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Catholic of the Year: ‘A woman who is incredibly close to God’

Canonisations are unforgettable events for those lucky enough to attend one. But the memory of the day when St John Henry Newman was raised to the altars is likely to endure more than most because of the sheer joy and beauty of the occasion, and not least because of the active presence of Melissa Villalobos, the Chicago mother pulled back from the brink of death at his intercession, along with her family.

The focus of the entire Catholic world was upon Melissa, her husband David and their seven children as they climbed the steps of St Peter’s to present the offertory to Pope Francis.

Smiling beneath her mantilla, Melissa was radiant. She brought a splash of elegance seldom witnessed since the days of Jacqueline Onassis and, along with her family, offered a glimpse of the American people at their most endearing.

She didn’t just look graceful, she was, and is, consistently graceful. Those who meet her speak of her humility, courtesy, selflessness and evident personal holiness which she exudes in an easy and natural way.

Among such people is Fr George Bowen of the London Oratory, who said getting to know Melissa and her family was a “high point” for him in the days he acted as chaperone in Italy and in England when they visited sites associated with St John Henry in London, Oxford and Birmingham.

“I think she is a woman who is incredibly close to God,” said Fr Bowen. “She is a wonderful example of a loving, caring mother with a big family and her children are a credit to her and her husband. The children resonate with being loved.”

As Fr Bowen has previously recounted in these pages, he soon came to recognise and admire a deep and mature spirituality in Melissa, finding a woman not only theologically literate but also spiritually articulate and full of “fantastic ideas”.

The prime example of such originality was her proposal to pray a novena to St John Henry in the nine days prior to his canonisation. It became a phenomenal global success which can be measured in numbers, since more than 650,000 people around the world registered for the novena to be sent to them by email, with organisers believing that many thousands of others followed it without ever signing up.

Melissa, for her part, refuses to take the credit, saying that the novena was an idea which came to her while she was praying to St John Henry and which she therefore attributes to him.

Although she read a prayer of intercession at a vigil in the Basilica of St Mary Major in Rome on the eve of the canonisation, she spoke publicly only once during her trip and that was to the students of the London Oratory School. In words that were described by one witness as “utterly inspiring”, she shone again, telling the students to strive for clean and pure hearts, to try to grow in holiness and avoid sin, to deny themselves something daily as an offering to strengthen themselves against sin, and to pray to St John Henry and other saints. She advised them to use cards with the images of figures such as Blessed Dominic Barberi as they prayed for the graces they needed to grow in holiness.

Indeed, one of the most notable characteristics of her own relationship with St John Henry is the clear sense that, to her, he is very much alive, rather than having died nearly 130 years ago. This bond was nurtured by continually looking upon his picture and feeling in return that he wished to engage with her.

When on May 15, 2013 she lay bleeding profusely on her bathroom floor, she prayed for help from her heart to his, Cor Ad Cor Loquitor. “Please, Cardinal Newman, make the bleeding stop!” was an appeal from one close friend to another, not to an abstract historical figure, and Melissa trusted in him – had faith in him – that he would come to her rescue. This is indeed a lesson for all of us.

Immediately afterwards, the powerful scent of roses filled the air three times, calling to mind the Holy Trinity.

The healing not only saved her life but also that of her then unborn daughter Gemma, who will turn six on December 27. Melissa has pointed out that her survival also gave life to the two sons who followed, John Henry, three, and Blaise, who will be one in January.

Melissa underwent an ultrasound scan the same day which revealed that her torn placenta, which was haemorrhaging blood, had been suddenly and completely repaired, and that her baby was completely healthy.

Driving home, Melissa turned into her street to see, against a blue and rainless sky, two rainbows – a large rainbow over-riding a smaller inverted secondary rainbow. Given the morning she had just had, she wondered if they too might be of supernatural origin and she looked up Noah in the Book of Genesis as soon as she was through her front door. She came to believe they were a sign from God that there would be “no more flooding” and felt assured that her ordeal was over.

David was on a business trip to Atlanta that day and, worried about the health of his wife, made a hurried phone call to check how she was. Melissa did not know where to begin, and simply replied: “I’ll tell you later.”

