A Lasting Trail of Light: The Witness of Pedro Ballester
The 21-year-old student’s memory burns bright in new documentary, ‘I Have Never Been Happier.’
LONDON — In the early hours of Jan. 13, 2018, after a three-year battle with cancer, Pedro Ballester died.
He was 21 years old.
Prior to his untimely death, his life’s course seemed unexceptional. He grew up in a loving Spanish family domiciled in England; he had a good education; then he was diagnosed with cancer and died young.
Yet there was side to his life, or perhaps put more correctly, another dimension. Ballester came from a devoutly Catholic family. Both his parents are members of the personal prelature of Opus Dei. Pedro, too, would become a celibate member (numerary) of Opus Dei.
Even before his death, Pedro’s life and witness was being remarked upon. The manner in which he lived and loved those around him, marked by the cross of cancer that unexpectedly appeared in his life, seemed remarkable.
Just prior to Christmas 2022, a documentary film premiered in London. I Have Never Been Happier told the story of Pedro’s truncated yet impactful life.
After Pedro’s death, Jack Valero, the film’s producer, felt that there was a need for a documentary film on the student’s life.
“We were seeing a growth in devotion to Pedro in many countries of the world, with reports of favors granted through his intercession being received from many places,” Valero explained. In addition, at that time, said Valero, a book was being written about his life. Initially published in Spanish, it is now also available in English.
“So we felt this was the right time to make a documentary of his life,” Valero said, drawing on interviews with “family and friends, as well as people who met Pedro at the different stages of his life. We wanted to record the impact he had had on people.”
The film’s director, Juan Martín Ezratty, said, “Last year, talking with Jack [Valero], the idea of making this documentary came up. Pedro was a regular young man who had a big impact and who could be a great inspiration to others. I saw that he was someone who enjoyed his life, a young man who was sporty and who loved everyone around him and who gave his life to God at a very young age — a person who prayed and sought to serve everyone.”
Born in Manchester, England, on May 22, 1996, Pedro Ballester Arenas was brought up there and in Yorkshire by his parents, Esperanza and Pedro, along with his brothers, Carlos and Javier. His parents, as married members of Opus Dei, understood the young man’s subsequent vocation to the celibate life in the prelature.
By 2014, Pedro was admitted to Imperial College in London, one of the most prestigious universities in the United Kingdom. He was just beginning his chemical engineering program when he started to feel pain in his back. Eventually, cancer was diagnosed.
Through 2015-16, Pedro went to Germany to receive state-of-the-art proton beam therapy. At first, it seemed to have worked; the tumor appeared to be gone. But, by January 2017, the pain began once more. The cancer had returned.
I Have Never Been Happier tells the all-too-short life of its subject in detail. Pedro is of a generation that grew up recording its lives on video and later on digital image. The film is, therefore, an especially comprehensive visual record. The audience witnesses the earliest moments of Pedro’s life and childhood, his transition from boyhood to adolescence — and then viewers watch, unfolding on screen, the various stages of his illness. Obviously, there are contributions from his parents and brothers, as well as the many people who encountered him in his 21 years of life. They enrich the film greatly. But that last category is all the more interesting because some of those represented on screen are not Catholics or even Christians.
The film is a reminder that no life’s significance is simply determined by length.
Given how recent Pedro’s illness and death are, one wonders if the film’s director had any misgivings about this being portrayed on screen. “I felt a great responsibility when I met with his parents and brothers,” said Ezratty. “They let me see Pedro’s mobile phone, told me about his difficulties. ... My hair stood on end when I saw footage he had filmed of himself when he found out his illness was incurable and he only had months live.”
Through the film, Ezratty wants audiences not just to appreciate Pedro’s witness but also somehow to feel as if they have come to know him.
“I was struck by his radical love, service and connectedness to others, his authenticity.” Pedro’s story, added Ezratty, challenged him in such a way that making the documentary became a priority for him in an already busy film schedule.
Attending the Dec. 3 London premiere of I’ve Never Been Happier was Marian Green. Her reaction to the film was immediate: “Wow, what a wonderful gift it was. Not at all sentimental or saccharine, Pedro is shown as very real, very human, even ordinary, with his feet firmly placed on the earth.”
She said she was struck by how the film portrayed the young man’s generosity, his capacity for friendship and his joy in suffering, all of which, she says was “an inspiration to me and touched me in a deep and emotional way.” She was particularly moved by the strength of his faith as depicted in his to camera monologues when close to death.
“‘I’ve never been happier’: How many young men on their death bed could say such a thing?” wondered Green, who added that the film has made a personal call to her “to grow in my own faith, to love God more, and to bring many souls to God. I will certainly give Pedro lots of work to do in heaven.”
Valero said he is delighted with the film and its initial reception.
“At the two launch events in London and Manchester, we had a total of over 250 people, and the response was equally positive: Everyone was very moved by the film,” he said. The film has now been released on YouTube, with subtitles in several languages; to date, it has had more than 32,000 views.
“We are receiving messages from bishops and priests, as well as many ordinary laypeople, telling us that they have been very moved by the documentary and that it will do a lot of good, inspiring many people to come closer to God. We would like Pedro’s life and witness to be more widely known in Britain and abroad,” observed Valero.
Valero’s hopes around the film’s release are more specific still. “January 2023 [marked] five years since Pedro died,” he explained. “We are considering the possibility of asking to start the process of canonization. We have been encouraged to do so by a number of clerics, including bishops, and many laypeople.”
It was a Saturday morning when Pedro died at Greygarth Hall, an Opus Dei residence in Manchester. On a day of the week traditionally dedicated to Our Lady, he died wearing her scapular and with an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe in front of him; those gathered around his death bed, his parents and brothers, as well as some of his friends, prayed the Salve Regina as he passed from this world to the next.
Pedro’s funeral took place in Manchester on Jan. 23, 2018. The chief celebrant was Archbishop Arthur Roche, secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. While bishop of Leeds, he had gotten to know the Ballester family.
Archbishop Roche said the following during the funeral Mass: “As we remember you with great affection within this Mass, so loved by you, there is much in what we now do at this altar that gives us a great insight into what made you such a fine man and a holy man, a brave man and a gentleman, a son and a brother and a good friend. We loved you much; we shall miss you dearly.”
Less than a month before he died, a group of friends came to visit Pedro in the hospital. He asked one friend, “Are you happy?” — to which his friend replied, “Yes, I am, and you?” After so many years of suffering and now aware he was about to die, Pedro replied simply, “I have never been happier.”