St. Gianna and Chiara Petrillo: The Courage to Choose Life

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Chiara Petrillo

A few weeks ago, a news article made the rounds on my Facebook news feed. The article told the story of a young mother who some claimed was the “next St. Gianna”. (http://www.zenit.org/article-35043?l=english) Like St. Gianna Molla, who died in 1965, this young woman refused the cancer treatment that was needed to save her life because the treatment would have killed her unborn child. This young woman, named Chiara Petrillo, just died this summer and is already inspiring people all over the world.

Chiara’s story was of particular interest to me, since our family has a deep devotion to St. Gianna. We even named our first daughter after her. A few years ago, I wanted to share this love for St. Gianna with the Confirmation students I was teaching at the time. I showed them a DVD about her life and then gathered with my small group to get their impressions. “Wasn’t she so inspiring?” I began, “She was a working mom, just like me, and yet through her every day holy choices she was prepared to make a gift of her very life in order to allow her baby to live! What did you think?” If there had been crickets in that basement youth room, their chirps would have been all I heard out of that group of girls. Finally, one broke the ice. “Um, I thought it was really sad.”

They totally didn’t get it. Where I saw inspiration that made me want to soar to great heights of sanctity and heroism, they saw only one family’s tragedy. I was seeing a shining spot in the great cloud of witnesses. They were seeing the lead story on tonight’s news. She was so young. And she died. Sad.

I’m sure if some of my more distant college friends actually clicked that link, they might be confused, too. See? Here’s why we need abortion! This woman died because her oppressive faith wouldn’t let her get the medical attention she needed. Sad.

But isn’t that every saint’s story? I think of St. Perpetua’s father, begging her to just pay lip service to Roman gods so she could go free. Francis of Assisi was mocked by his wealthy friends who watched him begging for food in the town square. More recently, Blessed Jose Luis del Rio’s own godfather played a key role in his execution.
A waste. A shame. That’s what the world thinks of lives spent for Christ. And yet, the example of each of these holy lives is exactly what the culture that rejected them needed so badly to see. To a culture of war and brutality, God sends a peaceful St. Perpetua. To a culture of materialism, he sends St. Francis. To a country that believes God is dead, a teenager who can’t stop shouting, “Long live Christ the King!”.

Which brings me back to Gianna and Chiara. What’s going on in our culture? We abhor sacrifice and suffering to the point that women everywhere are pitted against their own babies. They are set in opposition to their unborn children, thinking that unwanted little parasite obstinately stands between the woman and her own happiness. To such a world come two women (so far) who have taken the absurdly opposite approach. For these women, the choice was a medical reality. For these women, it really was an “either-or” proposition. Either the woman or her baby would die. Morally, these women could have sought the treatment that would have saved their lives. The death of the baby would have been a tragic but unintended consequence, the principle of double effect. But these women chose instead to freely give up their own lives in order that their children might live.

It’s true that many people steeped in our society’s mindset will look at Gianna and Chiara and see nothing but tragedy. Some will view them with contempt. But others will ponder their sacrifice. Why did she do that? Would I? Where would a person get that kind of strength?

I think this is what God is up to in sending us these people. Like a great satire, they turn our worldview upside down in order that we may see it more clearly. Considering the many different ways our society gets it wrong, we will need many more such witnesses. In a world where marriage is disposable and painful, we need joyful couples. In a world where life moves at an exhausting pace we need contemplative religious orders. In a world where people relate to one another from behind the glow of their screens, we need to see deep, authentic relationships.

This is why the Church calls us all to holiness. Holiness is not some lofty nicety or an added bonus if we get around to it someday. My holiness (or the lack thereof) is the sign that someone else needs to see at this point in time, in my little corner of the planet. What if every woman in a crisis pregnancy knew a Gianna or a Chiara? What kind of courage would that give her to persevere? What if every man crushed by his own greed had a Francis on his corner? What if every atheist government soldier had to witness the unwavering faith of a martyr? How would the world be different?

This is the challenge for each of us, in our own set of circumstances. Let’s let God guide and form us, so that we too can inspire (or puzzle) others.

Copyright 2012 Libby DuPont

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