This is perfectly understandable. How do you explain to your spouse that you were moments from death but were saved by a prayer to a cardinal who had died while Queen Victoria was still on the throne?

Melissa had undergone an experience that must have made her feel akin to Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, or Christopher Columbus gazing upon the shores of the New World for the first time. Anything said in the aftermath of such experiences can only ever sound like an understatement.

Melissa and David indeed took their time pondering precisely what it all meant and deciding how they should respond and they alerted the Archdiocese of Chicago only after Gemma was born.

The subsequent investigations by medics and theologians concluded that her healing was so inexplicable that it was certainly a miracle, and one so profound it had to be accepted by the Church. It had emphatically proved John Henry Newman to be a saint.

With the canonisation now a thing of the past, it is astonishing that just six months ago the world did not know who Melissa Villalobos even was.

She was first contacted last winter by Joyce Duriga, a journalist with the Chicago Catholic Sun, but declined to be interviewed, on the advice of the postulator, until summer when the Vatican announced the date of the canonisation.

It was a brave decision to go public but Melissa was determined by that time to “share the joy of Newman’s intercession with the world”.

Until then she had lived a life of what she calls “obscurity” amid the normal domestic privacy that most families with young children crave.

Melissa, 43, continues to describe herself as a “regular” person. There is, however, a little more to her than what she might openly admit. Née Goodwin, she is an American of English ancestry; she was born in St Louis, Missouri, the only child of a Catholic couple.

She was a talented student and studied Economics at Washington University in St Louis, where she graduated in 1999 magna cum laude.

She met David, 42, of El Paso, Texas, on the course and they eventually married in 2005. In the intervening years, Melissa first worked as an associate economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago (one of the 12 that make up the central banking system of the United States), forecasting economic indicators for the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve Bank in Washington, DC.

She then decided to study law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School before she transferred to the Northwestern Law School in Chicago to be closer to David, a private wealth adviser for Morgan Stanley.

She graduated in 2004 and worked as an attorney for the US Army and a federal law clerk for a District Judge in St Louis before taking up a job in Chicago with a private law firm principally involved in commercial litigation.

Her abilities and background set her up for a career many would envy. But in 2007 Melissa chose to stop working so she could raise her family at home. By then she was the mother to Augustine, now 13, and Jacinta, now 11. Ambrose, nine, and Lucia, eight, followed before she fell pregnant with Gemma.

Occupied with the tasks of motherhood, Melissa discovered Newman while watching EWTN as she ironed, and from 2011 she was guided by his writings as she sought holiness in the ordinary circumstances of her life.

St John Henry, she said, helped her to “understand Jesus in a very true sense”, not so much as an authority figure to be feared but as the “tender, generous inexplicably loving being that He is”.

She also learned from him “tips on how to grow in holiness” such as the practice of doing the little things the “best as we can”, sanctifying words and deeds, and practising charity and self-denial on a daily basis.

“When you love your children, your family and your neighbours, it has a catching force which spreads,” says Melissa. “You can’t even imagine how much of an influence that you can have on your community and the world.”

It is a path which led Melissa to a deep friendship with Newman which resulted in her cure and his canonisation, a ceremony in which she remembered the roses as she held “Gemma’s little hand” and gave thanks for their lives and those of her other children.

She and Gemma thanked St John Henry again when they placed roses on the site of his grave in Rednal afterwards.

The appreciation that Melissa has shown surely must be reciprocated in the gratitude the Church must feel to her, since it is by her faith, and her devotion to Newman that he is recognised finally as a saint.

It is clear to us at the Catholic Herald, furthermore, that Melissa is exceedingly more than the simple beneficiary of a miracle. Rather, she is in her own right a fine example of holiness, of motherhood, of discipleship, and an original thinker with a gift for wise counsel on the things that matter most. We hope to hear more from Melissa in the months and years to come.

It is with great honour and without hesitation, therefore, that our directors have the pleasure of declaring Melissa Villalobos to be our Catholic of the Year for 2019. She was, in the end, the easy and obvious choice.