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What St. Maria Goretti teaches us about transformative forgiveness

When it comes down to it, forgiveness is much easier said than done.

It might be far easier to hold onto a wrong done, to stew and seethe, to cling to the desire for justice over mercy. And yet, Jesus calls us to not only forgive, but to turn the other cheek and offer our sufferings for the good of the other.

Again, much easier said than done. However, for St. Maria Goretti, mercy and forgiveness were first and foremost, and this young saint serves as a powerful testament to how forgiveness can transform the wrongdoer just as much as the wronged.

A shocking crime

The third child of six, Maria grew up poor in rural Italy. The Goretti family’s situation only grew more dire when her father died when Maria was nine. From then on, Maria’s mother worked in the fields and Maria took care of her siblings.

She was known for her cheer and piety, making it a point to stop and pray on her way to buy supplies in a nearby village and to pray the rosary for the repose of her father’s soul every evening. With her siblings, Maria did the best she could, often passing along to her siblings gifts given to her by generous neighbors and merchants.

The idyllic yet tough life of the Goretti family was shattered in summer 1902, when Alessandro Serenelli, the son of a neighbor and coworker of Maria’s mother, began making advances on 11-year-old Maria. Her continued rebuffs led Alessandro to further forcefulness, even violence.

In July 1902, after another rejection, Alessandro pulled Maria into a bedroom and attempted to rape her. Refusing again, Maria cried out, “No! It is a sin! God does not want it!” Angered anew, Alessandro stabbed Maria 14 times before he fled, leaving her for her family to find.

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Maria was rushed to the doctor, who attempted to treat her. Realizing that her wounds were beyond his help, he asked Maria to remember him in Heaven. “Well, who knows which of us is going to be there first?” Maria responded, unaware of the severity of her injuries. “You, Maria,” the surgeon replied. “Then I will gladly think of you,” said the saintly young girl.

After 20 hours, surgery without anesthesia and untold sufferings, Maria died holding a crucifix and looking at an image of the Virgin Mary.

Flames of forgiveness

Before her death, Maria was asked if she forgave Alessandro, to which she emphatically replied, “Yes, for the love of Jesus I forgive him… and I want him to be with me in Paradise.”

It was this forgiveness that Maria offered to Alessandro when she appeared to him in his 11th year of a 30-year hard labor prison sentence.

While asleep, Alessandro saw a young girl dressed in white gathering lilies in a garden. She approached him, smiling, and offered him the lilies one by one. As he accepted them, each lily turned into a still, white flame.

A repentant man when he awoke, Alessandro sought to make amends and to seek forgiveness and reconciliation. In an open letter he wrote years later, he credits Maria, saying, “Little Maria was really my light, my protectress; with her help, I behaved well during the 27 years of prison and tried to live honestly when I was again accepted among the members of society.”

Alessandro Serenelli with Maria’s mother, Assunta. Maria forgave Serenelli as she died and appeared to him in a vision, which spurred his conversion. He would later testify as a witness for Maria’s cause for canonization.

Upon his release from prison after 28 years, he went straight to Maria’s mother to beg her forgiveness. She forgave him, saying, “If my daughter can forgive him, who am I to withhold forgiveness?”

Alessandro went on to become a Franciscan lay brother, working in the garden of the monastery. He was among the witnesses to testify in St. Maria Goretti’s cause for canonization. Reflecting before his death, he said, “When I was 20 years old, I committed a crime of passion. Now, that memory represents something horrible for me. Maria Goretti, now a Saint, was my good Angel, sent to me through Providence to guide and save me. I still have impressed upon my heart her words of rebuke and of pardon. She prayed for me, she interceded for her murderer.”

A radical choice

While this story can easily become about the horrendous, deplorable evil that Alessandro committed — an evil still all too prevalent in our world — it’s Maria’s response that can teach us far more.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus exhorts us, saying, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3-4).

Amid such darkness and evil that’s so present in the world and causes serious hurt, damage and wounds, we turn to the example of an 11-year-old child to glean a glimmer of light. Jesus puts little St. Maria Goretti, the Church’s youngest canonized saint, a child, in our midst and encourages us to learn from her in all humility.

Rather than hold onto a grudge to her dying breath, St. Maria Goretti chose to forgive, to look to eternity and to embrace the Cross of Christ. In fact, St. John Paul II, in his Message for the Centenary of the Death of St. Maria Goretti, said, “In Maria Goretti shines out the radical choice of the Gospel, unhindered, indeed strengthened by the inevitable sacrifice that faithful adherence to Christ demands.”

Her radical choice to follow Jesus and the Gospel led her to detest sin and to reject it in all its forms, which led to her death. Yet, on her death bed, she chose to live the mercy of Jesus in an even more radical way, a mercy that transformed her soul and the souls of all those around her, including her attacker.

It was in and through the mercy and forgiveness she offered, inspired and redoubled by Jesus Himself, that Alessandro was converted. It was in and through this mercy and forgiveness that little Maria united herself to Christ and joined him in his heavenly kingdom. And it’s in this mercy and forgiveness that we, too, can draw nearer to Jesus, both in receiving and in giving this incredible gift.

St. Maria Goretti is proof that we can live Jesus’ radical forgiveness. She is proof that no sin is too big to be forgiven. She is proof that Jesus’ mercy and forgiveness are there for us, if only we ask for it.

André Escaleira, Jr.
André Escaleira, Jr.
André Escaleira is the Digital Media Specialist for the Archdiocese of Denver. Originally from Connecticut, André moved to Denver in 2018 to work as a missionary with Christ in the City, where he served for two years.
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