Maria Goretti was close to her 12th birthday when she was stabbed to death by 20-yearold Alessandro Serenelli, a farmworker who shared a dwelling with the Goretti family in Nettuno, Italy, just outside of Rome. Alessandro had attacked the young girl when she resisted his efforts to sexually assault her. Maria initially survived the horrific wounds to her body and was transported to a hospital, where doctors were able to do little for her. During the painful 20 hours leading to her death on July 6, 1902, Maria prayed with her mother, siblings, and priest, stating repeatedly that she forgave her attacker and that she was sure that God had forgiven him, as well.
Alessandro was imprisoned immediately following his attack on Maria. Since he was a minor, he was sentenced to only 30 years hard labor. One night during the third year of his confinement, Maria appeared to Alessandro in his cell.
According to Alessandro, she was smiling and holding an armful of flowers— often identified as 14 lilies to symbolize the 14 wounds suffered by Maria—which she lovingly offered to the man who had taken her life. Alessandro described being enveloped in a wave of peace. From that moment on, he lived a life of goodness and grace during the remaining years of his prison term.
Alessandro was released from prison three years early due to his exemplary behavior. His first action as a free man was to visit Assunta Goretti, Maria’s mother, and beg her forgiveness. Said Assunta, “Maria has forgiven you, and surely God has forgiven you. Who am I to withhold my forgiveness?” That Christmas Eve, and each one thereafter, Alessandro attended midnight Mass with the Goretti family.
Although Maria and her mother had forgiven Alessandro, the local townspeople found it difficult to forget the terrible acts he had committed in his youth. He was rejected by several nearby communities, whose residents treated him as an outcast. He was offered safe lodging at a monastery belonging to the Capuchin Franciscan friars. He became a Third Order Franciscan and lived and worked the rest of his life on the friary grounds.
Along with 30 other witnesses, Alessandro testified to Maria’s sanctity during her cause of beatification. On June 24, 1950, Maria was canonized by Pope Pius XII at an outdoor ceremony in St. Peter’s Square attended by her mother, her siblings, and the man who had taken her life. Saint Maria Goretti is the only saint who has the distinction of having not only her mother but also her murderer at her canonization. More than 250,000 people were present at the event, which was the first canonization broadcast through news outlets.
The Power of Pardon
In “Misericordiae Vultus: The Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy,” Pope Francis declares, “Pardoning offenses becomes the clearest expression of merciful love, and for us Christians it is an imperative from which we cannot excuse ourselves. At times how hard it seems to forgive! And yet pardon is the instrument placed into our fragile hands to attain serenity of heart.”
In Saint Maria Goretti we experience the consummate example of mercy and clemency. Her radical forgiveness—that of the young man who tried to violate her, then stabbed her multiple times causing her death—is something that few of us are able to comprehend, much less imitate. How many of us are able to forgive even the most minor of slights that come our way? It’s an inevitable consequence of having to share our world with others certainly not as perfect as ourselves.
Would we be able not only to forgive, but also to welcome into our lives someone who has caused us serious hurt and anguish? Would we be able to pray for that person, asking for the grace of a softened heart on their behalf, then rejoicing with them when it is accepted?
The life of Maria Goretti serves as a blueprint for Christians, all of whom are called to forgive unconditionally in the same manner as Jesus. After all, the first person that Jesus took with him to heaven was not only a sinner, but a convicted criminal. “Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied to him, ‘Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise’” (Lk 23:42-43).
Since the time of the announcement of the Holy Year of Mercy, the Vatican has made a great effort to provide numerous catechetical and experiential opportunities for the faithful to celebrate the jubilee year in their lives. Under the direction of the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the relics of Saint Maria Goretti were recently brought to the United States as part of “The Pilgrimage of Mercy.”
Father Carlos Martins, CC, director of Treasures of the Church in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, Texas, was approached by officials from the Congregation for the Causes of Saints about the feasibility of bringing her body on a tour of the United States. Plans were immediately developed and a team was assembled to bring Saint Maria across the Atlantic, under the guidance of Father Martins. The first tour covered 16 states and included 61 churches, as well as several schools and a correctional facility. A fall 2016 tour of the West and Northwest states is currently being organized.
‘A Friend of Mercy’
The first stop on the tour, which began September 20, 2015, was Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York. The selection of a maximum-security prison as the first place of exhibition was no accident, as Maria, who famously forgave her murderer on her deathbed, is venerated not only as the patroness of victims of violent crimes, but also of those guilty of committing such heinous acts. Father Martins reported that many of the inmates at the prison openly wept upon learning the saint’s story. “She’s here as a friend of mercy,” he told them. “Ask her to pray for you, and invite her into your hearts.”
