Venerable Antonietta Meo, Nennolina 1930 – 1937.
A very special little girl from Italy named Antonietta Meo, died of bone cancer at the very young age of six and a half in her home in the city of Rome on 3rd July, 1937. She was called by another name, just like the nick names or pet names our parents have for us. This name by which she was affectionately known was Nennolina.
Nennolina was from a fairly wealthy family and was very much loved by her parents and her sister Margherita. Her home life was happy and she was a very playful, joyful and quite a mischievous child.
At the age of three, she went to nursery school with religious sisters and she enjoyed it immensely. The sisters told her parents that she was an intelligent child who had a facility for learning. She got on very well with all her fellow school pupils and was very popular with them due to her kindness and her personality. She also had a great sense of humour and her teachers remarked on this fact.
When she was four years old, her parents noticed a slight lump on her left knee, but put it down to her having fallen due to being so playful and active.
However, when the swelling remained they decided to have it investigated. At the age of five, she was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of bone cancer, so the doctors decided the best course of treatment was to amputate her leg. Naturally, her parents were very upset at this as Antonietta was so young.
Nennolina bore the news and the ordeal of the amputation “cheerfully.” She was fitted with a heavy artificial leg so she was back playing with her friends in no time. Through a special grace given to her from God, she understood more than most grown-ups the true value of suffering. A nun who was a nurse at the medical clinic reported the following conversation between her and her Father who asked his darling Nennolina:
“Do you feel much pain?” And she answered him thus:
“I am very happy that Jesus gave me this problem so that I can be His dearest one,” and she added, “Daddy, the pain is like fabric, the stronger it is, the more value it has.”
She meant for her friend Jesus of course as He can save souls through the sufferings of others when they are offered to Him out of love.
This was a happy, though pain-filled time in her life. Just when she turned six she went to school. Her artificial leg, really began to bother her a lot. However, she was overjoyed when, at this same time, her Mother began to teach her the catechism in the evenings in preparation for her First Holy Communion.
It was also now that she began to write extraordinary letters to her friend Jesus. What she couldn’t write herself she dictated to her mother who wrote the letters for her. They were placed under the statue of Jesus in her room so He could read them during the night when she slept.
Catholic theologians were astounded at the content and depth of the letters she wrote to Jesus, and went so far as to call the young girl a “mystic” because, what she wrote showed an understanding of love and suffering beyond her years.
In September, 1936, Nennolina was very excited about a letter she wrote to Jesus. She told Him:
“Dear Jesus, today I’m going out and I’m going to my nuns to tell them I want to make my First Holy Communion at Christmas. Jesus, come soon into my heart and I’ll hug you very tight and kiss you. O, Jesus, I want you forever in my heart.”
Like St. Therese of Lisieux and Little Nellie of Holy God, this little Italian girl constantly told Jesus how much she loved Him, and like them she was concerned to save souls for Him. Here is what she wrote:
“My good Jesus, give me only souls, give me a lot of them, I ask you willingly. I ask you so that you can make them become good so that they can come to you in Paradise.”
Nennolina talked to Jesus all the time asking Him to accompany her to school, to help her as well as others to be good, to take her in His arms and above all she begged Him:
“Help me with your grace, help me, for without your grace, I can do nothing.”
She constantly prayed for her family and for others who needed her prayers. Most people who heard of Nennolina were intrigued by her.
When Cardinal Montini, who later became Pope Paul Vl, read her letters, he was so impressed by how God had touched the soul of one so young and remarked on how the Lord had, through the life of this child, shown how he reveals knowledge to little ones, those with the heart of a child, and how He hides it from those who are proud.
One particular and extraordinary example of such knowledge that surely touched the heart of Cardinal Montini is the knowledge and insight into her own soul recounted by her mother. On the eve of her First Holy Communion, Nennolina dictated the following through her mother for Jesus:
“Dear Jesus, tomorrow when you are in my heart, pretend that my soul is an apple. Like the pips in the apple, make it that there us a small cupboard in my soul. Since under the black skin of the pips there is a white seed, make it so that in the little cupboard there is your grace which is like the white seed.”
Her Mother thought this was silly and was somewhat confused by it. In fact, she wanted to disregard it until her daughter explained it thus:
“It’s like this Mommy, let’s say that my soul is an apple. In the apple there are those little black things that are the seeds. Then inside the skin there’s this white thing? Well, think of that as grace…
Dear Jesus, tell God the Father that I am happy that He inspired me to accept the proposal to make my First Communion on Christmas Day, because it is in fact the very day on which Jesus was born on earth to save us and to die on the Cross.
