In worldly terms, Chiara Corbella’s life was not a success story: two children dying shortly after birth, herself ravaged by an aggressive cancer, which killed her at the young age of 28, leaving a beloved husband and a small son behind. This is not the kind of material dreams are made of. Yet when one listens to the testimonies of her friends, husband, and spiritual director, and hears more about her story and looks at her radiating, beautiful face on photographs and in video clips, one can’t help but feel that hers was an extraordinary life. Each saint has a special charisma, a particular theme, some facet of God, which he reflects, due to his particular character, call and story. Hers, I’d say, is to be a witness to joy in the face of great adversity, the kind which makes the heart overflow despite the sorrow over loss and death.
Chiara died on June 13, 2012, and her story spread like wildfire. The church was packed at her funeral, which was led by the Vicar General of Rome, Cardinal Agostino Vallini; social media, news agencies, and journals spread the word and soon she was known all over the globe. People wanted to hear more, and so two friends, Simone Troisi and Cristiana Paccini, who were present at all the important moments of her and her husband’s life, wrote her biography, “Siamo nati e non moriremo mai più” (We are Born and Will Never Die), which was published in June 2013 (and is now available in English). My copy from January 2014 is already the 8th printing, which shows its great popularity. I just attended a day of prayer on March 23 in Assisi, focusing on her life and spirituality; her spiritual director, Padre Vito d’Amato, a Franciscan, as well as her husband, Enrico, led us through the day. About 1,000 people attended, with many young couples and children, which is striking for Italy, where people tend to marry late and have few children.
Tragedy and Superabundant Grace
Chiara and Enrico’s story started like many: falling in love, getting married and starting a family. Upon viewing the video clips of their wedding, one is struck by her beauty, by the couple’s piety and by their great love for each other. She was expecting within a month. Other mothers expecting their first child are beaming, but her face remains serious in the pictures from that time. This was the first announcement of what was to come. It was, she said after having entrusted the baby to the blessed Virgin in the Porziuncola, as if she felt from the beginning that this child was not meant for her, that this child was not hers to keep. This turned out to be true. During a sonogram at 14 weeks, the gynecologist noticed that something was seriously wrong. The baby girl, it turned out, was anencephalic and would die shortly after birth. It was hard for Chiara to hear and digest the news on her own, but even worse to have to be the bearer of such bad tidings to her husband. Yet what seemed like an added hardship at the time (her husband was in the hospital for surgery) became a superabundant grace. He responded with great love, confirming her faith in him.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Their daughter was a blessing, and they would love and accompany her during her brief journey on earth. They withstood the pressure of many doctors who encouraged them to abort; they didn’t want to induce artificially the birth either, which would have meant shortening their daughter’s life. Finally, the situation became critical, since Chiara had too much amniotic fluid and her daughter’s condition meant labor might not start on its own. Against their wishes, they finally agreed to set a date for an induction, yet putting everything into God’s hands. On the day of the scheduled induction, Chiara went into labor naturally and little Maria Grazia Letizia was born. She died 40 minutes after being born, having received the sacrament of baptism and the last rites, in the arms of her parents on June 10, 2009. Her life, as her parents said, was perfect: she had been loved and had returned that love; nothing was lacking. Her parents’ hearts were strangely filled with joy; they didn’t experience the devastating sorrow they’d expected, though they mourned her loss. Through her, they truly learnt that loving meant giving, and that its opposite, as St. Francis had taught, was not hatred, but wanting to possess.
Looking back, Enrico and Chiara said that they were capable of this journey because they took one small step at a time; and with each step God gave them sufficient grace to persevere. Chiara felt that she had been prepared for these trials by their difficult courtship. Nothing, she said, neither the death of her children nor her own cancer nor her own death, was as hard for her as this time before their marriage. Chiara and Enrico had met in Medjugorje in 2002; she was only 18 years old, but knew that Enrico was the man she wanted to marry. Yet they had a hard time together, fighting often, breaking up at times, only to get back together again. Finally, after a break-up, Padre Vito, citing from the Apocalypse, told her that if God opened a door, nobody could close it, but if God closed it, then nobody could open it (Apoc. 3:7). Though she felt that her life would only find fulfillment in human terms by being married to Enrico, she put everything into God’s hands. But as Enrico said in Assisi, there was nothing fatalistic about it.
God left them the choice all along, they were free and their lives would not have been meaningless, had they not married each other. They met up briefly after what seemed their final break-up; he was ready to say some critical things, when she, for the first time, simply showed herself to him the way she was, without pretending to be better or trying to make things work out at all cost. She could not stop crying, thereby revealing to him how much she loved him. He had felt more comfortable without her, because she challenged him, asked him to rise to a love to which he wasn’t yet ready to commit. Once he did, things started falling into place and they married in September 2008 in Assisi, which had become a spiritual home for them. Enrico proposed on a walking pilgrimage there, organized by the Franciscans. Their joy was reminiscent of St. Francis, experiencing the superabundant love of God, which no sorrow could dispel.
More Sorrow and More Grace
But God was preparing their hearts for more—more sorrow and more grace. After the death of Maria Grazia Letizia, they prayed and decided there was no reason to wait. Chiara became pregnant again; things seemed fine at first and everybody thought this child would console them of their previous loss. Then it was discovered that their little boy would be severely handicapped, lacking his lower limbs. They were already looking into different kinds of prostheses, when they found out that he too would not live, since he was lacking some essential organs. Little Davide Giovanni was born on June 24, 2010, and lived only 38 minutes; after having been baptized and embraced, he too went to God. His parents left the hospital, their hearts filled with love and divine consolation. The joy they experienced while holding their children in their arms was something they had not imagined, and which would have been denied to them had they aborted. They would not have remembered the day of the abortion with gratitude, but they did commemorate the day their children went to Heaven with thankfulness.
