Wednesday, 30 December 2015

One woman defies the world for the sake of her children

Fiorella Nash, a researcher and writer working for SPUC, has sent me her characteristically compelling and candid review of Chiara Corbella Petrillo: A Witness to Joy, published this year.
Before reading this short book about the extraordinary life and death of Chiara Petrillo*, I had already heard her described as a twenty-first century Gianna Beretta Molla.

In worldly terms, her life was a series of disasters: she fell pregnant with a longed-for child shortly after getting married, only to be told that the baby had anencephaly and would die shortly after birth. Chiara refused an abortion and the little girl, Maria, died less than an hour after birth. A second pregnancy followed shortly after, a baby boy this time whom she called Davide, but during a routine scan he was found to have serious disabilities and he too died shortly after birth.

The response of some of those closest to Chiara and her husband was to tell them to forget about having any more children but they went on to have a third child whom they called Francisco. Francisco showed every sign during the pregnancy of being fit and well, but this time it was Chiara’s health that was in danger when a seemingly harmless mouth ulcer turned out to be a carcinoma. Well beyond the call of duty, Chiara chose to delay cancer treatment, even though she knew the dangers involved and she died shortly after her son’s first birthday. Chiara’s story is told in this book, written by two of her closest friends.

At this point, I have to make an embarrassing admission. When I first began reading Chiara’s story, I found it so difficult I very nearly asked for someone else to review it. I am naturally sceptical of anything that feels like hagiography and initially found the constant references to Chiara’s serenity exhausting (could somebody please direct me towards the patron saint of the volatile, the stubborn, the grumpily faithful??) ... However, as I was drawn into Chiara’s story, the nagging scepticism slowly gave way to a sense of awe that one person could endure so much with such quiet fortitude. I defy the coldest of readers to reach the end of the book dry-eyed.

One of the reasons Chiara’s story is so unsettling is that she is such a sign of contradiction in the world. Outwardly, she comes across as placid and unnaturally accepting of the suffering she is given, but it must take an incredibly powerful character to endure the loss of two children and to make a decision that will mean an early death.

Pro-life women are often forced to contemplate their own responses if they found themselves in a crisis situation – what if my baby were terminally ill? What if I became seriously ill during a pregnancy? What if I became pregnant through rape? In Chiara’s case, not one but two of the hard case scenarios campaigners argue about in debating chambers became part of her lived experience. She went much further than morality requires in refusing treatment of her own body that did not target her baby to which she would have been morally entitled. This book should be read, not so much as a biography, but as a testament to the power of one woman to defy the world for the sake of her children.

*Chiara Corbella Petrillo: A Witness to Joy
Simone Troisi and Cristiana Paccini
Sophia Institute, 2015
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