The First Communion dress is beautiful, but what is most essential is for the dress of the soul to be beautiful….Dear Eucharistic Jesus, I love You so, so much…Dear Jesus, I know that you suffered much when You were a tiny child! And I wish to go every Sunday to Mass, where the sacrifice of the Cross is renewed and where you make an even greater sacrifice of closing yourself up in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar.
Dear Jesus, I will come to receive you every Sunday, but I would like to receive You every day – but my mother does not take me there…
Dear Jesus! Tomorrow I will make my First Holy Communion in reparation for all the sins of those who indeed want to call out, but without God.
Dear Eucharistic Jesus, I love You so much!…but much more!…Not only because You are the Father of the whole world, but also because You are the King of the whole world, I wish to be at all times Your sanctuary lamp that burns night and day before You in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar.
Jesus, I would like to attain these three graces, the first – make me a saint, and this is the most important thing; the second – give me souls for You; the third – make me walk well, though in truth this is not very important. I’m not saying to give me back my leg, for I have given that to you!…”
Her Mother was dumbfounded at how profound these thoughts of her little girl were and decided the whole idea had come from her teacher in preparation for First Holy Communion. Nennolina insisted “No” that the thought had come from herself and she said: “Jesus is seeing to it that this grace will always, always be with me.”
That Christmas night, December 1936, Antonietta Meo received her first Holy Communion. It was a night of such intense joy for her and, despite her painful leg, she is reported to have spent more than an hour on her knees in prayer in her local Church.
In May, Antonietta received the Sacrament of confirmation. She was now dying. Here is how her mother saw it:
“After her Confirmation Antonietta grew progressively worse. Her pain and cough gave her no rest. She could no longer sit upright and had to take to bed. It was obvious she was in pain but she always told everybody, me included: ‘I’m fine!’. Though she had difficulty she always insisted on saying her prayers morning and night. Then she asked the priest to bring her Communion every day, and the hours after Communion were always the most calm … Whenever she was able she asked me to write her little letters”.
The last is dated June 2. And it was this one that ended up in the hands of Pius XI. This is what her mother had to say: “I sat by her bed and wrote down what Antonietta struggled to dictate:
‘Dear crucified Jesus, I love you and am so fond of you! I want to be with you on Calvary. Dear Jesus, tell God the Father that I love him, too. Dear Jesus, give me your strength for I need it to bear this pain that I offer for sinners’.”
Her mother said: “At this point Antonietta was consumed by a violent fit of coughing and vomiting but as soon as it was over she went on dictating:
‘Dear Jesus, tell the Holy Spirit to enlighten me with love and to fill me with his seven gifts. Dear Jesus, tell Our Lady that I love her and want to be near her. Dear Jesus I want to tell you again how much I love you. My good Jesus, look after my spiritual father and grant him the necessary grace. Dear Jesus, look after my parents and Margherita. Your little girl sends you lots of kisses …’.
I suddenly fell into a rage seeing all that suffering. I crumpled up the paper and stuffed it into a drawer. A few days later, Professor Milani, the Papal archiater, came to examine Antonietta at the request of Doctor Vecchi. He said she was very sick and that she should go back to hospital for another operation. He stopped to chat with her and was astonished at the pain she endured without complaint. My husband spoke about the little letters she was writing. He asked to see them and I didn’t have the courage to refuse. I took the letter out of the drawer where I’d put it that day and handed it to him. When he’d read it he said he wanted to tell the Holy Father about Antonietta and asked whether he could take the letter with him. I hesitated and said: ‘Well … I’m not sure … if …’ But, he said, ‘we’re talking about the Pope, Madam!’
The next day a car from the Vatican stopped in front of our house. A personal messenger from the Holy Father Pius XI had come to bring the apostolic blessing. He told us that His Holiness had been very moved on reading the letter. He also left us a note from Professor Milani in which he asked Antonietta to remember him to the Lord and to beg for him those graces she had asked for herself”.
The next day Antonietta grew worse. She was breathing with difficulty. Liquid was drawn from her lungs. On the 23rd, with just local anaesthetic because of her general condition, she had three ribs cut out. Her mother said:
“I cannot tell you how that poor tortured body suffered. Holding back my tears that day I said to her: ‘Wait and see my darling … as soon as you’re stronger we’ll go on vacation, we’ll go to the seaside … you love the seaside … you’ll be able to swim, you know …’. She looked at me … and she sweetly said: ‘Mommy, cheer up, be glad … I’ll be gone from here in under ten days’”.
