Spiritual books round-up

Chiara Corbella Petrillo: radiated warmth and empathy in the face of tragedy

Chiara Corbella Petrillo: A Witness to Joy, by Simone Troisi & Cristiana Paccini; Sophia Press, £12.99

We all know the saying “faith is caught, rather than taught”. This doesn’t mean that instruction in the great truths of Catholic Christianity isn’t important – we are creatures of reason and the faith is reasonable as well as supernatural. But in order to live the faith properly it also has to fire our imaginations and our hearts, otherwise we risk focusing on God’s justice at the expense of his mercy, or thinking that knowing the doctrine is all that matters. This is why the lives of holy people matter: they show the rest of us what it means to be in love with Christ and how such love transforms us.

Chiara Corbella Petrillo, whose story is recorded here by the couple closest to her and her husband, Enrico, is one of the countless unofficial saints in the Church: a young woman who, despite the very human tragedies of her life – the loss of two babies after birth and then her own terminal throat cancer – shows how the Cross, once fully embraced, is the prelude to unimaginable joy.

Marrying in 2008 after a turbulent courtship in which their love for each other was severely tested, the Petrillos then experienced the loss of their first baby, Maria Grazia Letizia, who had anencephaly.

Chiara celebrated her baby daughter’s entry to heaven almost immediately after her baptism by reflecting that mothers who have lost children should remember “we have been mothers; we have had this great gift. The amount of time does not matter.”

It takes an exceptional strength to say this – and Chiara was not without her struggles and anguish as she asked God “Why?”, as so many others have done in their affliction. But trusting that “He knows what he is doing and up to now He has never disappointed”, she came through both this and the subsequent loss of a baby son, Davide Giovanni, with the loving support of her husband and a growing circle of praying friends.

Finally, the Petrillos had a healthy child, Francesco, named after their favourite saint of Assisi, only to learn that Chiara’s cancer, for which she delayed treatment during her pregnancy, was now terminal. All this would crush a less courageous soul but Chiara, as her friends write, “never lost an opportunity to find meaning in everyday reality and to transform it”.

If this suggests a woman of sombre piety, nothing could be further from the truth – Chiara radiated warmth, laughter and empathy for others. People were drawn to her simply because of the mysterious joy which she emanated even as the cancer caused her great physical and spiritual suffering.

Occasionally, the translation sounds rather stilted, with some repetitiveness, but this does not stop Chiara’s story from being inspirational, challenging all readers to ponder the true meaning of the Cross in their own lives.

From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church, by Benedict Rogers; Gracewing, £12.99

Benedict Rogers’s story illustrates the variety of ways a person becomes drawn to the Church. He became a Christian at university in 1994 when, through Baroness Cox, he got to know the organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide. This has led to a lifelong commitment to the organisation, which has taken him to countries such as Burma, Pakistan, Hong Kong and East Timor. Meeting heroic Christians, particularly Catholics, gradually helped to bring him closer to the faith – until he was received by Burmese Cardinal Charles Maung Bo in St Mary’s Cathedral, Rangoon.

In his foreword to the book, Lord Alton of Liverpool, a close friend, writes that Rogers witnessed at first hand the persecuted Church and gradually realised that “a faith worth dying for might be a faith worth living for”. Rogers himself cites four main reasons for his conversion: he discovered in the Church “the clearest expression of a biblical basis for social justice of any Christian tradition”; he saw in the Church “a truly historical, comprehensive and intellectually serious articulation of the Christian faith”; he was inspired by remarkable people; and he experienced “mystery, majesty, reverence and spiritual depth” in the Church.

Rogers’s description of the personalities he has met along the way are among the most interesting sections of his book – people such as Group Captain Cecil Choudry and Shahbaz Bhatti of Pakistan; Cardinal Bo himself; and Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Keeble. He also embarked on a steep reading programme, devouring the writings of Catholic apologists such as Scott Hahn, George Weigel, Malcolm Muggeridge and Thomas Merton, and confessing that “I fell in love with the Church through the catechism.”

A man of independent views, Rogers left the Liberal Democrats in 1992 when the party voted to adopt a pro-abortion policy and, on the same day, to ban the use of goldfish as prizes at fairgrounds. “A party that votes for the killing of the unborn in the afternoon, after voting to protect goldfish in the morning, is a party which has forfeited my intellectual and emotional support,” he comments.

This is a thoughtful book, written with clarity and sincerity.