Chiara Luce Badano: A teen icon for our times

Celebration by youth at Chiara’s beatification at Aula Nervi
Celebration by youth at Chiara’s beatification at Aula Nervi.

Chiara means clear; Luce means light. Chiara Luce Badano was an Italian girl who, at the age of 18, died of a very painful bone cancer. She passed away on 7 October 1990. However, she left behind a trail of light which travels on, across all nations, urging young people everywhere to make a masterpiece of their lives the way she did.

Chiara Luce’s story is one which leaves its mark, and ever since her death it has consistently inspired articles, TV programmes, songs and musicals, all over. The world of social media is full of news stories about various initiatives attributed to her, and there are websites and biographies on her in more than thirty languages of the world. Numerous parks, streets, youth clubs, clinics and shelters for the needy carry her name in different countries.

Chiara Luce Badano was born in a tiny mountain village called Sassello, in Italy, on 29 October 1971. Long-awaited, she was an only child, and received a solid moral education from her parents. When she was barely nine, she came across the Focolare Movement founded by Chiara Lubich, which gave her a strong spirituality of unity and love for others.

Her mother, Maria Teresa, recounts a childhood episode. Seeing that Chiara had many toys, she asked her, “Chiara, wouldn’t you like to give away some of these to those who do not have any? Chiara immediately retorted, “No! They are mine!” and marched off to her room. Later, her mother heard her saying, “This one, yes; this one, no.” She was sorting out her toys, placing the best ones in a bag to be given away. “But Chiara, do you really want to give away your new toys?” her mother asked. Chiara replied: “Yes, I can’t give old broken toys to children who don’t have anything!”

Another day, her mother asked Chiara to help her clear the dining table. Pat came Chiara’s reply: “I don’t want to!” But after a few seconds, she said, “How does that story in the Bible go, of the young man whom his father asked to go to work in the field; though he first refused, but went later?” Then she told her mother, “Mummy, put my apron on.” And she set about clearing the table as her mother wanted.

Chiara (right) with her best friend

As a teenager, Chiara was cheerful, lively and outgoing, though quite reserved at times. She enjoyed wearing fashionable clothes, listening to music and hanging out with friends in coffee shops. She skated and played tennis, loved trekking and thoroughly enjoyed swimming. Her adventurous spirit made her think that one day she would become a flight attendant, but her generous heart made her dream of becoming a doctor to help sick children in Africa.

Chiara had her struggles, too. After her first year of high school, she suffered a big blow: she failed in Mathematics, something that many thought she did not deserve, as it resulted from a misunderstanding with her teacher. She learnt this just as she was about to leave for Rome to accompany a group of children for an international event. Though her heart was heavy, she decided to go ahead with her plans, and gave herself totally to the children entrusted to her.

There was also disappointment in a teenage love that faded before it even blossomed, as she didn’t settle for half measures. “I was beginning to love him, but I realized that things were different for him: he just wanted to be with me. So, I finished with him,” she later told her mother.

Chiara was caring and friendly with everyone: she carried the school work for her classmate who was sick, available to her grandparents who needed assistance, kind to the marginalized and homeless whom she met on her way back home from school. At times, she was mocked and was called names because of her generosity and faith; although it saddened her, she stayed strong and did not change her ways.

Chiara was caring and friendly with everyone: she carried the school work for her classmate who was sick, available to her grandparents who needed assistance, kind to the marginalized and homeless whom she met on her way back home from school. At times, she was mocked and called names because of her generosity and faith; although it saddened her, she stayed strong and did not change her ways.

At 16, everything seemed wonderful and Chiara’s future appeared bright. One day, however, while playing tennis she felt an excruciating pain in her shoulder. After multiple hospital tests, she was diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma, a very aggressive and painful bone cancer. Chiara could not believe this was happening to her. “Why? Why now? Why me?” Her mother recalls how Chiara threw herself on her bed, saying, “Mum, don’t talk. Just don’t talk, now!” For 25 minutes, which seemed like an eternity, her mother stood by her side. She could see her struggle. Then Chiara looked at her with the usual bright smile and told her, “Okay. Now you can talk.” She had accepted the verdict, the treatment and all that it would have meant for her. She simply prayed: “It’s for you, my God; if you want it, I want it, too!”