Antonietta was able to tell her mother, who was so distraught at her daughter’s terrible suffering, to cheer up she would no longer be there soon. She was able to give her mother the exact date of her death.
During the days that followed she continued to smile with disarming strength even at the nurses who came to dress her wounds, although the metastasis had invaded and devastated her whole body, although the tumor in her chest was so swollen it had forced her heart out of position. Everybody at the hearings spoke of their astonishment at her serenity. Her mother even wondered whether her child was in pain: “I went to the doctor and said: ‘Doctor, I don’t believe it … tell me the truth, tell me the truth really … Is Antonietta in great pain?’
But lady, what are you asking me! What are you saying! Don’t say anything more to me! The pain is atrocious’.
I went back to her bedside … I couldn’t control my voice, for the first time I said to her: ‘Antonietta, bless your Mommy … Antonietta, bless Mommy’. And with an effort she made the sign of the cross on my forehead”.
Still, however, she suffered it all with remarkable heroism. She never once complained, even after she was confined totally to bed. Despite her discomfort she never failed to pray and the only time she had some calm in her body was when she received Holy Communion which the priest, at her own request, brought to her daily.
She always asked Jesus for the help of his grace:
“Today I was a bit naughty but you, good Jesus, take your child in your arms … but help me, because without your grace I can do nothing …help me with your grace, help me, for without your grace I can do nothing … I beg you, good Jesus, keep for me always grace of soul”.
She never stopped asking grace from him and his mother for those close to her, for those who recommended themselves to her prayers, and for sinners: “I beseech you for that man who has done so much wrong … I beseech you for that sinner you know, who is so old and is in the hospital of San Giovanni”.
“Behold the wonderful workings of God,” wrote Father Pierotti, who was the first to make an edition of the letters: “The grace of God chooses souls where it will … That is the only explanation for the words, the playfulness, the attitudes, the life of Nennolina”.
“Truly the Lord ludit in orbe terrarum,” exclaimed the future Paul VI, then substitute Secretary of State, when he read the letters and biography of Antonietta Meo, “and, working through souls in the most mysterious ways, he grants to many, through the life of this child, not yet seven years old, the chance of penetrating the knowledge that is hidden from the proud and revealed to little ones”.
“… smiling, slipping into sleep”
Her father had this to say at the hearings: “One day she’d grown worse and so I decided that my little girl should be given the Last Rites. I asked Antonietta: ‘Do you know what holy oil is?’ And she replied:
‘The sacrament they give to the dying’.
But I didn’t want to upset her so I added: ‘Sometimes it cures you as well …’ Antonietta refused it.
‘It’s too soon,’ she said, and I didn’t insist. But later when the priest told her that the holy oil increased grace she listened carefully and said: ‘Yes, I want it’. She replied calmly to all the prayers, recited the act of contrition, and held her palms out for the priest’s anointing … She kissed her First Communion crucifix tenderly. It was all very simple and quiet”.
“I have seen martyrs in flames prepare their evergreen palms thus,” wrote Charles Péguy in his Le Mystère des Saints Innocents (Mystery of the Holy Innocents).
“I have seen the tears drip under the iron hooks / Drops of blood shining like diamonds. / I have seen tears of love drip down/ That will last longer than the stars in heaven. / And I have seen looks of prayer, of tenderness, / Ecstatic with charity … I have seen the greatest saints, says God. Well, I tell you / I have never seen anything finer in the world / Now I tell you, said God, / There is nothing so fine in all the world / Than this child falling asleep saying its prayers / And smiling, slipping into sleep. / Nothing is finer than this small creature falling asleep in trust …”.
It was barely light on July 3, 1937 when her father came to settle her pillow and give her a kiss. Antonietta murmured:
“Jesus, Mary … Mommy, Daddy…”. Her mother recalls: “She was staring in front of her. She smiled … then took one long last breath”.
The following day the little white coffin was taken through the mourning crowd to the Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. Six years earlier Nennolina had been baptized in that same Basilica where the relics of Christ’s Passion are kept. It was October 28, Feast of the Holy Innocents.
By the time she died, in the midst of terrible pain, Nennolina had written over 100 letters to Jesus, Mary, God the Father, The Holy Spirit, one to Saint Agnes and one to Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus. Sadly, many of the letters were lost because her mother did not think to preserve all of them.
The life of this holy little girl has been examined by the Vatican and she is now known as Venerable Antonietta Meo and her cause for sainthood is well under way.
“Without your grace I can do nothing” ~ Venerable Antonietta Meo.