “We are not angry at God, since we know that it is He who is in charge of everything. And to understand that God is in charge of everything is one of the most wonderful things in the world.” Francesco was born a few days earlier than expected on May 30, 2011. Chiara was happy that her son, her third child, was born healthy but she had only two days with him before she was taken to the oncology unit for surgery. Over the course of the following weeks she underwent intensive radiation and chemotherapy treatment. The treatments arrested the progress of the disease and Chiara dedicated herself to motherhood. But by the end of the year, worrying symptoms began to appear and the prognosis was confirmed on March 28, 2012 that the cancer had metastasized to her lungs, eyes, liver and breasts. The final two-and-one-half month phase of Chiara’s earthly journey had begun.
Chiara consciously prepared herself to bid farewell to her loved ones and to meet God. Above all, she offered a final sacrifice and retreated from complete devotion and care for her son, accepting that it would be detrimental, not only to herself, but also to Francesco who would soon find himself without a mother. She began to teach Enrico about parenting and passed most maternal duties to friends. To the very end of her life, she was thinking about others’ needs, not her own.
Finding happiness in small pleasures, Chiara turned more and more toward eternity. She partook of the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist; spent time in adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament and prayed daily. As long as her strength allowed she played her violin at the weekly Rosary service and impressed everyone with her peace. She entrusted herself to Mary with a special prayer ending with the words Totus Tuus. She talked about her experience of loving God above everything. Four days before her death, during the prayers of the faithful, she asked for trust in God’s plans, adding that such trust “will never disappoint us.”
Chiara’s disposition, which was full of humility and far from anything rebellious, was in union with her husband’s submission to God’s will. “If my wife is headed toward The One who loves her even more than I do, why shouldn’t I be happy about it?” Enrico asked. He also heard an unusual question from his wife: “Enrico, if you knew that your sacrifice could save ten people, would you agree to it?” “Yes, but only with the help of grace,” he answered. “Me too, Enrico. That is why I pray for a miracle of healing, but don’t really want it.”
On May 30th, the Petrillo family celebrated Francesco’s first birthday. In a letter to her son, Chiara wrote: “From what I have been able to understand through all these years, I can only tell you that Love remains at the center of our lives. Love brings us into the world, and we live to love and to be loved, and we die to learn the true love of God. The purpose of our lives is to love and to always be ready to love others the way God teaches us... The Lord always loves you and always shows you the way to go if you open your heart to Him… It is worthwhile to trust.”
The last hours of Chiara’s life were very intense. The final Mass celebrated by Fr. Vito made a particular impression on her loved ones. “It was wonderful to see Chiara so much in love with God,” Enrico said afterwards, adding that it was worth living for that one Mass alone. When a few hours before her final moments, Chiara gazed with love at the tabernacle. Her husband asked her: “My dear, is God’s yoke really sweet, as Jesus said?” Even though she was dying, she smiled and with a weak voice answered: “Yes, Enrico. It is very sweet.”
Chiara Petrillo died on June 13, 2012. More than 2,000 people attended her funeral which was celebrated by Cardinal Agostino Vallini, the Vicar General of the Diocese of Rome. The process for her beatification was opened in the summer of 2018.
Reprinted with kind permission: www.loamagazine.org/archive/2019/2019-46/we-live-to-love-and-to-be-loved
The Prayer of Consecration to Mary, which Chiara and Enrico prayed every day:
0 Blessed Virgin Mary, You, who are my mother, who at God’s side loves me so much, accept today my wish for complete consecration to You. I give You my entire being and my entire life. I give You my body, my thoughts, and my feelings, my deep capacity to love and to see truth. Let everything that I have be Yours and belong to You. I give You everything so that I may belong completely to Jesus, who is the Life of my life. With great trust and love I repeat to You:
“Morning Star, lead me to Jesus ». TotusTuus!