‘Always smiling’: Chiara Corbella’s father remembers her joy, faith

Chiara3 Roberto Corbella (center, with tie) and other family and friends of Chiara Corbella Petrillo attend the closing of the diocesan phase of the investigation into her life and virtues in Rome on Friday, June 21, 2024 | Credit: Daniel Ibañez/CNA

Last month, the Diocese of Rome closed its investigation into the virtues and reputation for holiness of Chiara Corbella Petrillo, a 28-year-old wife and mother who died in 2012 from cancer after delaying treatment until after the birth of her son. 

Chiara is known for her joy and simple faith — which persevered even after the young bride and her husband, Enrico Petrillo, experienced the devastating loss of their first two children shortly following birth.

“One of the fundamental characteristics of Chiara’s faith: She was never ostentatious, she was not someone who went around saying ‘I am good,’” Chiara’s father, Roberto Corbella, told CNA at the closing ceremony for the diocesan phase of her cause for beatification at the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran on June 21.

With the closing of the diocesan phase, documented testimonies and other materials will now be sent to the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Causes of Saints for further scrutiny. The next step in the process will be for the pope to recognize her as someone who lived a life of heroic virtue and declare her venerable.

Chiara was “always smiling, loved a joke … always ready to find the bright side of things. And she didn’t take herself too seriously,” Corbella recalled.

“The fact that we see that so many people in the world rely on her helps us to accept [her death] better, in the sense that it’s clear that I would rather ... still have her sitting on my lap,” he said with tears in his eyes. “But seeing so many people ask for her help certainly makes us accept everything much better.”

Below is a lightly edited version of CNA’s full interview with Roberto Corbella.

CNA: Who was Chiara?

Roberto Corbella: I think Chiara was the daughter everyone would wish to have — a very cheerful child, very attentive to everything around her, people, but also animals, things. She was very curious and took care of everything around her. Always smiling, loved a joke, so always ready to find the bright side of things. And she didn’t take herself too seriously.

Do you have a favorite memory with Chiara? 

I have so many beautiful memories. Maybe the moment I always remember with the most joy is after lunch, when Chiara had the habit of sitting on my knee. She would do this even as a grown up, even after she was married. When she would come to lunch at our house, after lunch [she would sit on my knee]. It was her way of showing affection.

After seeing your daughter experience great suffering together with her husband, Enrico, has your perspective on pain and suffering changed?

Chiara was always very careful to not let us see her suffer. When she felt very bad during her illness, she would go back into her room saying she didn’t feel very well. She never complained, never let us see [her suffering]. Actually, she minimized what she was going through, so we only partially realized what her real situation was. But certainly, yes, she taught me to understand that everything is relative in life. We complain daily — “It’s so hot today” — everyone complains. And then in a little while, we will complain it is too cold. There are some things that are part of life that are natural. Chiara was able to bear them, clearly because of her great faith. 

How does it feel to have a daughter who is now known around the world for her faith?

I always say that we are lucky parents, because every day, watching the news, we hear of young kids who have died in violent situations ... Meanwhile, she left us with a smile, meanwhile, she left after telling us all, “I love you.”

Then, the fact that we see that so many people in the world rely on her, helps us to accept [her death] better, in the sense that it’s clear that rather than being here today doing this [interview], I would rather still have her sitting on my lap. But seeing so many people ask for her help certainly makes us accept everything much better. 

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“One of the fundamental characteristics of Chiara’s faith: She was never ostentatious, she was not someone who went around saying ‘I am good,’” Chiara’s father, Roberto Corbella, told CNA at the closing ceremony for the diocesan phase of her cause for beatification at the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran on June 21, 2024. Credit: Daniel Ibañez/CNA
“One of the fundamental characteristics of Chiara’s faith: She was never ostentatious, she was not someone who went around saying ‘I am good,’” Chiara’s father, Roberto Corbella, told CNA at the closing ceremony for the diocesan phase of her cause for beatification at the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran on June 21, 2024. Credit: Daniel Ibañez/CNA

Has this experience changed something for you and your experience of God, faith, the Church?

Well, yes. I always say that I was the most secular of the family, because Chiara, her sister, her mother, they always attended church. I was one of what Pope Francis calls “the Sunday Catholics.” I would go to Mass, but I was just doing the expected things, though, not particularly driven. I often find myself questioning. The road is very long, at least for me, so I’m trying to learn.

What was Chiara’s faith and prayer like, especially as she was part of a world and generation that is practicing the faith less and less?

I would say [Chiara lived the faith] very simply and very naturally. From when she was a very young child, her mom brought her, together with her sister, to a prayer group. So she grew up in this group of children who met regularly, prayed and so on, and so she developed a very strong inner faith. Both her and her sister would find time to devote to prayer every day. They would lock themselves in their room in silence. It was more of a listening prayer than a verbal prayer. This marked her throughout her life — then there were evolutions: Her adult life, during the period of her relationship [with future husband Enrico] she leaned on the friars in Assisi; there she did vocation courses with the [youth center] and ... There she came back to give witness talks after losing her first child. And there she returned when she was in crisis with Enrico [during their engagement], and then there they got married. So she matured. But one of the fundamental characteristics of Chiara’s faith: She was never ostentatious, she was not someone who went around saying “I am good...”

She had relationships with everybody, even people absolutely contrary to the faith. And she didn’t discount [their lack of faith] but she didn’t judge anybody or criticize anybody. It was more her example, her knowing how to listen, that made an impact. So a simple faith. Chiara was what you call a “fresh-faced” girl or “the girl next door.” She was very simple: jeans, a T-shirt. Compared to her sister or her mother, her makeup took 30 seconds, so she was always very quick. I think that’s what gets transmitted more, especially to young people. Today Chiara is appreciated because they see her as one of them. I always say if she was still here today she would blend in with the others. 

What is the message Chiara would have wanted to share with the world and which you carry in your heart?

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I would say maybe the most relevant message in these times is the message of peace. Chiara as a child lived through the war in Yugoslavia. She was very little, seeing the news on the television, and she was very upset to see these people who were affected. So today she would have a hard time accepting what is going on around the world in so many places and which unfortunately many people are helping to fuel. Therefore I think we need to lower the tensions and try to think about peace. 

How is Chiara’s living son, Francesco, doing?

Francesco recently turned 13 years old and he’s already as tall as his grandma ... He is very much like Chiara. When he was very small, not just physically, but his gifts, his characteristics, his creative abilities, and so on. Otherwise, he’s a 13-year-old, so wild and used to doing what 13-year-olds do. But a nice grandson. We also have three other grandchildren.

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