During my time in Italy a few years ago, the story of a young wife and mother named Chiara Corbello Petrillo was making the news. Chiara had met her husband Enrico while on a Christian pilgrimage. They married and within a month, she was pregnant. Due to her age (24) and the fact that both Chiara and Enrico had such a strong faith in God and prayer practice, both Chiara and Enrico and their family and friends expected nothing but a perfect pregnancy. But when Chiara went for her ultrasound, her doctor fell silent. Chiara could see her child on the monitor; she said that the baby (a girl) was barely moving and behaving “as if she was hiding something.” A further, more detailed ultrasound would reveal that the baby girl had a gravely malformed skull and that it would be impossible for her to survive for long outside of her mother’s womb.
Chiara and Enrico made the decision to continue with the natural course of the pregnancy. When their daughter, named Maria, was born she lived for half an hour, long enough to be baptized and meet her grandparents and some friends. Chiara later said “That half hour did not seem little. It was an unforgettable half hour.” It was a reminder that it’s not the length of time that we have with someone or here on this Earth, but the quality of love that we bring to it. Recognizing and living a gift counts so much more than the mere accumulation of minutes. Chiara and Enrico chose to view their experience as a celebration, not a tragedy. Chiara asked “Where is it written that to live only for 30 minutes is a tragedy?”
I watched a video of Chiara talk about her experience and she appeared very sweet, centered and completely sane. Far from being tragic, she was illumined with light. Her beauty was striking. She was extremely pretty and feminine, with dainty features, a slender build and long brown hair. When she spoke, she would smile gently, and her face had both the innocence of a child and the gravitas of an experienced mother.
Chiara soon became pregnant again, and this child, a boy, also carried a similar malformation. She took the same decision and carried her child in peace and joy. Just with Maria, Chiara’s on David was born alive, baptized, and then passed on. She became pregnant a third time, and yet again there was an unforeseen complication. This time, the fetus was perfectly healthful, but it was Chiara who was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. She delayed any treatment to as not to her endanger her child, and subsequently died shortly after at the age of 28. I can’t pretend to imagine what her emotions may have been like during this time, but part of the message of her life was to live in faith and to recognize that life – in any capacity or circumstance – is a gift. By this time Chiara had become a public figure in Italy, almost known as a modern day saint. Her motto was: ‘Piccoli Passi Possibile’ which translates to “Small Steps Can.” My understanding of it was, whatever you are facing in life, take it step by step, even if they are just small steps.
At her funeral, Chiara’s husband Enrico read aloud this letter that they had written to their son together.
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 –Maria 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 Maria 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, we fell in love with the joy of the friars that live believing in God’s providence. So we 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
“The Lord has wanted you from eternity, and He will show you the road to follow if you open your heart.”
The Lord has wanted you from eternity; each one of us here was born of love, not necessarily the act of love between our biological parents but from the Spirit that placed life in that embryo, our prime creator. Each one of us here on Earth is wanted, we were all willed into existence not by a sperm and an egg, but by an Alpha and Omega. How beautiful to know that we’ve each been wanted since the beginning of time.
Everything here is a gift, and the opposite of love is possession.
Sometimes we have the privilege to share and be with others and even to take care of them, but we are never the owner of that life, not even our own children, and especially not our friends, lovers or spouses.
You must realize that nobody owns you. Not your parents, your society, your friends or your religion. In truth, you are free to be you.
And just as parents and friends need to learn to allow you to be you, you must also learn to let others go to be themselves. I also loved Chiara’s motto Piccoli Passi Possibile. Small Steps Can. Every small step makes a difference. We don’t need to always see the bigger picture, but just to take the smaller step right in front of us. If Chiara could be that brave, then we can be even slightly brave. We don’t need to see the bigger picture in front of us, just the first, small step.