Last week we celebrated the feast of St. Maria Goretti, the youngest canonized Saint in the Church. A modern saint who died on July 6th, 1902 at the age of 11. Most people who have heard of her know that she died from being stabbed 14 times by an older boy who wanted to rape her.
While Alessandro tried to force himself upon her, she cried out that it was a sin and God doesn’t want it. She was only thinking of his salvation at the time, and he ended up stabbing her. Found in a pool of her blood, but still conscious, her family took her to the hospital where she endured a long surgery without anesthesia to close the wounds. After 20 hours, due to the wounds and infection, she passed away, her last words being, “I forgive Alessandro Serenelli…and I want him with me in heaven forever.”
If that was the whole story, it would be powerful enough on it’s own. But what moves me about her story is the theme of forgiveness that begets conversion. I personally struggle with forgiveness, and I blame my melancholic nature for my tendency to hold on to things. Being married, I have to work on this daily, because nobody in my family is perfect, even me!
First, we learn about Maria’s love of God, which allowed her to care more about Alessandro’s salvation than her own physical well-being. Pope Pius XII said Mariastood not only for purity of soul and body but also for “mastery of the spiritual over the material, for docile love of her parents, for sacrifice in harsh, daily labor, for poverty accepted as the Gospel teaches us to accept it, for love of prayer and of Jesus in the Eucharist, for charity in her heroic forgiveness.”
This heroic ability to forgive isn’t something that happens overnight. It’s cultivated through family life, a family that prays, receives Jesus in the Eucharist, and puts God first on a daily basis in the trials of life. And she didn’t have an easy life, for sure. Born into poverty, her father died from malaria when Maria was only 9. Her mother was forced to work in the fields while Maria took care of her younger siblings. She not only had to cook and clean for her own family, but also the neighbors next door – father and son Giovanni and Alessandro Serenelli- whose story is unfortunate as well. Alessandro was 20 when he murdered Maria, his own mother dying in a psychiatric hospital when he was only a baby. Both father and son abused alcohol, had no religious upbringing, and had crude pictures of women in their house.
The hard part for me is what happened to Maria’s family after her death. Maria got to receive her heavenly reward after 20 hours of tremendous suffering. Maria’s mother, on the other hand, had to endure it for a lifetime. Faced with extreme poverty, loss, and destitution, Assunta Goretti was unable to work and care for her children, and so was forced to give each of her remaining 5 children up for adoption. She not only lost Maria and her husband to death, but her other children to separation. When I think about being put in that situation, how could she ever forgive Alessandro for ruining her life! Especially when he would not admit to his guilt or act sorry at all.
During his first 6 years of prison, Alessandro’s heart was hardened, he got into trouble with the other prisoners, and he would not admit to his guilt. Then one night, Maria appeared to him in a dream holding 14 white lilies, the symbol of purity, one for each stab wound. Alessandro understood this to mean she had forgiven him, and he experienced a deep and profound conversion.
He turned to a life of prayer and penance for the majority of his remaining prison sentence. When he got out of prison, he lived in a Capuchin monastery. He went to Maria’s mother, 30 years after his crime of passion, to ask forgiveness for what he did. Assunta, having lost her family and her livelihood to this man’s actions, gently placed her hands on his head and said, “Alessandro, Maria forgave you, Christ has forgiven you, and why should I not also forgive. I forgive you, of course, my son! Why have I not seen you sooner? Your evil days are past, and to me, you are a long-suffering son.”
I tear up every time I hear those incredible words of forgiveness spoken by Maria’s mother. I am moved by this supernatural forgiveness, which allows for conversion. When Maria’s cause for canonization was opened, Alessandro himself testified to her holiness. He, in fact, accompanied Maria’s mother to her canonization mass in 1950.
How could she forgive the man who ruined her life? It’s a grace and a supernatural gift. One that we can’t do without God’s help. Is there someone in your life who you are struggling to forgive? Is it your spouse who keeps doing the same hurtful thing over and over again? A family member who has rejected you?
Like Assunta and Maria, I hope to be able to forgive those who hurt my family and cause me suffering. And not just begrudgingly, but out of love. Forgiveness starts with a heart of prayer, a heart connected to God. Through receiving the Eucharist lovingly and humbly asking forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I believe Christ gives us the grace to forgive others the way he did for us on the cross. In Luke 23:34, Jesus prays, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” St. Maria Goretti, in her own passion, forgave her murderer at the hour of her death just as Jesus did. May we also imitate Christ so that we, too, may be found worthy of our eternal reward.
Matthew 5:44: “But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”
For more on Saint Maria and Alessandro, and to see pictures, click this link.