Even fewer people came to this second funeral, as Padre Vito said, and they were not the same as had been at the first. Many of their fair-weather friends had abandoned them. When the cross casts its shadow, it drives away the fainthearted. New friends were present, and their number would grow, who would then accompany them on the final journey to Golgotha.
There are the Simons of Cyrene and the Veronicas whom God sends along the way to help us carry our crosses and console us. But there are also those who turn away, and those whose counsel weigh down our hearts rather than lighten our burdens. Job’s friends are present in all ages; they claim to be speaking for God, but are really the devil’s advocate, making one feel responsible for one’s suffering. It was due to their sins, some implied, to their lack of faith that Chiara and Enrico had sick children and that Chiara now had cancer. Had they shown sufficient faith, then God would have worked miracles, was their opinion. What they failed to see though is that God was working miracles all along in Chiara and Enrico’s hearts, and in those around them. A conversion of the heart is the greatest miracle on earth, compared to which walking on water is easy. God was with them on this journey, guiding their steps, not punishing them for any real or imagined faults.
It was truly supernatural, as Padre Vito emphasized, how God consoled Chiara and Enrico in their trials. To find God in a situation that most people would find unbearable and which would drive them to despair, is a miracle in itself. Chiara and Enrico found that by crying out to God like a child cries out to his father, they were carried along; the cross that would otherwise have crushed them, had become light. The day of her death, Enrico asked Chiara, if she found Christ’s promise had come true, that the cross was easy, even sweet. She smiled and said yes, it was “molto dolce.”
A Child is Born and Suffering is Offered Up
After the death of Davide, the couple prayed again and decided to have another child. The problems of their children were not due to genetic disease; there was no link between these disparate and rare illnesses, and therefore no reason existed for their next child to be sick as well. Shortly thereafter, Chiara became pregnant again. This time all was right, except that she had a troubling sore on her tongue, which didn’t heal. It turned out to be a malignant tumor. Like St. Gianna Beretta Molla, Chiara decided to put her child first and not receive cancer treatments that could harm her preborn son; this was a heroic choice, since the Church recognizes that it is morally licit to seek lifesaving treatments, even if they can cause indirectly the death of the child. (What is never morally acceptable is the intentional direct killing of an innocent person; abortion is therefore never permitted.)
During the pregnancy, she was operated on the tongue, and suffered greatly because she couldn’t take very strong pain-medication, which would have been potentially dangerous for the child. Nor did she want to induce the birth until Francesco had every chance of a healthy life. Francesco was born by induction two weeks early on May 30, 2011, and two days after his birth, she was operated on again; this time, it was a true Gethsemane. She suffered greatly and went through a dark night of the soul; God felt absent. But this didn’t last, and everybody prayed that radiation therapy would eradicate her cancer. Generally, only smokers in their seventies get the kind of cancer she had. It was just as strange a sickness as those of her children; all unrelated, yet coming together to shape a story which would lead to great sanctity.
For the time being, Chiara and Enrico were happy to be for once normal parents, having a child to take care of with all the stress and exhaustion this entails. Yet the cancer progressed despite more treatments and tests. On April 4, 2012, they heard the final verdict: Chiara was terminally ill. She didn’t want to know how much time she had left, so that she could live fully in the present. They moved to her parents’ home in the countryside to have some peace and quiet; Enrico stopped working, and it was in a way their happiest time. It was also a period of great grace. They received Pope Benedict’s benediction during a Wednesday audience and briefly told him their story.
We were shown a long clip from a talk she gave, telling her story. She was wearing an eye-patch (her sight in her right eye was affected by the cancer), one could see the trace of the surgery on her neck, her laugh was a bit lop-sided as was her mouth when she spoke. Yet one hardly noticed it; she was radiant, beautiful, smiling. When Enrico spoke to us, with a big photo of her projected on the screen behind him, he said: “Oh, was she beautiful! Her beauty still distracts me now.” While giving her witness to her friends in that clip, she was smiling through her tears at times. She did not put up an act, she was not stoic, not fake; her joy was real. She was present to her friends with her joy and with her pain. One could tell that she wasn’t expecting to be healed. She said she’d given it over to God; she would have liked to live for her husband and son but God knew best and she therefore left it up to Him to decide.
Padre Vito was able to be with them days at a time during this period, saying mass in their house, leading her during this last stretch of her short life. She had three fears: pain (which, she was afraid, would make her doubt God), vomiting (she was nauseous a lot and could hardly eat) and purgatory. Since the death of her two children, she was no longer afraid of it for herself. She was waiting for the bridegroom to come, eager for the nuptials. When telling us this, Padre Vito raised his arm and said, regarding her fear of purgatory, “ma va,” meaning “come on,” for he thought she’d go straight to Heaven. She was given the grace to be up and about until the very end. She had asked to die quickly, if die she must, and her prayer was granted. On June 13, 2012, she breathed her last and entered eternal life.
Padre Vito and Enrico didn’t want this gathering to become a “fan club” meeting. It was a day of prayer, of learning to say “Abba Father,” entering into Christ’s sonship as Chiara had done, trusting God fully in all sufferings. Enrico was concerned about the danger of putting her on a pedestal; she was normal, had her weaknesses, temptations and sufferings like all of us. But she said “yes” to everything God sent her way and thus became a true child of God. Enrico said he believed she was a saint and hoped that one day her picture would hang from the balcony of St. Peter’s. I think so too, but I think there will be two pictures: hers and his.