Among the first churches to receive the relics was Good Shepherd Parish in the Marine Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Reverend Thomas Doyle, pastor of the parish of about 3,500 families, was quick to offer the church as a location for the exhibition. “What a powerful story, a saint for our times,” he says. “We usually think of saints as old people who lived long ago, but Maria was a young person who lived relatively recently and whose story of mercy and forgiveness speaks to all of us of all ages still today.”
Adds Permanent Deacon Christopher Wagner, “The motorcade bearing the relics of Saint Maria arrived at 1 a.m. the morning of the exhibition, and we all came out to welcome her. As the police escort arrived at church, I was filled with pride that our parish was chosen for such a great honor.”
At Good Shepherd Church, as at all the churches that hosted the exhibition, the young and old came out in large numbers—as many as 35,000 at some locations across the United States—to venerate the relics. Some solemnly touched holy cards, medals, and rosaries to the gold-plated reliquary adorned with cherubs, while others knelt in prayer, asking for Maria’s intercession. More than a few approached with tear-filled eyes.
The glass reliquary contains a life-size wax figure in the youthful likeness of Maria. None of her actual human remains are visible, but are contained within the wax figure itself. A woman healed by Maria’s intercession donated her own hair for the wig that adorns the head of the figure.
Assunta Goretti, Maria’s mother, worked with an artist to produce an image that best represents what Maria looked like. Because there were no photographs ever taken of the young saint, this portrait, reproduced in all manner of media, is considered the only accurate representation of her.
Says Deacon Wagner, “As a father of two daughters myself, I was moved by her story and knew that my daughters would be, as well. I wanted her to visit us because we are a parish made up of many young families, and I hoped that this exhibition and veneration would help strengthen their relationship with God and allow them to see that we are all called to be saints. I knew that many of our youth could look to Saint Maria as a model and a guide.”
Lifelong Good Shepherd parishioner Susan Indart is a breast cancer survivor currently undergoing treatment for stage IV colon cancer. “I prayed to Saint Maria Goretti for healing, not only physical, but spiritual as well. Experiencing her relics in person was amazing. I could feel her presence as soon as I walked into the church. I pray her novena every night, asking for strength and to help me not only to forgive, but to be forgiven.”
Maria Resciniti, a teacher at Good Shepherd School, came to know of Saint Maria Goretti through one of her students. “I had given the class an assignment to write about a favorite saint, and this student wrote about Maria Goretti,” she explains. “Up until then I had never heard of her. I was deeply moved by her story. Praying before her relics has made me see forgiveness and mercy in a brand-new light. It has made me realize that I have not been very good at it, and for far less than what Maria suffered.
“What better example of mercy and forgiveness could there be?” asks Resciniti. “Maria Goretti not only forgave her attacker, but felt compassion for him, too. Such reconciliation takes someone with a true understanding of what Jesus teaches us about forgiveness.”
An Inspiration for Future Generations
Maria’s great example was not lost on the young who visited the church to hear her story and pray at her relics. Parish schoolchildren had learned about Maria Goretti in their classes. “I was amazed at how Maria forgave,” says 11-year-old Emily Monahan. “I hope I am able to forgive like that.” Adds 12- year-old Michael Santoro, “It was an honor to see her in the church I attend with my family. It took my breath away to see the relic of a saint right in front of me. I did not know her before this, but I feel now that she will help me and pray for me.”
Michael’s 10-year-old sister, Gianna, was equally touched by the event. “I have only ever prayed to a statue of a saint, and this was an amazing experience. These were the real relics of Saint Maria Goretti. I wrote down my prayers and put them in her prayer box. I put my grandma’s name on a candle near her relics and asked Saint Maria Goretti to take care of her and us.”
Saint Maria Goretti allowed the grace of God to touch her heart and let flow from it the compassion to see the goodness, dignity, and worth in a person who had sinned greatly. It was this act of love that helped bring about the conversion of that person’s heart.
A few years before his death in 1970, at the age of 87, Alessandro Serenelli wrote in a reflection upon his life, “Looking back at my past, I can see that in my youth, I chose a bad path, which led me to ruin myself. Maria Goretti, now a saint, was my good angel, sent to me from God to guide and save me. She prayed for me, she interceded for me, her murderer.”
In both Alessandro Serenelli and Saint Maria Goretti, let us find the strength to take up as our life’s mission the type of reconciliation that brings peace and new life to even the most unholy among us and unites us all as loving and merciful children of God. The feast of Saint Maria Goretti is celebrated on July 6 as part of the worldwide calendar. In addition to forgiveness and reconciliation, she is the patroness of victims of sexual assault, chastity, and teenagers. Her remains are kept in the crypt of the Basilica of Our Lady of Grace and Saint Maria Goretti in Nettuno, Italy.
Rita E. Piro is the author of many articles and books. She is the on the faculty of The Mary Louis Academy in New York City. This article appeared in the July 2016 edition of St. Anthony Messenger.