By Scott Powell
On October 7, 1990, an Italian teenager, Blessed Chiara Luca Badano took her last breath on earth at 18 years old. When Pope Benedict XVI beatified her only 20 years later, she became the first official Saint of Generation X.
Blessed Chiara was one of those kids that everyone loved. She was beautiful, good at sports, had friends all around her, and liked to hang out in coffee shops. In many ways, she reminds me of our students here at the Thomas Center. I can almost see her hanging out in one of the coffee shops on the Hill in Boulder. Except that, Blessed Chiara was different. In 1987, while playing tennis, she collapsed from an overwhelming pain in her shoulder. The pain turned out to be a disease called osteogenic sarcoma—a form of bone cancer—that would soon take her life.
Before that life came to an end however, Blessed Chiara began to change the world. Friends and family would frequently visit the hospital to try to comfort and cheer her up, but it didn’t work. Chiara didn’t really need cheering. Instead, she radiated a joy and light that her debilitating sickness couldn’t extinguish. Her friends and family left their visits uplifted and inspired by Chiara, not the other way around. She would take long walks with, listen to, and comfort others in the hospital who were suffering—despite the pain from the debilitating growth on her spine. At one point, Cardinal Giovanni Saldarini, the Archbishop of Turin, heard about this incredible teen and came to visit. “The light in your eyes is splendid,” he told Chiara, “Where does it come from?” With her trademark smile, she replied, “I try to love Jesus as much as I can.”
So what does Blessed Chiara have to teach us today? I believe we can glean two important things from her life and death. First, Blessed Chiara—one of the first Saints of whom we can find plenty of vibrant, full color photos of (just do a Google search)—shows us that sainthood is not some distant reality. It’s achievable. It’s livable. When I look at pictures of Chiara, I can imagine her hanging out in the St. Thomas Aquinas Student Center. Sainthood is not a faded, dog-eared holy card. It’s a 17-year-old girl playing tennis; sipping a cappuccino; giving her life, breath and every movement back to God. Sainthood is seeing holiness in the stuff of everyday life. It’s doable; it’s attainable, and Blessed Chiara shows us that.
The second thing that Blessed Chiara shows us is that suffering is not meaningless. In the last few weeks, the Internet has exploded with debates about doctor-assisted suicide, and what it means to “die with dignity”. For Blessed Chiara, her joy, radiance, and embodiment of grace in the face of suffering from a terminal disease literally changed the lives of the people around her. In the end, suffering by itself means nothing. However, when that suffering is united with Christ on the cross, it can change the world.
In February, the Aquinas Institute for Catholic Thought will host its eighth annual “Great Debate.” This year we will be discussing the topic of doctor-assisted suicide. I expect that I’ll spend a good deal of time praying to Blessed Chiara as we prepare for this important event. We will all face a great deal of suffering in our lives—one way or another. I see it in our students. I see it in the faces of the tens of thousands of students at CU Boulder, many of whom have never heard of the hope of Jesus Christ. The mission of the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center is to change that, and it’s working. Would that we could all face the suffering of our lives with the words of Blessed Chiara after waking up from a particularly excruciating night at the height of her illness: “I suffered a lot, but my soul was singing.”