VENERABLE ANTONIETTA MEO
Innocence Embraces the Cross
At a tender age, she had such a deep understanding and love of the expiatory value of suffering that before she reached the age of seven she had conquered the heavenly homeland.
Sr. Mary Teresa MacIsaac, EP
There are certain souls, who, if God, in His mercy, had not called them to Himself at a tender age, would have gone astray like lost sheep, exposing them selves to be devoured by the savage wolves of perdition and evil. We can conjecture as to what might have become of the Holy Innocents if God had not taken them before they had the possibility of staining their souls with sin. Who can guarantee that many of them, as adults, would not have been shouting in the Praetorium of Pilate: “Crucify Him!”? Instead, they all make up part of the choir of martyrs, eternally singing God’s glory in Heaven, together with St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Stephen, St. Agnes and all the blessed souls.
But let us leave behind the wonders of the nascent Church and turn our attention to a little girl of the past century, to whom God gave a vocation very different from that of most children: to understand and love, while still very young, the expiatory value of suffering.
A terrible diagnosis
Nennolina—as she was affectionately called by her family—was born in Rome, on December 15, 1930. Fourth daughter of Maria and Michele Meo, she was baptized on the 28th of the same month, feast of the Holy Innocents, in her parish, the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, where the principal relics of the Passion are kept. It is impossible not to see something symbolic in these details, for a soul destined to shine as innocence embracing the cross...
Antonietta’s childhood was like that of any girl. Margaret, her eldest sister, recalls that she was “joyful, full of life and mischievous, as children are wont to be at that age.”1 In October of 1933, her parents registered her in the school of the Sister Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, beside her house. She enjoyed being among the religious, and said: “I have a lot of fun at school... I will stay until night-time!”2 But the deeper reason for this joy she expressed in one of her messages to Jesus: “I go enthusiastically, because I learn so many beautiful things about You and Your saints.”3
Life in the Meo family home was tranquil, until, at the age of four, her parents noticed that Nenno- lina’s left knee was swollen. At first they thought it was the consequence of some tumble she had taken during a game, but seeing that it did not get better, they took her for medical examinations, resulting in a terrible diagnosis: osteosarcoma!
“Today I am going on mission to Africa”
After innumerable painful and ineffective treatments, in February of 1936, the child refused the painful injections of calcium prescribed by the specialists. To convince her of the need to take them, her mother reminded her how much more Jesus had suffered than her when they scourged Him and crowned Him with thorns, and she urged the girl to offer her sufferings to Him. From that time on, she accepted the treatment without crying. Additionally, to dominate herself, she forced her- self to sing and laugh when the procedure was most painful.
Two months later, it became necessary to amputate her left leg. The child courageously endured the pain of the operation and made an effort to console her parents who were deeply upset and disheartened by the course of events. Fully aware of what was happening, despite her very young age, she offered her sufferings to God for the Church, the Pope, for peace in the world, for the salvation of sinners, for missionaries and for the children of Africa. In the especially painful moments of her treatment, she would repeat several times: “Today I am going on mission to Africa.”4
In September of 1936, Antonietta was able to restart her life as a student. She had to use a prosthesis, and had great difficulty walking. At the beginning, she could not manage to play with her classmates, but she offered all these sacrifices to Jesus: “Each step I take, may it be an expression of love!”5
Desire for First Communion
Because of the gravity of the illness, Nennolina’s parents decided to move up the date of her First Communion. And to prepare her well, her mother taught her a part of the catechism every night. During one of these sessions, she began her well-known custom of writing little letters to Our Lord.
It all started when, at the suggestion of her mother, she wrote to the Superior of the convent where she studied, asking to make her First Communion at Christmas of that year. After that first letter, the letters continued unabated. Antonietta sent them to God the Father to Jesus, to the Holy Spirit, to Our Lady, and even to St. Agnes and St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus.
She did not know how to write yet, so she dictated them to her mother. But she soon learned to write her name, and began signing them with touching innocence: Antonietta and Jesus. She left them next to the statue of the Child Jesus which was at the foot of her bed, so that in this way, “He can read them at night.”6
The first letter to Our Lord is from September 15 of that year: “Jesus, come into my heart soon so that I can hug You very strongly and give You a kiss. O Jesus, I want You to always stay in my heart.”7 The messages prior to First Communion always express her ardent desire to receive Him: “Dearest Eucharistic Jesus, greetings and caresses, dear Jesus, and kisses. I can’t wait until the time comes when I can receive You in my heart, to love You more.” And on another occasion she wrote: “Dear Jesus tell God the Father that I’m glad that He gave me the good idea of receiving First Holy Communion on Christmas because it’s exactly the day on which Jesus was born on earth to save us and die on the Cross.”
