Until recently my brother was living in Brussels. Last night he told me he had been in touch with friends there, who related that at one stage during this current terrorist crisis there had been talk of banning all Masses in Brussels this last Sunday, for fear of a bomb threat. While it is right for the authorities to take such threats seriously, to think of banning Mass moves the danger to a different, existential level. Attending Mass is the most important human activity we can engage in, far outweighing pop concerts or football matches, fun though these gatherings may be. It is almost as if ISIS were to strike at the heart of what makes life worth living for all Catholics: union with Christ at Mass.
Fortunately the Belgian authorities did not go so far. But when people try to “normalise” terrorist bombings by saying one is much more likely to die from over-eating or on the roads, I feel they miss the point. The whole point of life is not to avoid death at all costs or to see it as the ultimate tragedy, but to live well here and now, i.e. in the sight of eternity. We need to remember that our human lives on earth (however much we would wish them to end peacefully rather than violently) are only a prelude to the life of the world to come. Where the Islamists, in their toxic ideology, love death in its cruellest form we Christians have to show them that the love of Christ is stronger than death.
These thoughts have been prompted by reading a profoundly moving story that puts all the present alarming (and alarmist) news reports into perspective. Titled Chiara Corbella Petrillo: a Witness to Joy, written by her friends Simone Troisi and Christiana Paccini and published by Sophia Institute Press, it tells the story of a young Italian wife and mother who died of cancer in 2012. What is unusual in this story is the way Chiara comes to terms with her terminal disease. Having already experienced the loss of two babies soon after birth she and her husband, Enrico, have to face not sharing in raising their third baby, a little boy called Francesco, and not growing old together.
What is inspiring about the story is Chiara’s radiant faith. She truly was a “witness to joy”. Where others would consider her sorrows too much to bear – her cancer of the tongue and throat was particularly painful and debilitating – she transformed her situation and those around her by her vivid sense of the reality of eternal life with God that awaited her. As her friends relate in their book, “One of the greatest gifts [Chiara and her husband] demonstrated to us was that we only have today. And in the present you can be happier than you ever had the courage to imagine.”
The fashionable new behavioural therapy, “Mindfulness”, is also a way of helping stressed modern secular people to cope with their lives by a technique of concentrating on the present moment. But the Christian life, which those like Chiara and Enrico exemplify, has always taught this in its deepest sense; it is called “the practice of the presence of God”. It is a way of living that we Christians often forget.
Chiara’s book also teaches an implicit lesson about being pro-life. Warned by the doctors that her first two babies would not survive birth (Maria Gracia Letizia had anencephaly and Davide Giovanni an undiagnosed life-limiting condition), Chiara refused to contemplate a “therapeutic” abortion, pointing out that “if I had aborted [them] I do not think I would have remembered the day of the abortion as a day of celebration” – the day her babies, baptised straight after birth, entered eternal life. Indeed, she had the courage and insight to explain to those around her that the amount of time “does not matter. What matters is that we have had this gift.”
Almost as soon as she became pregnant with her healthy son, Francesco, Chiara developed the cancer that was to kill her. The doctors wanted to induce his birth as soon as life outside the womb was viable, in order to begin radical treatment to save Chiara’s life, but his mother would not hear of it; she delayed treatment for 37 weeks in order to give her son the best chance of a healthy birth. By then it was too late to save her. In effect, she sacrificed her own life for his.
Chiara’s joy did not mean that she never questioned God or never experienced dark moments. She did not want to die, to leave her husband alone or her son to the care of others. But having accepted her crosses and passed through her own dark night of the soul, she lived with hope, not despair, believing that God “knows what he is doing, and up to now He has never disappointed.”
Rather than letting oneself be deluged with news of terrorist attacks and the counter-terrorist tactics and strategies that western governments scramble to improvise in their defence, I would recommend reading this uplifting book and letting oneself be transformed by Chiaria’s example. After all, that was the purpose of her life.
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