Enrico Petrillo: “More than feeling that the world was against us, we knew that we were with the Lord.”
The cause of canonization for the Italian laywoman Chiara Corbella opened June 13, the fifth anniversary of her death.
Here is a recent interview with her husband:
When Enrico Petrillo and Chiara Corbella were expecting their son Francesco, Chiara was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of cancer. Together, they decided to postpone treatment so as not to put the child in danger.
In the end, Chiara died at the age of 28, one year after Francesco was born (completely healthy). Enrico tells us the story.
After a long work week, on Friday night, he invites us to his house, in Rome, to talk about Chiara, her message, and the incredible story of their life together—not without suffering and trials, but at the same time, overflowing with love.
We can see weariness on his face. He’s now a single dad, raising a 4-year-old son alone. As if that were not enough, has just had to deal with illness again.
Over the past few months, he has suffered through myocarditis and pneumonia. He was in quarantine for two weeks because the doctors came to the conclusion that he might have tuberculosis.
Consequently, he says that during these past months he has experienced “other fears.” “Not the fear of my own death,” he explains, “but the terrible fear of leaving my son Francesco alone.” He says he even thought, at one point, that God was going to allow him to die, because he is aware that, sometimes, “God has a plan that isn’t always clear [to us].”
But these are just the first brushstrokes of our conversation. Before going deeper into his experiences with Chiara, he interrupts my initial question and stands up. “We could pray before starting to talk, couldn’t we?”
He is Enrico Petrillo, husband and father. He works as a physiotherapist at a hospital for the terminally ill, and five years ago, he was widowed.
The story of Chiara, his wife, began in the summer of 2002, when they met in Medjugorje. They married six years later, on September 21, 2008.
Just a few months later, Chiara became pregnant with their first child, Maria Grazia Letizia. Up to here, their story is similar to that of many other young married couples.
However, with the results of the first ultrasounds came the first trial by fire: the little girl was suffering from anencephaly, a malformation which, generally, causes the baby’s death shortly after birth.
Despite the death sentence that hung over her, Maria Grazia “made them open their hearts, opened the window to grace — and true love entered in, eternity.”
Chiara never stopped repeating that “every little kick of her baby was a gift.” Once born, Maria Grazia lived for half an hour. For her funeral, Enrico prepared a memorial card with a simple phrase: “We are born never to die.”
It was the first time that his friends and family read that phrase. Those words, which provided the title for the book in which he narrates his experiences of his marriage, resonate throughout every step of his journey.
Enrico explains to Revista Misión that he first heard the phrase from a catechist who was dying from cancer. “It remained engraved upon my heart. It’s one of those things that God sends you for it to stay with you.”
“Why did you write the book?” we ask Enrico. He answers, very unpretentiously, that people have added “romantic” elements to the story of his marriage with Chiara, which are not faithful to the actual facts. “I wanted to tell people what happened, without idealizing it,” he explains.
We return to the past again, and we talk about his second child, Davide Giovanni. A few months after Maria Grazia’s death, the Petrillos are once again expecting the birth of a child.
This time, the baby boy has grave and unusual malformations. In the words of the geneticist, “When it rains, it pours.” The same story seemed to be repeating itself.
They asked themselves if they should close themselves off to life. Enrico’s answer was emphatic: “If God creates life for eternity, who am I to say no?” “Yes, many times we asked ourselves the question, ‘Where is God leading us with these trials?’”
“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,” he remembers. “It was all beyond any human logic, but I was at peace,” he says in the book.
With that peace, they received Davide Giovanni, who, 38 minutes later, “was born into Heaven.” In March of 2010, Chiara writes that little Davide “has overthrown our ‘right’ to want a son who would be for us, because he was only for God.”
In both cases, Enrico assures us that, despite the malformations of his children, the word “abortion” never crossed his mind. “For us, the problem of choosing didn’t exist.”
“But, did this suffering turn you against the world?” we ask him. “More than feeling that the world was against us, we knew that we were with the Lord. When you ask yourself about that, it is as if you open a dialogue and the possibility of something more.”
After both experiences, many recommended they abandon the idea of having biological children. Others advised them to wait. But in Chiara’s words, “the idea of waiting made us sad.”
Once more, they didn’t let much time pass before Chiara became pregnant again. As the pregnancy progressed, she one day noticed a small ulcer on her tongue, but she didn’t give it any importance. However, the sore began to grow along with her womb.
They were expecting Francesco, who—according to all the tests—was developing without any problems. When we visit Enrico in his house, Francesco has already been asleep for a while.
