Angelo Volpi with Pope Francis

On the evening news recently there was the usual jabber of politicians – over the copyright law, the politics of Hungary, the judicial problems of our vice-premier; over a thousand other more or less uninteresting topics. And then an item riveted my attention as, with a half-peeled peach in my hands, I let my tears flow freely.

A fire burned out a small house in a village in Northern Italy. Two people lost their lives: Angelo Volpi, 42, and his elderly mother, who was 86. According to the firefighters who arrived too late to rescue them, the son could have saved himself by running from the burning building, but he chose to remain by his mother, whom he couldn’t bring outside. They were discovered hugging each other, joined in death as they were in life.

Angelo had Down syndrome. The only picture of him shown in the news is that of a smiling young man who gazes happily and excitedly into the eyes of Pope Francis, whom he met during the World Day of the Sick. It was that picture that made me cry, because it expressed so well the immense capacity for love, tenderness, empathy and goodness that Angelo had.

I am terribly frightened by fire; in fact, panicked by it, hardly able to light a match. I hope never to experience a bigger fire than that of candles and barbecues since I could very well lose my head and stop caring about anybody, minding only my own safety. Angelo’s choice was different. He gave his life to stay with his mother when she couldn’t escape the fire.

Many “normal”, non-disabled people leave their elders to die alone – not in fires, it’s true, but in physical or emotional isolation. Many just have no time, no resources, no patience, no wish to visit their parents, to make them feel loved, cared for, important. Many mothers and fathers are practically abandoned in “homes” for the elderly and receive only occasional visits by their children. For too many people in our society the elderly are merely a burden; they simply wait for their elders to die.

Similarly, persons such as Angelo are seen as a burden for society; the birth of a child with Down syndrome (if he or she is lucky enough not to be aborted) is seen as a tragedy. Instead, a neighbour interviewed by the journalist on camera said that Angelo was the force keeping his family, and particularly his four siblings, together. He was a gift for his family, for his mother, for his community, where everybody loved him for his smile.

He had a courage I would probably never have had, as dearly as I love my mother; like the “angel” his name signified, Angelo accompanied his mommy in her last journey. They say we are angels who have only one wing, and that we can fly only when we embrace each other. Angelo did exactly this; he hugged his mother when he couldn’t save her, and stood by her and with her even if that meant giving his own life.

Many people would say that Angelo’s mother was an “unlucky” mother, since she hadn’t the perfect child one dreams of (and nobody, of course, has); in my opinion, she was the luckiest of mothers, since she was loved until her last breath.

Thank you, Angelo, for teaching me what it means to be human.

Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician and theologian moonlighting as a journalist. She writes from Italy. Visit her website.

Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician and theologian moonlighting as a journalist. She writes from Turin in Italy. Visit her website at