For most couples, their 10th wedding anniversary is supposed to be a happy day — maybe there’s a party, or they go out to a special dinner, even take a trip to someplace special. Often they’re surrounded by family and friends, and festivity is just in the air.
This September 21 would have been that 10th anniversary for Chiara Corbella Petrillo, a young Italian woman and deeply faithful Catholic born in Rome in 1984, and her husband Enrico Petrillo, whom she met in Medjugorje in the summer of 2002 while he was making a pilgrimage sponsored by the Catholic Charismatic Renewal.
As it turns out, September 21 actually was a festive day for the Petrillo clan, but hardly in the conventional sense.
On that Roman Friday, more than 2,000 people, mostly young people, including Chiara’s husband and 7-year-old son, her parents and sister, all came together in Rome’s Basilica of St. John Lateran — not principally to celebrate an anniversary, but the launch of a sainthood cause for Chiara that could end in her beatification and, eventually, canonization.
Chiara died in 2012, after being diagnosed with a cancer of the tongue one year earlier, but refusing treatment out of concern that it might damage the child she was carrying. (Two previous pregnancies in 2009 and 2010 resulted in a girl named Maria Grazia Letizia and a boy named Davide Giovanni, but due to complications both died shortly after birth.)
Chiara gave birth to her son Francesco on May 30, 2011, and this time the child was perfectly healthy. By this point, however, her cancer had spread to a point at which it was beyond treatment, and she died in June 2012.
Her story is often associated with that of St. Gianna Beretta Molla, an Italian pediatrician who died in 1962 after refusing treatment for uterine cancer out of fear for her unborn child. Beretta was canonized by St. Pope John Paul II in 2004.
From the beginning, what struck people who knew Enrico and Chiara, or who heard about them as word of her sacrifice spread, was the juxtaposition between the seeming ordinariness of their lives and the extraordinary choice Chiara made to offer her own life for her son’s.
As Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, vicar of the Diocese of Rome, put it during the September 21 ceremony opening her cause, she exudes the “holiness of next door, of those who live next to us and are a reflection of the presence of God.”
“Opening the diocesan phase [of the sainthood process] today,” De Donatis said, “we hope that at the end of the canonical path Chiara can become a model of holiness, approved by the Church, for all the Christian faithful but especially for those who, in this young married woman and mother of three children, find encouragement and support in the service of married love and of life.”
The 64-year-old De Donatis, appointed by Pope Francis to his position in 2017, is widely seen as a close ally of the pontiff and a reliable guide to his priorities.
From the beginning, scores of people have seen in Chiara precisely the qualities De Donatis mentioned.
More than 1,000 people turned out for her funeral Mass at the parish of Santa Francesca Romana in 2012, to celebrate and remember the mother who gave her life for her child with a constant smile on her lips. To this day, faithful make a pilgrimage to her tomb at the Verano Cemetery in Rome to bring flowers and prayers.
“This day represents the fact God has passed through my life, and continues to pass through, so much more than we may think or imagine,” said Enrico on the significance of the opening of his wife’s sainthood cause.
“Chiara was a daughter of God,” he said. “She was beautiful, amazing, a child of God, and therefore you can be, too.”
Part of Chiara’s attraction, say people drawn to her story, is the way she accepted the hardships of life with a sense of humor and peace.
Growing up amid a generation of “papa-boys” inspired by St. Pope John Paul II, the young woman had a stubborn and unwavering faith. To those around her who tried to change her mind, convincing her to save her own life, she would laughingly say in a Roman accent: “It’s all OK, the challenge, the disease, but if you make these faces I can’t do it!”
Chiara, however, wasn’t just good cheer and smiles — she also had an acute sense of spiritual depth.
“In marriage, the Lord wanted to give us special gifts: Maria Grazia Letizia and Davide Giovanni, but he asked us to accompany them only through birth, which gave us the chance to hug them, baptize them, and then hand them over to the Father with a devastating serenity and joy,” she once wrote.
“Now he’s given us a third child, Francesco, who’s just fine and will be born soon, but he’s asked us to continue to trust in him despite a tumor discovered a few weeks ago and that’s trying to sow fear of the future. But we’ll continue to believe that God will do great things this time, too.”
Now that the diocesan phase of her sainthood cause is open, Chiara’s pathway to a halo may be helped by Francis’ 2017 “Maiorem hac dilectionem” (“On the Offering of Life”), a “motu proprio” (“on his own initiative”) legal document that added a new category to certify holiness through offering one’s life for God or neighbor.
The next steps, according to Church law, are establishing a conviction of Corbella’s holiness among the faithful (“fama sanctitas”) and establishing the effectiveness of her intercession from heaven (“fama signorum”).
If the diocesan phase is successful, the case will then pass to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, where she could first receive a “decree of heroic virtue” allowing her to be called “venerable”; then beatification, with the title of “blessed”; and finally canonization, formally declaring her a saint.
De Donatis summed up Chiara’s legacy at the September 21 ceremony at St. John Lateran.
“She was a beacon of light,” he said, “who helps us touch the loving closeness of God with our own hands, a God who’s our Father and helps us discover the beauty of the Church, which, in the fraternity of its sons and daughters and in the care of its pastors, shows itself to be our mother.”
Claire Giangravè is the Faith and Culture correspondent for Crux, a partner of Angelus. She covers Catholic news and the Vatican’s foreign and diplomatic relations. Before working at Crux, Giangravè was a producer and journalist at Class CNBC in Milan, covering global markets and the economy. She has also been an assistant producer at MSNBC and the Today Show, and she contributed to a PBS Frontline documentary on the Vatican and sex abuse scandals.
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