The Word Among Us

July/August 2024 Issue

A Heart of Perseverance

Blessed Benedetta Bianchi Porro’s Road to Calvary

By: Elizabeth M. Kelly

A Heart of Perseverance: Blessed Benedetta Bianchi Porro’s Road to Calvary by Elizabeth M. Kelly

Sometimes we imagine Jesus on his way to the cross with white-knuckled fists, driven by a fierce yet holy determination. That’s often how we think about how to practice perseverance—with clenched fists and through sheer human will, never giving up, never conceding—fight, fight, fighting to the end.

If we understand Christian perseverance in this way, something quite telling happens: we focus on ourselves, on our own effort, leaving Jesus completely out of the equation. And if life hasn’t taught us yet, it probably will: this is a fundamentally flawed interpretation.

Christian perseverance is about giving your heart to heaven, giving your heart to the eternal values that govern it, no matter what might be happening in your life. It’s not simply about struggling to overcome difficulty but about measuring that difficulty against the reality of eternity and depending on God to bring you through it, soul intact.

Jesus did not walk to Calvary with clenched fists. He walked the Via Dolorosa with an open heart and open hands, into which the Father placed the cross. Giving his heart to the Father, he measured his cross by eternity’s scale.

There are those who seem created to persevere, whose lives exemplify this “looking through death” to such a degree that they seem to already have one foot in heaven. Benedetta Bianchi Porro is one such person.

Fulfilling a Dream. Benedetta was born August 8, 1936, in Dovadola, Forli, Italy, the second of six children. Her father, Guido Bianchi Porro, was an engineer. Her mother, Elsa Giamarchi, shared her simple yet deep faith with her children.

As an infant, Benedetta contracted polio, which left one of her legs crippled. Later, she had to wear a brace to keep her spine from becoming deformed. The brace was tremendously painful, but she bore the pain with unusual strength for a child.

Benedetta loved to study and, at a very early age, determined that she would be a missionary doctor. But as a teenager, she began losing her hearing, and this placed her dreams of practicing medicine in serious jeopardy. It became more and more difficult for her to hear in the classroom, and occasionally she struggled to make herself understood. Despite this growing disability, Benedetta was an excellent and determined student. As she entered the University of Milan at the age of seventeen, she wrote, “I face my new studies with new strength: I must fulfill my dream of becoming a physician. I want to live, to fight, to sacrifice myself for all men.”

God honored her noble prayer. At first, some professors objected to a deaf student, but Benedetta proved to have such a fine mind that she was allowed to continue. She learned to read lips but sometimes, for oral exams, requested written questions, which she could read and then respond to orally. Some of her classmates didn’t even realize she was deaf.

Progressive Loss. Benedetta persevered in her studies, but ultimately, she did not become a medical doctor. In fact, about the only person she ever diagnosed was herself. In 1957, after four years of medical studies, Benedetta determined that she suffered with neurofibromatosis—a diagnosis that her professors and other doctors later confirmed. Extremely rare and incurable, the disease may involve—alone or in some combination—tumors in the brain, along the spinal cord, and along the nerves that affect signals between the brain and spinal cord. Typically, in severe cases, the auditory nerve is the first to be damaged, followed by the optic nerve, and then the other senses are compromised—touch, taste, and smell. Finally, progressive paralysis sets in. This was Benedetta’s experience.

Over several years, Benedetta had numerous surgeries. She lost her hearing, her eyesight, her ability to move, her sense of taste, even her sense of touch. She maintained the ability to use her right hand and the capacity to speak, even to sing, though only in a whisper.

Through this extraordinary suffering, Benedetta became ever more aware of the richness of her interior life—a life beyond the senses of the body, a life intimately connected with Jesus in his agony. Despite her increasingly beleaguered body, she continued to give the deepest part of her heart to the Father.

For example, at one point she had to have her head shaved before an operation. She later recalled how humiliated she felt. “While they were cutting my hair, I felt like a lamb in the hands of the shearer, and I prayed that the Lord would make me strong and small. I suffered so much, and I asked the Lord to make of me a little sheep in his hands.”

“I Do Not Lack Hope.” Impressively, Benedetta continued in her studies and completed five years of a six-year medical degree. She had just one year of school to go when an operation—intended to slow the paralysis of her lower body—only made matters worse. She was no longer able to walk. In 1960, she had to completely give up her studies—a tremendous disappointment for someone who longed to be active and to serve. She confessed to her friend, Nicoletta, that she was feeling “alone, tired, somewhat humiliated, and without much patience” and asked, “Why is this happening to me? Why is God allowing this?”

Nicoletta replied, “Don’t panic if you seem to be rebelling—this is not important in God’s eyes. He knows the truth. Before this vast mystery, he wants only our ‘yes’; it doesn’t matter if we say it badly.” Benedetta wrote back, “Bless you for the joy you have obtained for me, a joy too great for me, so unworthy. I was flooded with joy, as though all the oceans were poured into a walnut shell.”

From that time on, Benedetta received suffering less as a burden to be heroically carried and more as a mark of divine favor. Jesus called her to share his cross so that she might identify with him. She persevered by placing herself entirely in his hands and found her strength in the Gospels, which she read every day, in the letters of St. Paul, and in the psalms.

Not long after that, Benedetta had another operation, this time on the optic nerve. The operation left her completely blind. “There is nothing to do but trust in God, with eyes closed. I am in the process of living simplicity, that is, the stripping of the soul. How beautiful it is! One becomes so light and free!”

One of her most moving letters was written to a stranger, a young man who endured suffering that was similar to hers. Benedetta wrote,

Because I’m deaf and blind, things have become complicated for me. Nevertheless, in my Calvary, I do not lack hope. I know that at the end of the road, Jesus is waiting for me. First in my armchair, and now in my bed, where I now stay, I have found a wisdom greater than that of men—I have discovered that God exists, that he is love, faithfulness, joy, certitude, to the end of the ages. My days are not easy. They are hard, but sweet because Jesus is with me, with my sufferings, and he gives me his sweetness in my loneliness and light in the darkness. He smiles at me and accepts my collaboration.

Persevering to the End. On January 21, 1964, sensing that her death was near, Benedetta made her confession and received Communion. The next night, she asked her nurse to remain close by because Satan was tempting her. She said, “Emilia, tomorrow I will die. I feel very ill.”

In the morning, Benedetta asked her mother to read to her the “Act of Oblation to Merciful Love” from St. Thérèse, the Little Flower. As her mother painstakingly signed the prayer into her daughter’s palm, a little bird landed on the windowsill and then on a nearby rosebush. Benedetta’s mother watched as, almost instantaneously, a white rose blossomed beneath it. A rose in bloom in January in northern Italy! Benedetta’s mother announced her discovery to her daughter, who replied, “This is the sign I was waiting for!” Benedetta had had a dream on the previous All Saints’ Day, in which she went into the family burial vault and saw it decorated with a white rose dazzling with light.

Benedetta died shortly thereafter, at the age of twenty-seven. Her last words were “Thank you.” Persevering to the end, Benedetta gave herself to a great Love, and that Love gave her the ability to look through death and to give us all a glimpse of the extraordinary means heaven will use to bring us to bloom. She was beatified by Pope Francis on September 14, 2019.

Elizabeth Kelly is a speaker and the author of more than a dozen books. This article was adapted from Love like a Saint: Cultivating Virtue with Holy Women, available at