In one of Rome’s major basilicas is a side chapel containing this tomb. Most tourists walk right past it without a glance; a few look inside inquiringly, but can’t figure out what it’s all about, so they move on.
It’s a shame, because in the world of Catholic saints, this is one of the most intriguing cases of modern history: a Roman girl named Antonietta Meo, who died at the ripe old age of about 6 1/2. Born to a devout Catholic couple in 1930, Antonietta was soon diagnosed with osteo-sarcoma, a type of bone cancer. Part of her endless treatment involved amputating one of her legs, but even this extreme action couldn’t stop the cancer from eventually spreading to her entire body.
While constantly having to deal with both doctors and intense pain, Antonietta offered her sufferings up to Jesus, Whom she considered to be her close Friend. She began writing daily letters to Jesus, telling Him that she accepted this trial because it was His will. Spiritually, Antonietta’s writings are surprisingly profound for a child of her age. That’s why, when she died in 1937, her family and her parish priest asked the Diocese of Rome to initiate the process of her canonization.
It’s not surprising that they instantly hit a road-block! The Vatican demurred, arguing that Antonietta may have written beautiful things about offering herself to God, but she no doubt was merely repeating the kinds of spiritual teachings she was getting from her family and her parish clergy. How could such a little girl really will the heroic sacrifice that she said she wanted to make?
Traditionally, it has been accepted that children attain the age of reason at age seven–but of course this is only a bench-mark. Some kids appear to fully understand what they’re doing when they’re much younger; others don’t seem to get it until they’re older than that. Antonietta’s family, her doctors, and her parish clergy all vehemently insisted that she wasn’t just mimicking the lovely spiritual things they were telling her; she really understood exactly what she was saying to Jesus, and meant every word of it.
After decades of discussion, the Vatican finally agreed that in her case, it appeared that a six-year-old really could be a saint. Her cause was accepted in 1972, and in 2007 Pope Benedict XVI granted it formal approval–meaning that now she is known as Venerable Antonietta Meo. A 90-second video (in English) about her cause can be viewed here.
When we bring clients to tour this major basilica, we always stop in this little chapel and tell them the story of Antonietta. See what you can miss, if you don’t tour Rome with a knowledgeable guide?