Surprising mystical and theological depth
A closer look at her little letters reveals terms and expressions of surprising mystical and theological depth. They “consist of random thoughts and often contain grammatical errors typical of children. However, behind these very simple words, which reveal a dialogue of love with the Divine Persons, behind these modest and elementary sentences, one catches a faint glimpse, not unlike a watermark, of the intensity of a love which is a personal experience,”10 such as these:
“Dear God the Father, what a beautiful name: Father; I want to say it with total respect, I see that when I say it, I do not say it with all the respect with which I should say it;”11
“Dear Holy Spirit, You, who are the Love of the Father and the Son, enlighten my heart and my soul and bless me, dear Holy Spirit; I love You so much, dear Holy Spirit; when I will be confirmed, give me Your seven gifts. [...] You who are Love that joins the Father to the Son, join me to the Holy Trinity.”12
Like St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, Antonietta desired to suffer for the conversion of sinners. She once wrote to Our Lord: “Give me souls, I ask of You, so that I can do good to them, and with my mortifications I will help them to become good.”13 Her heart also burned with desire to make reparation for the sins committed against the Divine Redeemer: “Dear God the Father, I know that Your Son suffered much, but tell Him that I, to make reparation for our sins, will make many sacrifices.”14 A few months later, she insisted: “Dear Jesus, I offer all my sacrifices as reparation for the sins which sinners commit.”15
Showing deep displeasure with those who do not love God and the desire to make them change their attitude, she writes: “Dear God the Father, my mother tells me that to- morrow there will be a gathering of many people who want to call themselves godless: what an ugly name! God is also God of those who do not love Him; make these people convert and give them Your grace.”16
Affection and uprightness of soul
Her messages to Our Lord are veritable cascades of daughterly affection. She concludes them with torrents of kisses and hugs, such as this one, which was the last, dictated to her mother when she was feeling very unwell: “I want to repeat to You that I love You very, very much. [...] Your little girl sends You a lot of kisses.”17 Or this one, in which she shows her desire to console Our Lord Crucified, during Holy Week: “I know that You suffered so much on the Cross, and in this week of the Passion, I want to suffer for souls in need, so that they convert. Be- loved Jesus, I love You so much, so very much, O Jesus, and I want to be Your votive lamp and Your Easter lily, the lily that represents purity of soul and the votive lamp that rep- resents the flame of love that never leaves You alone.”18
She would be deeply saddened whenever she committed some fault and hastened to acknowledge it: “I love You so much, but today I told a lie, and want to be pardoned, and I ask You with my whole heart, for I feel a great sorrow.”19 Her inner uprightness sparked compunction even for minor childish naughtiness: “Dear Child Jesus, I repent with my whole heart for that stubborn- ness of mine and I ask Your forgive- ness with all my heart, and tomorrow I will do many small sacrifices to make reparation.”20
To this very innocent soul, this pure heart, can be applied the words of Msgr. João S. Clá Dias: “A child knows neither lies, deceit nor hypocrisy. Its soul is reflected in its face; with touching frank- ness its words faithfully convey its thoughts. A child is not prey to the insecurities and vanities of human respect. In short, a child is simpli- city itself.”21
The joy of the Sacraments and the Papal Blessing
The long-desired Christmas of 1936 finally arrived, the day of her First Communion. The ceremony was held at night and, despite the pain caused by the orthopaedic device, Nennolina remained kneeling for more than an hour after the Mass, praying with her hands joined. And in May of 1937 she received the Sacrament of Confirmation.
The amputation of her leg was not enough to stop the advance of the cancer. The sufferings from the illness were coupled with painful treatments. Her last days were quickly approaching. She had a wracking cough and bouts of asphyxia. She was too weak to sit up and had to stay in bed. But when- ever anyone asked her how she felt, she answered smiling: “I’m fine!”
Despite these torments, she kept up her morning and night prayers. Her mother, who asked a priest to bring her the Holy Eucharist every day, gave this testimony: “The time after Communion was always more tranquil.”22
Whenever she felt a little better, she dictated more letters to Jesus. The last—which ended up in the hands of Pope Pius XI—was dictated with difficulty to her mother, on June 2, 1937: “Dear Jesus the Crucified, I love You so much, I love You so I want to stay with You on Calvary and I suffer with joy because I know I’m on Calvary. Dear Jesus. I thank You for having sent me this illness because it is a means to get to Paradise. Dear Jesus tell God the Father that I love Him very much too. Dear Jesus give me the strength to bear this pain I offer You for sinners...”23
Her mother tells us at this point Antonietta was assailed by a violent attack of coughing and vomiting. But, as soon as she recovered she wanted to continue the letter: “Dear Jesus tell the Holy Spirit to enlighten me with love and fill me with Its seven gifts. Dear Jesus tell the sweet Virgin Mary that I love her so much and I want to stay with her.”24 Seeing her daughter suffer so excessively, her mother was overcome by an outburst of inconformity; she crumpled up the paper and threw it in a drawer.
