Franciscan Spirit Blog

Purity and Purpose: The Brief Life of St. Maria Goretti

Maria Goretti’s canonization saw the conversion of her murderer and his reconciliation with her family. Today she is known as a model of mercy.

You likely know the basics of the Maria Goretti story, a story that exemplifies physical purity and the Catholic passion for preservation of human dignity. Maria, who was not quite twelve years old, was stabbed fourteen times with a dagger by a pornography-addicted young man. She died the next day at the hospital. It’s a stirring story of a strong child. The background of the Goretti story adds texture to her martyrdom. The outcome exemplifies a confidence in the Lord and defines purity of heart.

Maria had a difficult life but focused on the Lord rather than her challenges. Poverty forced the Gorettis—Maria was the second oldest of five children at that time—to leave their farm in eastern Italy to move to the Roman countryside two hundred miles away. Rather than a fresh start, the relocation brought still more misery. Maria’s father was unable to bring in the crops as he had pledged, and died of malaria in 1900.

Her mother, Assunta, was forced to do field work to help satisfy the obligation, and a father and son moved into part of the family’s living quarters. The father proved to be an alcoholic; the son, Alessandro Serenelli, recently returned from time at sea, spent his time looking at pornography and leering at Maria, who tended to her sisters and brothers and the house.

Maria’s responsibilities prevented her from attending school. But she was able to make her First Communion due to a kind woman who taught her the catechism orally rather than through reading and writing. She also memorized prayers, and frequently said the rosary. Her purity of heart was evident even before the events of July 5, 1902, when Alessandro decided he had waited long enough for her as she sat mending one of his shirts.

Imagine knowing you were going to die and knowing who was responsible. Imagine looking that person in the eyes. Would you see the face of God in the fiend? Maria did. Before she died the day after the attack, she forgave Alessandro and said she’d see him in heaven.

The evidence was overwhelming. There was no question of the perpetrator’s identity or motive. Since Alessandro wasn’t yet 21, he was sentenced to 30 years in prison rather than life. Initially, his heart and soul remained stone-cold. Then Maria appeared to him in a vision, offering him white lilies, the flower of purity. Slowly, over a period of eight years or so, he opened himself up to God. When he was released after 27 years, he went to Maria’s mother and asked for her forgiveness.

She said she had to forgive him, as Maria did. Alessandro became a gardener and porter at a Capuchin monastery and lived quietly until his death in 1969. His will credited Maria as his light and protectress and expressed confidence he would see her and her mother in heaven.

There was one other significant day for Alessandro in the years after his release from prison. On June 24, 1950, Pope Pius XII canonized Maria. Assunta and Maria’s four brothers and sisters were present in Rome. And somewhere in the crowd of jubilant, cheering thousands was Alessandro.


Consider this…

  • Think about how freely Maria forgave Alessandro. Is there someone who injured you deeply? How can you see the face of God in that person? Make a list of the ways, even if the only one you can come up with is that he or she is or was a human being loved by the Father.
  • Who have you wronged? How do the feelings around that incident continue to pollute your heart? Is there a safe way you can sincerely ask for pardon, even if it does not involve interacting with that person face-to-face?
  • Our culture makes it difficult for children to remain children, pressuring them and their parents to adopt fashions and mannerisms far beyond their years. Consider writing a letter of protest to one of the manufacturers or marketers of particularly offensive music or clothing targeting preteens.

Maria on Purity of Heart:

“For the love of Jesus, I forgive Alessandro…and I want him to be with me in paradise.”


Fourteen female saints who changed the world


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