Since June 20, revelations of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s long history of preying sexually on young men, including at least one minor, have prompted horror—and outrage that McCarrick advanced so far within the hierarchy and exercised such power over papal elections, episcopal appointments, and even the Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, despite the to report his behavior, and the fact that “” about his with seminarians. Journalists have begun to question the network that enabled McCarrick, and pointed out the need to determine whether friends and protégés who now occupy positions of leadership in the Church were negligent of or complicit in McCarrick’s abuse.
As this story unraveled, three young laypeople advanced along the path to sainthood. News stories about Servant of God Chiara Petrillo, Ven. Carlo Acutis, and Bl. Nunzio Sulprizio formed a quiet undercurrent to the crisis. Their lives of hidden sanctity offer a hopeful contrast with the hidden behavior of the cardinal and his enablers.
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On July 2, the Diocese of Rome requested testimony that might advance the cause for canonization of Chiara Corbella Petrillo, who at age 28 died, like St. Gianna Molla, after postponing cancer treatment during pregnancy. Chiara met her husband Enrico in 2002, and they married six years later, having cultivated a special devotion to St. Francis. The couple experienced several traumatic pregnancies. Their first child was diagnosed in utero with anencephaly, a severe defect of the neural tube, and their second child likewise developed life-threatening abnormalities. Chiara carried both babies to term, and both died less than an hour after birth.
Shortly after Chiara became pregnant a third time, she developed a cancerous lesion on her tongue. She lost the ability to speak and swallow, but she refused any treatment that might compromise the health of her child, including an early induction. In May of 2011, Chiara gave birth to a healthy baby boy and began cancer treatment, but by the spring of 2012, the cancer had metastasized. She died that June, wearing her wedding dress. In a letter to her son, she , “Whatever you do, it will only be meaningful if you think about eternal life. If you truly love, you will realize that nothing belongs to you, because everything is a gift.”
On July 5, Pope Francis advanced the cause for canonization of Carlo Acutis, a gifted computer programmer and technophile who died at age fifteen. Carlo frequented the sacraments and loved the Eucharist, which he his “highway to heaven.” At age eleven, he began a website that catalogued the Eucharistic miracles of the world, a project that would occupy him for two and a half years. He died of leukemia in 2006, but not before he had visited many of the miraculous sites with his parents. “To always be close to Jesus, that’s my life plan,” he once said. “I’m happy to die because I’ve lived my life without wasting even a minute of it doing things that wouldn’t have pleased God.”
On July 19, Pope Francis announced that Bl. Nunzio Sulprizio would be canonized during October’s Synod on Young People. Born in 1817, Nunzio lost his father, sister, and mother while still a young boy. He then lived with his uncle, a blacksmith, and long hours of toil in the smithy led to a gangrenous sore on his leg. He would often sit in a stream and let the water flow over his open wound while he prayed the rosary.
Nunzio finally received medical care after he collapsed from exhaustion one winter, but it was too late. He developed bone cancer in his wounded leg and died at the age of nineteen. Neapolitans admired his resilience and his devotion to Mary. By the time of his death, they were already calling him lu santariello, the little saint.
At Nunzio’s beatification in 1963, Paul VI—who will be canonized along with Nunzio in October— him a model for young people. “He will tell you that you, young people, can regenerate within you the world in which Providence has called you to live and that it is up to you, the first ones, to devote yourself to the salvation of a society which needs precisely strong and intrepid souls.”
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These stories give us mundane images to ponder: a mother’s caress of her child, the keystrokes of a teenage computer programmer, rosary beads passing through blackened hands. Chiara, Carlo, and Nunzio lived without prestige. They were powerless, forgettable—by some standards pathetic. In this, they emulated the crucified Christ and bore witness to the efficacy of his Spirit. They chose the holy hiddenness—not that hiddenness whereby Cain evaded God’s questions, or David secretly conspired against Uriah. They hid in the cleft of the rock as the glory of the Lord passed by.
They lived their hidden sanctity alongside the unfolding of McCarrick's life. In the year Chiara Petrillo was born, McCarrick persuaded the diocese of Metuchen to purchase the now notorious beach house. The year Carlo Acutis was born, one of McCarrick’s alleged victims attempted suicide. In the early 2000s, while New Jersey dioceses were negotiating settlements with McCarrick’s alleged victims, Carlo Acutis visited sites of Eucharistic miracles, and Enrico and Chiara Petrillo buried two children who, they believed, were “born never to die.”
This juxtaposition is not meant to champion lay life in contradistinction to ordained life, for at their healthiest, these mutually enrich one another. Still less should it minimize the experience of McCarrick's victims or deflect attention from investigation into the abuse. Instead, it should remind us of something Henri de Lubac wrote in The Splendor of the Church:
The best Christians and the most vital are by no means found either inevitably or even generally among the wise and clever, the intelligentsia or the politically minded, or those of social consequence. … Their lives are hidden from the eyes of the world. … they are the source of all initiative and action, all spadework that is not to be fruitless. It is these people who are our preservation and who give us hope.
Some have emphasized the role of laypeople, particularly those able to withhold donations, in keeping pressure on bishops to investigate abuse. Others note that the most vehement calls to action and reform have come from young laypeople. I would like to add that a cloud of witnesses, including the three laypeople noted here, give us hope. They attest to the persistent and insurmountable work of the Holy Spirit. Amidst photograph after photograph of McCarrick, I have returned to a photograph of Servant of God Chiara Petrillo, mid-laugh, a jagged surgical scar at her throat and a patch covering one cancerous eye. She comforts me. Not everything that is hidden is evil. My feeble efforts to follow Christ are not farcical because of priests like McCarrick. In the sacraments, I still encounter the Shepherd.
As the embattled Church has been renewed in other ages by unlikely agents, perhaps lay people are now poised, through lives of ephemeral particularity, to bring about another renewal. As Bl. Paul VI reminded us at Nunzio’s beatification, we can regenerate within us the world in which providence has called us to live. It is up to us to devote ourselves to the salvation of a society that needs precisely strong and intrepid souls.
Jane Sloan Peters is a doctoral candidate in historical theology at Marquette University.