On July 6, we celebrated the Feast of St. Maria Goretti, who died on that date in 1902 at age 11 after suffering a brutal attack by 20-year-old Alessandro Serenelli. On her deathbed, Maria forgave Alessandro, an act that inspired him to convert while he was in prison for his crime, setting him on a course of penance and service to God for the rest of his life.
The Gorettis and Serenellis were sharecroppers living in the same house in the Italian countryside outside of Rome. Alessandro betrayed the trust that existed between their families by trying to rape Maria. When she resisted, he stabbed her multiple times in a fit of rage. Their parents returned home to find the horrible crime that had occurred, and Maria was rushed to the nearest hospital in the town of Nettuno. She died a day later after having declared her forgiveness for Alessandro and her desire for him to be with her in heaven.
Alessandro was sentenced to 30 years in prison. He spent the first three years of his sentence unrepentant, but then he began to correspond with Monsignor Giovanni Blandini, a local priest who visited him in jail. Alessandro informed Monsignor Blandini that Maria had appeared to him in a dream in which she gave him lilies that burned to ash in his hands. Upon being released from prison, Alessandro went to Maria’s still-living mother and begged her forgiveness, which she granted, saying that if Maria could forgive him, she could do no less. The next day, they attended Mass together and received Holy Communion side by side. Alessandro went on to become a lay Capuchin Brother of the Order of Friars Minor. He lived in a monastery and worked as a receptionist and gardener until his death in 1970 at the Fr. Dougherty age of 87.
It seems clear that Alessandro’s path to God was only made possible by Maria’s forgiveness, which revealed to him the immense mercy of God. His dream of her giving him lilies seems to represent his realization of the profound gift of her mercy. And when they turned to ash, it seems he was realizing the state of his own soul and his need for repentance.
In Maria’s gift of mercy she reveals the mercy that we must all continually seek to reveal to the world. Christ demonstrated this mercy for us in His prayer from the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” It is not about ignoring the reality of evil, but rather about mercy for those caught up in evil. Christ shows us that mercy is sometimes the only way to rescue those who have gone astray.
And we know what Christ says about those who have gone astray. He says, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”
In forgiving Alessandro from her deathbed, Maria fol-lowed in the footsteps of Christ on the cross and helped Alessandro find his way to God. By showing him mercy, she was being like Christ, the good shepherd, who goes after the sheep that has been lost. This is the kind of love we must have for all people despite the wrong they may do. We must be constantly looking for ways to show them Christ’s mercy to inspire a change of heart and call them home to God.
Fr. Ed Dougherty, M.M., serves on The Christo-phers’ Board of Directors. For a free copy of the Chris-topher News Note, GOOD SPORTSMANSHIP, write: The Christophers, 5 Hanover Square, New York, NY 10004; or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.