Some days later, Professor Aminta Milani, pontifical protomedico, came to examine Nennolina and was astonished to see how much pain she suffered without voicing the least complaint. Her father spoke to the professor about the letters that she dictated to her mother and the doctor showed interest in seeing the most recent. He read it on that crumpled piece of paper and asked permission to take it with him, for he wished to show it to the Holy Father. The next day, an envoy of Pius XI went to visit the girl and impart the Apostolic Blessing to Nennolina; he related that His Holiness was moved when he read the note.
From Calvary to glory
In the middle of June, the disease worsened. Antonietta gasped for breath and it became necessary to extract liquid from her lungs. On June 23, her sufferings climaxed: the surgeon made a resection of three ribs, applying only local anaesthesia, for her extremely debilitated organism could not have endured anything stronger. A helpless witness of her daughter’s pain, her mother held back tears and tried to console her daughter by holding out hope for recovery. She tells us her daughter’s reply: “She looked at me and kindly said: ‘Mommy, rejoice, be happy... Within ten days, a little less, I will leave here.’”25 With these words, Antonietta announced with exactitude the day and hour of her death.
At this point, her father called a priest to administer the Anointing of the Sick.
“Do you know what the Holy Oils are?” he asked her.
“The Sacrament that is given to the dying,” was her unflinching reply. “Sometimes it also restores bodily health,” her father added, wanting to lessen her suffering. Hearing that, she did not want to receive it, because she wanted to suffer for Jesus. But when the priest explained to her that the Holy Oil increases grace, she said: “Then, I want it.”
She calmly extended her little hands to be anointed and responded with devotion to all the prayers prescribed by the Liturgy. When the first streaks of dawn appeared on the horizon, on July 3, 1937, Antonietta Meo opened her eyes and whispered: “Jesus, Mary... Mommy, Daddy...”26 Then she fixed her gaze straight ahead, smiled and, exhaling a long breath, departed for Heaven.
That innocent soul went to meet the Innocent One, whom she loved so much in this life and for Whom she carried her cross with such joy, to partake of His glory in eternity.
DI PIETRO, Raffaele. La tua Nennolina. Roma: Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusa- lemme, 2004, p.2.
2 Idem, ibidem.
3 PONTIFICIUM OPUS A SANCTA INFANTIA. Ven- erable Antonietta Meo.
4 DI PIETRO, op.cit., p.9.
PONTIFICIUM OPUS A SANCTA INFANTIA. Ven- erable Antonietta Meo.
6 BORRIELLO, L. Antoni- etta Meo (Nennolina). In: BORRIELLO, L. et al. (Dir.). Dicionário de mís- tica. São Paulo: Paulus; Loyola, 2003, p.82.
7 MEO, Antonietta. Letter of 15/9/1936, apud FALAS- CA, Stefania. As cartinhas de “Nennolina”. In: 30 DI- AS. Na Igreja e no mun- do. Roma. Maio, 2010: www.30giorni.it/articoli_ id_22673_l2.htm.
8 MEO, Antonietta. Letter of 23/12/1936, apud BORRI- ELLO, op. cit., p.83.
9 MEO, Antonietta. Letter of 17/12/1936. In: Antoni- etta Meo. Nennolina: www. nennolina.it.
10 BORRIELLO, op. cit., p.83.
11 MEO, Antonietta. Letter of 4/2/1937, apud BORRI- ELLO, op. cit., p.83.
12 Idem, Letters of 29/1/1937; 26/4/1937, p.84.
13 Idem, Letter of 12/11/1936.
14 Idem, Letter of 23/11/1936.
15 Idem, Letter of 9/4/1937.
16 Idem, Letter of 6/2/1937, p.83.
17 MEO, Antonietta. Letter of 2/6/1937, apud DI PIET- RO, op. cit., p.6-7.
18 MEO, Antonietta. Letter of 16/3/1937. In: Antoni- etta Meo. Nennolina: www. nennolina.it.
19 MEO, Antonietta. Letter of 6/9/1936, apud BORRI- ELLO, op. cit., p.84.
20 Idem, Letter of 9/12/1936.
21 CLÁ DIAS, EP, João Scog- namiglio. “Unless You Be- come Like Children...” In: New Insights on the Gos- pels. Sunday Gospel Com- mentaries. Year C. Città del Vaticano-São Paulo: LEV; Lumen Sapientiæ, 2012, vol.V, p.124.
22 DI PIETRO, op.cit., p.6. 23 MEO, Antonietta. Letter of
2/6/1937, apud BORRI- ELLO, op. cit., p.84.
24 MEO, Antonietta. Letter of 2/6/1937, apud DI PIET- RO, op. cit., p.6-7.
25 DI PIETRO, op. cit., p.7-8. 26 Idem, p.9.