Chiara Corbella Petrillo was a young Italian wife and mother who avoided inducing a premature birth and invasive treatment for cancer while she was pregnant. She is pictured in 2012 at Medjugorje, Bosnia and Herzegovina, not long before her death at age 28. CNS photo/Cristian Gennari, courtesy Petrillo’s family

Mary Marrocco: Love finds a way to deal with death

By 
  • November 5, 2021

Is love stronger than death? What an arduous, soul-changing task it is to test for ourselves the answer to this question.

When death touches us, we cannot go back to where we were. Someone who is part of us has left us forever. Something internal to us has changed irrevocably, too.

We don’t have the option to avoid this change. That is not where our freedom lies. God, who created us out of nothing, requires physical death of all. The choice is between non-existence and existence, between turning away from God and turning towards God. Christ makes optional the death of turning away from God; “whoever obeys my word will never see death” (John 8:51). He gives us to turn, with Him, towards the Father in love — beginning in the present moment, in our daily deaths. 

We can get a glimpse of this choice by way of witnesses. One such witness is “servant of God” Chiara Corbella Petrillo. Her widowed husband Enrico asked a couple who accompanied them to write her story, and he shared some of her writings.

"Their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction."

- Wisdom 3

Reading her story, we see her practising death long before her physical death at 28. She and Enrico had a long, tumultuous engagement, with several break-ups. She found she had to accept the death of her own expectations before she could be with him. Her real freedom lay not in deciding whether or not to marry him (although this was a free decision), but in letting herself be changed: “The engagement did not work until I understood that the Lord was not taking anything away from me but was giving me everything.” 

What this meant for them ultimately remains with them, but the practice of inner death is available to us all. It’s not an easy Christian practice to learn. We get plenty of opportunities, though; if we don’t manage it today, it will be offered us again tomorrow. Life and death come our way in any case, but our inner “daily deaths” enlarge our capacity to meet the next life-moment, or death-moment. Chiara’s opened the way to encounter the physical deaths that quickly met her and Enrico, requiring heart-wrenching decisions from them.

Twice, within two years of their marriage, Enrico carried a newborn baby downstairs to the hospital morgue. In each case, they knew during pregnancy that the baby was being stalked by death, owing to (different) serious medical conditions. In both pregnancies, they were urged to hasten that death rather than carry the baby to birth. They refused death as an antidote, and refused to wield their parental power to cause the child’s death before birth. 

Their decision was simple, though far from easy. Chiara explains in a letter to the second child, David, that he, so small and weak, accompanied her through another inner death to a new kind of life. “I thank God that the Goliath that was inside me is now finally dead, thanks to David.” Now, she writes, she is able to follow God “without being afraid to be who I am.”

There was no freedom to choose not-death; both children would have died in any case. Chiara’s power of choice lay elsewhere, in accepting the inner death, the “way of the cross.” In Chiara’s mouth, these words are not pious evasion but burning coals. 

Seven months into her third pregnancy, she accepted the risk of her own painful death by delaying treatment of a newly-discovered cancer till after the baby came to term. She was practising a step she had already learned through love. She died just after the first birthday of their third child, Francesco. Asked later whether her choice made her happy, Enrico replied: “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.” 

We get tricked into thinking we need to have power over death, or escape death. When death meets us, we might be tempted to try and keep our “inner Goliaths” alive rather than let them die so that life can be born in us. Chiara’s witness is that God does not fail to accompany us in this choice. God does not change His mind about us but ceaselessly calls us away from non-existence into being. We are not free of death, but we are free in death. 

Like gold in the furnace, he tried them. … In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble. Wisdom 3

At the moment of our physical death, when the tension between existence and non-existence is snapped, do we fall into nothingness or into the love of God? Chiara’s witness is this: “We die to know the true love of God.” Love finds the way through death. 

(Marrocco can be reached at marrocco7@sympatico.ca)

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