Italian wife and mother lost her first two children just after birth. Her third was born healthy, but then she faced her own battle with cancer.
She was only 28 when she died, but in the years before her premature death, Chiara Corbella Petrillo endured years of tragedy. Yet she persevered in faith and Christian love, offering an extraordinary witness of modern-day holiness. Watch this video to learn about her story of courage, family, and ultimate sacrifice.
Born in 1984, Chiara grew up in a Catholic home, where she was educated in the faith and participated with her mother in a local Catholic community called Renewal of the Spirit. In 2002, she went on a pilgrimage, where she met Enrico Petrillo. The two became friends and then started dating, finding that they shared, among many other things, their love for God and commitment to living holy Christian lives. Six years after they met, in 2008, they were married.
At first, their newlywed life seemed like that of any other couple. The couple conceived a child after a few months of marriage and happily prepared to welcome their daughter, Maria Grazia Letizia. But a routine ultrasound uncovered the terrible news that their baby suffered from anencephaly, a malformation which usually causes a baby to die shortly after birth.
Chiara and Enrico somehow found a way to be grateful even as they faced their baby’s impending death, as recounted in this article. Chiara repeated often throughout the pregnancy that “every little kick is a gift” when she felt baby Maria move inside her. When it came time to deliver, baby Maria lived for only half an hour after her birth, yet Chiara and Enrico cherished the brief time they spent with their little saint. Her life “made them open their hearts, opened the window to grace—and true love entered in, eternity,” Enrico said. He prepared a memorial card for the funeral with the simple phrase, “We are born never to die,” which would later become the title of his book about his marriage to Chiara.
Losing a child is one of the cruelest tragedies a person can face, and Chiara and Enrico were forced to suffer through it again. A few months after Maria’s death, Chiara became pregnant with their second child, Davide Giovanni, but once again he suffered from serious malformations that meant he too would not live long after his birth. Rather than turning away from God in bitterness, Chiara and Enrico found the grace to remain faithful—and even more than that, somehow to be at peace.
By clinging tightly to God, the couple was able to endure these repeated tragedies: “We knew that we were with the Lord,” Enrico said later.
“It was beautiful to trust and to walk together through that dark valley, where we felt that someone was guiding us, even though we couldn’t see it,” Enrico wrote later. “It was all beyond any human logic, but I was at peace.”
After Davide’s death, Chiara and Enrico began to speak publicly at pro-life events about the gift of life, humbly sharing their story to offer others hope and peace.
Chiara said, “God gave us two special children, but He asked us to accompany them only until birth. He allowed us to hold them, baptize them, and return them to the hands of the Father. There was a peace and joy that was unlike anything else we had experienced.”
A third time Chiara and Enrico conceived a baby, and this time they rejoiced to find that their little one was healthy and growing normally. But instead it was Chiara who was no longer healthy. She noticed a sore on her tongue that doctors diagnosed as malignant carcinoma. Unfortunately there was little that could be done because of her pregnancy. In an act of self-sacrifice echoing that of St. Gianna Beretta Molla, Chiara chose not to undergo chemotherapy while pregnant or even to induce an early delivery which could have put her baby at risk, choosing to protect her unborn child over her own life.
Baby Francesco, for whom Chiara and Enrico had so long waited and prayed, finally arrived May 30, 2011, but Chiara did not even get the chance to rest after her birth and savor the early postpartum days with her little family. She went into surgery just two days after her son’s birth and then began chemotherapy and radiation treatment for her cancer. She was in and out of the hospital, and more in than out, for the following year, while Enrico juggled the demands of parenting their newborn mostly on his own and supporting his sick wife as best he could.
Chiara’s condition deteriorated as the cancer spread to her liver, one breast, her lungs and one eye. It became difficult for Chiara to speak and see clearly, making the end of her life particularly excruciating. A priest friend said that visiting her was like seeing the martyred body of Christ on the cross.
Through all these trials, Chiara clung to Christ, uniting her terrible suffering with his agony on the Cross. In Christ, she found consolation.
Her husband described her peacefulness and joy even in her final moments on earth: “I said: ‘But Chiara, my love, is this cross really sweet, like the Lord says?’ She looked at me and she smiled, and in a soft voice she said, ‘Yes, Enrico, it is very sweet.’”
Chiara died June 13, 2012, and from the day of her death was hailed as a modern example of heroic virtue. At her funeral Mass, the cardinal who presided over it called her “the second Gianna Beretta.” Her cause for canonization has officially opened this month.
Christ promises that, for those who follow him, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Surely no one could call easy or light the immense suffering that Chiara endured, yet her constant choice to offer all these things to Christ and to rest in him gave her the strength to endure her trials with exceptional fortitude.
Chiara, pray for us!