Catholic Gators
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Catholic Gators

Chiara Corbella — Choosing joy in times of sorrow

By Ashley Hemingway, St. Augustine church staff

I “met” Servant of God Chiara Corbella Petrillo for the first time at the SEEK conference in 2013 at a fantastic women’s talk given by Lisa Cotter. I was captivated by the picture on the screen and by her story. This woman was only two years older than me. Her life was ordinary as can be for the first 24 or so years and marred by deep tragedy for the last 4. But she was radiant. I was 26 years old, had just discerned that I wasn’t called to religious life, and was feeling lost and distant from God. I was stuck in this idea that if I couldn’t be a nun, I would be doomed to a “boring” ordinary life instead. I looked at that image on the screen and was panged by a bit of “saint envy.” I didn’t know where she got her joy, but I knew I wanted it.

As I heard Chiara’s story, my saint envy quickly waned. Chiara suffered much in her short life. Born and raised in Italy, she met her future husband Enrique on pilgrimage and they got married in 2008. When they were pregnant with their first child, a girl, they discovered that she had anencephaly. Chiara carried the child to term and she lived for about 30 minutes after being born. A second child, a boy, suffered a similar fate, only living for a few minutes outside of the womb. Chiara and her husband persevered and continued clinging to Christ through it all. Finally, a third child came along and this time, the child was healthy. However, it was Chiara who was not — doctors diagnosed her with a carcinoma on her tongue when she was 5 months pregnant, and she decided to hold off treatment until the child was born. She lived for about a year after their third child, Francesco, was born. At one point, when she was confined to a wheelchair and had lost the use of her right eye, Chiara and her husband were in adoration together. He asked her, “is this yoke, this cross, really sweet, as Jesus said?” She smiled at him and responded “yes, Enrique, it is very sweet.”

The idea that one can choose joy in the face of massive trial wasn’t new to me, but I certainly wasn’t living it well (and my trials were much, much smaller). In Chiara Corbella, I found an example of an unwavering faith and a constant, steady “yes” to joy. Chaira and her husband Enrique had a choice, to drown in their sufferings or to seek Christ in them. And they chose Christ, over and over again, and were able to see the cross as victory and death as just one more step on the path to Sainthood. As I looked at her picture, taken when she had already lost two children and knew her disease was terminal, I was deeply convicted — how many days have I gone about with a long face because it “just wasn’t my day?” Why did I think that my “ordinary” life was going to be dry and dull and devoid of grace? That radiance, that joy, that peace that I was seeking — it was never held hostage by my circumstances, only by my choices. The freedom to choose joy in triumph and in trial has completely changed my life — and it was always mine for the taking; I was just too busy playing the “if only” game to notice.

It was super tempting for me to think of Chiara, as well as the great Saints of old, as some superhuman wonder-being whose strength and grace and virtue us ordinary folk could never hope to reach. “I could never be that holy,” I would say all the time, as I gave myself permission to fall short of glory. The words of her husband Enrique pull me back when I start down that line of thinking: “She wasn’t a courageous woman who wanted to face things, no she wasn’t; she was a woman of faith. That she was. Faith and courage are not the same. In faith, strength is given to you by Somebody else; for what courage is concerned, it is you who muster up the courage. She owned Somebody else’s strength.” Chiara’s cause for canonization isn’t open because she was strong enough to face trial and temptation. It’s open because she saw trial and temptation and chose to put her faith and trust in God her Father instead of trying to be sufficient herself.

Let us pray every day to take on Somebody Else’s strength, Somebody Else’s joy, Somebody Else’s zeal, when our own human nature falls short. Loving Lord Jesus, whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light, help us to say “yes” to You over and over again, and when we would give in to fear, fill us with Your joy instead. Servant of God Chiara Corbella Petrillo, pray for us!

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