The cancer had weakened and diminished her body, however throughout her illness Chiara never lost her sense of joy. During her hospitalization, she assisted other patients, did acts of kindness for the medical staff, encouraged her parents and consoled friends who visited her.

She kept nothing for herself, sharing all that she had with her closest friends, the Gen of the Focolare Movement. The word “Gen” stands for New Generation: Chiara and these friends belonged to the thousands of youth, a part of the Focolare Movement worldwide, who want to renew their lives by loving everyone, always, and being the first to love, believing that all humanity is one family.

Chiara kept a list of all her personal things making them available to anyone who needed them. She even gave away the savings she had from her last birthday to a friend who started a project in Benin, Africa. She gave the money to him saying, “I don’t need it. I already have everything.” After her death, an envelope was found in her desk, with 70,000 lire (around Rs 3,000) on which it was written: “For Africa”. Since then, large amounts were raised and sent to Benin, for the construction of wells, schools, homes and a clinic for children.

Chiara during her last days
Chiara during her last days.

Though the cancer took away Chiara’s mobility and all her energy, she kept saying: “Though I have nothing left, I still have my heart, with that I can always love.” It was the early hours of 7 October 1990, at 4.00 am, to be precise, Chiara realized it was time for her to pass from this life to the next. She looked at her parents and told them: “Farewell. Be happy because I am happy!” She then smiled, and breathed her last.

The news of Chiara’s passing away soon spread all around Sassello, even before dawn had broken. In no time, people flocked to the Badano’s home, because their daughter Chiara belonged to all of them. On the day of her funeral, all the shops in Sassello remained shut, paying respect to Chiara, as the mayor had requested them.

More than 2,000 people were present for her funeral: there were plenty of tears, but no sadness! Her friends kept singing the joyful songs Chiara herself had chosen for her funeral celebration, which she wanted to be her “wedding feast”. It was truly a celebration of young Chiara’s beautiful life!

Though the cancer took away Chiara’s mobility and all her energy, she kept saying: “Though I have nothing left, I still have my heart, with that I can always love.”

Chiara’s parents at the dedication of a church to her in Sironj
Chiara’s parents at the dedication of a church to her in Sironj

Her unique story soon spread around the world, reaching even different parts of India. A group of young people in Kerala came to know about Chiara Luce, and they chose her as their inspiring icon, and the model for their community services, and their outreach programmes for the terminally ill, christening their group “4U” to remind them of Chiara’s favourite saying.

On 25 September 2010, Pope Benedict XVI, the then head of the Catholic Church, declared her “Blessed” in recognition of her heroic virtues and tireless works for the poor despite the pain she suffered, (a formal status the Church confers on an individual after death in recognition of the virtues he/she practised in a heroic way) qualifying her worthy of emulation by Catholics everywhere.

In September 2015, a beautiful newly-built church was dedicated to her in Sironj, Vidisha district of Madhya Pradesh, in the presence of her parents. Bishop Anthony Chirayath of Sagar Diocese, who commissioned the construction, explained his choice of her name for the church: “I learned about Chiara Luce from her biography which I read during a trip to Italy. I felt that Chiara’s life could serve as an example and inspiration for our young people here. I want them to become like Chiara — ever-smiling, cheerful, sportive, singing and dancing, friendly and loving, kind and thoughtful of others, especially of the poor and the sick.”

Youthful Chiara Luce continues to fascinate and win the hearts of people everywhere, especially the young, of all religions and cultures. Hers is a story that continues to inspire everyone, and never ceases to amaze!

Rose Aloysius

Rose Aloysius from Mumbai is deeply passionate about the culture of unity and universal brotherhood promoted by the Focolare Movement, and actively promotes all that teenagers, children and youth contribute towards it.