“Iwas so touched at how Chiara Bella loved us, her friends. Even with her condition, just moments before she died, she asked her Mom to buy a big Toblerone so she could give it to us as “pasalubong” (gift brought home to loved ones) upon her return home.”
“I still remember that in school, nobody wanted to be friends with me because I was always talking about my brother who had died. Chiara Bella was the only one who approached me to make friends with me.”
“Once, I had chickenpox. Nobody came to visit me except Chiara Bella… When I went back to school after recovering, my classmates were scared that they would catch it. In their fear, they went out of the classroom. Only Chiara Bella remained with me in the room. That’s how she loves, even those who are not her close friends.”
These are only some of the messages that we received, as news of Chiara Bella’s passing on in Iloilo City last June 3, 2019 reached her family and friends. They are enough to spark one’s interest about who this girl truly was, and what secret lay behind her characteristic strength to go beyond herself.
Born on November 27, 2003 in the province of Aklan in the Philippines, Chiara Bella was only 15 years old when she succumbed to a rare case of brain cancer. Yet, a closer look at the life she lived reminds us of the popular saying: “It’s not the years in your life that count, but the life in your years.”
Life at Home
Chiara Bella was the fourth of six children born to Dennis and Menchie Bontogon. Her older siblings are Niño Juchel and Mary Denise, followed by Joseph Blaise, who had also lived a short life of one year and five months. Following Chiara Bella are two younger sisters Greta Noelle and Precious Dorothy. Why she was named “Chiara” is easy to guess, as the Bontogon family is one of the families of the Focolare Movement, founded by Chiara Lubich. Her name was to remind them of the Focolare’s way of life rooted in love and unity, which they saw as “beautiful”; thus, the second name “Bella” which means “beautiful.”
From early childhood, Caycay—as her family fondly calls her—had already experienced the power of prayer, and grew up with solid roots in God. Her mother Menchie remembers one instance when Chiara Bella was four years old.
“Her younger sister Greta had put a rubber band inside her own nose. Several attempts were made to pull the rubber band out, but instead, it went even farther into Greta’s nose to the point that she could hardly breathe. I said to Chiara Bella, ‘Let’s pray together that the rubber band will be removed from her nose.’ I saw how she prayed so hard, with her eyes closed, and fervent tears rolling down from them. In a short while, Greta suddenly coughed, and the rubber band came out of her mouth. I was deeply touched by this experience with Chiara Bella.”
Greta, now in her early teens, reminisces, “Caycay has been my playmate since we were small. We loved to play together, and we’d also fight, and then become friends again. She was generous. When she would have extra money, she would pay for my fare. One time, I had plenty of laundry, and she immediately offered to help me wash my clothes.”
This concrete love extended to the whole family. Dennis says, “She didn’t want us to be burdened. Chiara would do anything to make us happy—dishwashing, cooking, sweeping the floor, cleaning the house and the surroundings, gardening and doing the laundry.”
The Simple Potent Secret
From an early age, Chiara Bella had already joined the “Gen,” the young people of the Focolare Movement. The first time she met the Gen 4—the small children, she was quite shy, and did not join in their talks about making “acts of love for Jesus.” But the next time she joined the Gen 4, she had found the courage to speak up, saying that she was happy to know that “even just smiling or listening to the teacher is an act of love.”
After that, whenever the Gen 4 met together, she would be among the first to help, like in arranging chairs or making name tags. Even in her teens, her concreteness, along with her smile, became her signature traits. That phrase, “to make an act of love for Jesus,” had become a part of her life.
This was the simple but powerful secret that helped her go beyond herself and her personal limits, especially in difficult situations. Her relationship with Jesus shines forth in an answer she had written in one of her Grade 9 exams: “I show God how important He is in every moment because He is the only one that we all need.”
While Chiara Bella had strong spiritual roots, she was also surprisingly human. Like any teenager, she wanted to be herself, free to express her opinions and do what she enjoyed.
When her illness was discovered, she had to go through hospital confinments and laboratory tests, and take medications that she detested. Soon, the illness took away her ability to walk and do other basic things. Having to go through this experience at the prime of her youth, she began to question God. “I am a good child, so why did I get sick?”
“I Offer My Life to You”
But gradually, Chiara Bella began to accept her sickness. She also began to change the way she lived her experience. She took her medicines more willingly, and whenever she would be in pain, she would call on God.
Someone who visited her said, “We witnessed how she struggled to breathe, and yet she managed to joke and make us laugh despite the terrible pain that talking caused her… We saw how she was at peace when we prayed together. It was a strong experience… painful and yet beautiful. She was a fighter, a brave girl who loved until the very end.”
As the sickness progressed rapidly, Chiara Bella was often heard singing, “Lord, I offer my life to You.” At dawn on June 3, 2019, God finally came to receive her offering, one that was clearly and beautifully destined for Paradise.