Like most young people today we tend to live our lives on fast forward, speeding frantically through our daily routine: school, work, sports, homework, friends, family, … and faith.
…Oh yeah, … faith…
As we live our fast-paced lives there is a danger that we can put faith at the end of the list. As long as everything is speeding nicely along, it doesn’t seem to be that much of a problem. But there are moments that reveal how deep our faith is, and sometimes these can be moments that call us to true heroism. This is the story of someone who had to make a decision of faith, a decision in which faith became heroic love.
Born to Fly
Speed is second nature in the life of a combat fighter pilot. Caroline Aigle, the first woman fighter pilot in France, knew all about speed. At the age of twenty-five, she was flying one of the fastest combat fighters in the French Air Force – the Mirage 2000-5.
Born in 1974 in Montauban France, Caroline lived as a daughter of the military. As a child, she spent some years in Africa; her father was a military doctor. At the age of fourteen, she entered the French military academy at Saint-Cyr. Caroline graduated valedictorian from the foremost engineering school in France. In May of 1999, she received the coveted fighter pilot wings, becoming the first woman fighter pilot in French history. She received a promotion to the rank of Commandant. (There is no U.S. rank equivalent to Commandant. It falls between the U.S. ranks for Captain and Major.) Always an athlete, Caroline also became the French and Military champion of the triathlon.
Heroism is a trait common to all fighter pilots, and Caroline was no exception. Uncommon however, was the opportunity that God provided for her to be a heroine – and it was not as a prisoner of war or because she received a commendation for being wounded in battle. Nothing, in fact, including her outstanding military education, had foreshadowed the plan that God had for her. In July of this year, Caroline was diagnosed with an advanced case of melanoma, a type of skin cancer. She was thirty-two years old. She was also five and a half months pregnant.
Caroline and her husband, Christophe Deketelaere — a fighter pilot himself — already had one healthy young son named Marc. At the time of her diagnosis, Caroline was encouraged to abort her baby so she could receive treatment for the cancer. With the support of her husband, she chose to postpone the treatment and carry her baby for as long as she could. According to her husband, Caroline wanted her baby to have “the maximum chance” for survival.
Believing in Love
Caroline’s son, Gabriel, was born three and a half months premature by cesarean section at the beginning of August. His birth came less than three weeks before her death. Caroline saw her son several times and was even able to hold him before she died. Gabriel’s prognosis is good; he should live a full life. In the most heroic of acts, Caroline secured the future of her son by placing his needs before her own.
The story of Caroline reminds us all how quickly the things of this world can change. The time from her diagnosis to her death was just over a month. She did not have the luxury of time to ponder her decision. Like a reflection of her fast flying days, the choice Caroline was forced to make needed to be done quickly. We can see by the outcome of this situation the strength of the woman that was Caroline. She believed in love; she hoped for her sons’ future; and she was heroically generous in thinking of the needs of another before herself.
Women as a Witness of love
There is something incredible about a woman’s love, a mother’s love. It’s a miracle that perhaps we become so accustomed to that it takes someone like Caroline to help us step back and appreciate the strength and totality of this kind of love. Here was a woman who seemed to have it all, and yet so gladly sacrificed everything for that little child. Her love gave him a chance, a chance to live, a chance to maybe experience some of the beautiful things Caroline had experienced.
Pope John Paul II talked often about the dignity of women. It was a theme very close to his heart. He reminded us that a woman’s dignity, her greatness, is shown especially by her capacity to love and to draw out love in others. A woman’s heart naturally makes room for others. A woman’s heart is a special sign of the love of God. It is also a reminder that we as human beings find our deepest fulfillment in love, in being loved, and in turn becoming a gift of love. Even though Caroline had reached so many exciting goals in life, she showed us that what is most fulfilling is love, even when it means total self-giving, or perhaps especially then. When Caroline held her little child in her arms she knew that the sacrifice of love was well worth it. Her heart had made room for another, even though it meant leaving the world herself.
Learning to Open Out to Others
Our Christian faith teaches us to love with generosity. Caroline Aigle was a Catholic. The priest who celebrated her funeral was the same priest who had celebrated the wedding Mass for her and her husband, Christophe, a few years earlier. He recalled that when Caroline and Christophe sought him out for marriage preparation, they asked him for a book that spoke not about the love of one for the other, “but rather about the love that opens us to love others.”
Caroline Aigle chose love for an unborn child rather than choosing security for herself. As a woman, she answered the call of Christ who tells us: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). We are also called to be this example of love in our every day lives. Our circumstances may not be as dire as those faced by Caroline and other women like her, but each day we have an opportunity to choose love of neighbor over ourselves – in the cafeteria when someone pushes past us in line, after dinner when our mother demands we finish our chores before calling our friends, perhaps with our little brother when he scribbles crayon all over our English paper. These may seem like small choices, but it is the small choices that get us ready for the more heroic ones. A hero is made in the day-to-day choices of love and generosity.
Another outstanding trait seen in Caroline’s choice is the hope she showed for her son’s future. Even in the most bleak of situations, the hope that this mother had for her child can be seen in the fact that she wanted him to have “the maximum chance” for survival.
How is it that this child could survive while his mother did not? This is a hard question. Sometimes when pain enters our lives we are faced with a mystery we cannot quite comprehend. The deepest answer is trust. Hope also means trust. It means trust that the Father still loves us in spite of the pain. It means trusting that God can bring something very beautiful from the pain. Trust that, like Christ, the road to giving life also passes through the cross. Yes, love also means cross and sacrifice, but at the same time it means life. We must believe in the ability of God to bring good from all things, to bring life from the cross. Caroline’s example showed the power of hope. She believed in God’s power to bring good even from suffering and death.
Finding the Inner Strength
We naturally admire someone like Caroline, and wonder if we would have her strength faced with the tremendous decision she had to make. One of the best ways to learn to become a person like her, who can make the heroic choice when needed, is to learn to pray. Prayer is speaking with God. In a conversation, one talks and the other listens. Prayer is not just us talking to God – telling him what we want and how we want it. Prayer is also listening and learning more about the plan that God has for us. When we pray God does not magically spell out his plan for us but in prayer we learn to trust. We learn to see his providence. In prayer we learn that we are deeply loved by God, even when he allows the cross in our lives. And if we learn in prayer that we are loved, we will also feel the desire to let others know God’s love, the desire to become givers, not just takers, givers like Caroline. We must set aside time each day to talk and listen to God.
A Call to True Greatness
Many times, people today do not see the real importance of how faith fits into their busy lifestyle. Becoming people of faith will help us reach true greatness and true fulfillment. Love, hope, generosity, and prayer will help us to grow into people who will be able to make the heroic choices when we have the chance. We will become more like Caroline if we face even our toughest decisions thinking of others and not only ourselves.