In the wake of dreadful school and church shootings—most recently in Roseburg, Oregon, leaving nine dead—together with the wounds of church sex-abuse scandals and the sorrow of abortion, our country needs a powerful help towards healing. Our country needs a strong example of forgiveness to give us the courage to forgive and to find forgiveness.
In March 2015, Pope Francis proclaimed a Holy Year of Mercy for the entire world, beginning December 8, 2015, and continuing through November 20, 2016. In order to prepare for this Extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy and to catechize the United States for this great celebration in the life of the Church, the Holy See has chosen to favor us with the visit of the major relics of St. Maria Goretti.
The pilgrimage of the relics began this year, on the 20th of September, with an exposition at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison, in Ossining, New York. The pilgrimage of the relics is not just a reminder of the heroic virtues of the young saint. It is a witness to “her unyielding forgiveness of her attacker even in the midst of horrendous physical suffering, a forgiveness that would completely convert him and set him on a path to personal holiness”.1 For this, Maria is now proclaimed as the Patroness of Mercy; the Little Saint of Great Mercy.
Maria was only eleven years old, in 1902, when she was brutally murdered. Stabbed fourteen times with a sharpened metal file by a farmhand, Alessandro Serenelli. Maria courageously fought against her nineteen year-old attacker, who tried to defile her virginity. Alessandro later admitted that an addiction to pornographic magazines and immoral shows led him to his attempted rape of the young girl. Violent and unrepentant of his crime, he was sentenced to thirty years in prison (the maximum Italian sentence for a minor) and kept in solitary confinement because of his frequent outbreaks of violence against other prisoners.
On her deathbed, Maria’s last words were, “I forgive Alessandro Serenelli... and I want him with me in heaven forever.” Alessandro blamed Maria for what had happened, saying that if she had only given him what he had asked for, she would not be dead. Then one night, in his cell, Maria appeared to Alessandro. She was standing in a garden and she handed him, one by one, fourteen white lilies, representing her forgiveness of the fourteen wounds that he had inflicted upon her. His conversion was immediate—and so complete, that when he was released from prison, he went straight to Maria’s mother, Assunta Goretti, and begged for her forgiveness, which surprisingly, she gave, most willingly and lovingly.
He knew that his salvation was due to Maria and often repeated, “Maria’s forgiveness saved me.” Alessandro spent the rest of his days doing reparation as a Capuchin Franciscan, until his death in 1970.
Father Carlos Martins who is leading the American tour of the sacred remains of Maria Goretti explains, “Alessandro was able to regain his dignity through the generous mercy that those he wounded extended to him.” Found among his personal effects, Alessandro left a spiritual testament, written in the form of an open letter to the world. It contains an appeal that all follow the way of Christ:
I am now almost 80 years old. I am close to the end of my days.
Looking back at my past, I recognize that in my early youth I followed a false road—an evil path that led to my ruin.
Through the content of printed magazines, immoral shows, and bad examples in the media, I saw the majority of the young people of my day following evil without even thinking twice. Unworried, I did the same thing.
There were faithful and practicing Christian believers around me, but I paid no attention to them. I was blinded by a brute impulse that pushed me down the wrong way of living.
At the age of 20, I committed a crime of passion, the memory of which still horrifies me today. Maria Goretti, now a saint, was my good angel whom God placed in my path to save me. Her words both of rebuke and forgiveness are still imprinted in my heart. She prayed for me, interceding for her killer. Thirty years in prison followed.
If I had not been a minor in Italian law I would have been sentenced to life in prison. Nevertheless, I accepted the sentence I received as something I deserved.
Resigned, I atoned for my sin. Little Maria was truly my light, my protectress. With her help, I served those 27 years in prison well. When society accepted me back among its members, I tried to live honestly. With angelic charity, the sons of St. Francis, the minor Capuchins of the Marches, welcomed me among them not as a servant, but as a brother. I have lived with them for 24 years. Now I look serenely to the time in which I will be admitted to the vision of God, to embrace my dear ones once again, and to be close to my guardian angel, Maria Goretti, and her dear mother, Assunta.
May all who read this letter of mine desire to follow the blessed teaching of avoiding evil and following the good. May all believe with the faith of little children that religion with its precepts is not something one can do without. Rather, it is true comfort, and the only sure way in all of life’s circumstances—even in the most painful.
Peace and all good.
5 May 1961
The example of Maria’s life and her merciful forgiveness and Alessandro’s acceptance of this mercy, along with his incredible conversion, embody perfectly what our Holy Father, Pope Francis, desires for the entire Church, “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…The time has come for the Church to take up the joyful call to mercy once more. It is time to return to the basics and to bear the weaknesses and struggles of our brothers and sisters. Mercy is the force that reawakens us to new life and instils in us the courage to look to the future with hope.” —Misericordiae Vultus: Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy
“What is hoped to be gained by Maria’s visit to the United States”, continues Fr. Carlos, “is that, God never disappoints, but always shows up at an exposition [of the relics]. There are healings at each one. Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, have been reported to me. Spectacular ones…Though a great number of miracles have been physical,2 the most spectacular is the healing of faith where a new and deeper relationship with God and His saints are formed in the faithful. It is a most wonderful thing to see a parish, school, or prison renewed after an exposition. That is the basis for this ministry’s existence, and I cannot wait to see where Saint Maria will take it.”
The pilgrimage and public veneration of the relics ended in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Maria Goretti’s remains were flown back to Italy on November 13, 2015. Plans for a 2016 tour of the western half of the USA are currently being studied. To support the future pilgrimage of Maria’s relics, please check on the website: http://mariagoretti.com. v