Enrico tells us that he usually sings his son a lullaby, “Dolce Sentire”—the version of Saint Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of Creation from the soundtrack of Franco Zeffirelli’s movie Brother Sun, Sister Moon.
Assisi plays a very important role in the couple’s history. That’s where they met their spiritual director, Father Vito, who continues to guide Enrico today.
Enrico says that, without Assisi, their marriage would probably never have taken place. In March 2012, they brought little Francesco to the Portiuncula, to entrust him to the Virgin Mary. Little Maria Grazia Letizia and Davide Giovanni were both “born to heaven” wearing a Tau [the kind of cross used by St. Francis ] around their neck.
We go back to 2011. Chiara’s wound on her tongue kept growing, and after undergoing some tests, she has an operation in March. Carcinoma. Faced with this situation, Chiara didn’t complain; in fact, she faced this new trial with a smile.
“Despite the cross we were experiencing, we felt the Lord’s presence close to us; because of that, we laughed and joked up to the last moment. That was a surprise for us too. Chiara always smiled,” Enrico remembers.
After a time, Chiara could neither speak nor swallow, and the pain was more intense each day. In the hospital, she asked for painkillers, but little was available to her because of the pregnancy.
Her treatment in March was just the first phase. The doctors suggested that the couple hasten delivery of the baby so that, this way, Chiara could undergo chemotherapy and radiotherapy as soon as possible.
The medical team suggested inducing delivery when the baby was seven months along, but the couple refused. Chiara felt convinced that she would not submit her son to any risk. In the end, Francesco was finally born at 37 weeks, on May 30, 2011.
There was no time to lose for a second operation to clean Chiara’s glands, and she undergoes surgery two days later.
Father Vito said that seeing Chiara was like seeing the martyred body of Christ on Good Friday.
“If you accept what is good, why not accept what is bad?”; so it is written. When Jesus is on the Cross, the only person who speaks to Him is another person who, like Him, is on the cross.
“When you go through those times of suffering, your friendship with the Lord gets stronger. You also realize that suffering is a gift, because it puts some things in your life in order, and you realize who you are,” Enrico affirms.
Chiara begins her treatment: five days of radiation per week, and one session of chemotherapy every 21 days.
Despite a difficult summer, the tests seem to indicate improvement, but towards the end of March of 2012, their worst fears come true: the cancer has metastasized to one breast, her liver, her lungs, and one eye.
Chiara remains in the hospital receiving antibiotics and undergoing new tests. It was Easter.
Meanwhile, Enrico stays at home taking care of Francesco: “It was one of the most horrible weeks, but the Lord has never let us down.”
For Enrico, Chiara’s tumor was like Jesus’ third question to Peter after the Resurrection. His answer, like the apostle’s: “Lord, you know that I love you.”
“It would be perfectly understandable if you were angry. Are you?” we ask Enrico.
“It’s a choice. I could be angry, yes. If you so choose, you can make your life decisions with the Lord, or you can choose to do it without God. I’ve never gotten angry, because the Lord was in our life and we knew that He is a kind Father.”
At the end of May, Chiara is suffering an authentic Calvary, during which she continues to hold on to the Cross more tightly than ever. On June 12, she enters her final agony, but she remains profoundly calm and lucid.
Her husband remembers that he saw Chiara “die happy.” “It wasn’t the happiness of a smile, because when you die, there is no smile, but it was the profound happiness of someone who knows where she is going.”
Chiara didn’t just have a peaceful death; it was more than that. “It was like looking at one of those images of Christ smiling on the Cross.”
“Francesco always says he has a mother in heaven and a father on earth.” Before leaving this world, Chiara wrote a letter to her baby boy, in which she asked him to always trust God. “A short time ago I read the letter to him,” Enrico says.
Enrico and Chiara had three children, but many “spiritual children” were born as the fruit of their marriage.
“Humanly speaking, I would have preferred Chiara to be here, so I could grow old with her, but, at the same time, I have this consolation: many children have been born because their parents heard Chiara’s testimony when our first child was born, and they decided to go ahead with their pregnancy. This thought fills my heart with gratitude.”
She was 28 years old, and died surrounded by her family and friends. “One of the most beautiful messages she gave us is that you can be happy already in this world, in spite of everything. If eternity is your reference point, everything that happens is actually very little.”
This is how Chiara wrote about it to her child: “Whatever you do, it will only be meaningful if you think about eternal life. If you truly love, you will realize that nothing belongs to you, because everything is a gift.”
Like Chiara’s own life — an eternal life, because she was born never to die.