Saint Maria Goretti, Alessandro Serenelli and the Triumph of Love and Mercy
Though there are many horrible forms of sin that we witness every day, I think for most the abuse or harm of a child would rank near the top.
So if you tuned on the nightly news, and saw that a man was arrested for taking the life of a 12-year old girl he tried to rape, how might you respond? Understandably you would be horrified, or angry. Perhaps you’d hope that he received the death penalty if you lived in a state with capital punishment. You might see his mug shot and conclude from the bases of that 30 seconds on the news that this is a reprehensible disgusting person.
Indeed, when Alessandro Serenelli was arrested, by all accounts there was not much to love in this man.
Allessandro was a neighbor of the Goretti family, a poor family of farmers who had to work for other farmers.
On July 5, 1902, eleven-year-old Maria Goretti was sitting on the outside steps of her home, sewing one of Alessandro’s shirts and watching Teresa her infant sister, while Alessandro was threshing beans in the barnyard. Knowing she would be alone, he returned to the house and threatened to stab her with an awl if she did not do what he said; he was intending to rape her. She would not submit, however, protesting that what he wanted to do was a wrong. She fought desperately and kept screaming, “No! It is a sin! God does not want it!” He first choked her, but when she insisted she would rather die than submit to him, he stabbed her eleven times. She tried to reach the door, but he stopped her by stabbing her three more times before running away.
Apparently he had harassed her before as well.
Alessandro Serenelli was captured shortly after the attack: the police taking him to prison overtook the ambulance carrying Maria to the hospital. Originally, he was going to be sentenced to life, but since he was a minor at that time it was commuted to 30 years; judges even considered he was not as mature as he was expected to be for a 20-year-old, and that he grew up in a poor, neglectful family, with several brothers and relatives suffering from madness and an alcoholic father. It has also been suggested that it was due to her mother’s plea for mercy that he was not sentenced to death.
At first, Alessandro insisted he had attempted to rape her several times and decided to kill her because of her refusal and desperate crying. He remained unrepentant and uncommunicative from the world for three years, until a local bishop, Monsignor Giovanni Blandini, visited him in jail. He wrote a thank you note to the Bishop asking for his prayers and telling him about a dream, “in which Maria gave him lilies, which burned immediately in his hands.
After his release, he visited Maria’s mother and asked for her forgiveness. She said if Maria could forgive him, she could to. They attended Mass together, and received Holy Communion side by side. Alessandro later became a lay brother of the Order of the Friars Minor Capuchin, and lived the rest of his days as a receptionist and gardener until he entered eternal life in 1970. Maria was canonized in June of 1950. We celebrated her feast day Friday, July 6.
In a world where we can judge people so quickly, or be so quick to forget about the wooden beam in our own eye yet see the splinter in our brother’s eye, the story of Maria and and Alessandro illustrates what God’s love and mercy can do.
It reminds us that we must all be aware of our sins. There aren’t too many people who murder or attack children which is why it makes the news when it happens. But sins come in all kinds of forms; the secret things that people do to others; the sins of habit; the sins of secrecy that occur in families where there can be abuse; gossip; greed; envy – it’s an endless list of sin. Sometimes thinking about the sins of others makes us forget about our own sins and the need of redemption. And it would be depressing if we were not in fact redeemed. Alessandro and Maria’s story reminds us that no sin us unforgivable in the eyes of God – we just have to open ourselves to God’s mercy.
But with that, their story is a challenge too to be a person of mercy. When we look to others who’s sins are public, whether it’s in the news or things we hear about, we have to remember we don’t know the whole story, and that when someone reaches out to them, change is possible. For Alessandro, his family had many problems from alcoholism to mental illness. It’s the same story for many who are incarcerated today as well. That often doesn’t get reported. But there are many stories like Alessandro’s in what has happened when people have shown compassion and mercy. Indeed right within our own parish are people who visit prisons and try to help people turn their lives around; and there are many other stories of what love and forgiveness have done to heal broken relationships. We are not called to be a person’s best friend; and when we or loved ones are hurt, anger is understandable. There is nothing wrong with wanting justice or never having a relationship with the person. But when we pray, we can perhaps try to pray for those in prison, or those who have wronged us. And perhaps at some point, like Maria and her mother did, we might reach out to someone to talk with them, to forgive them, and to remind them that they are loved by God.
There’s a lot of anger out there these days, and we should have a justified anger when we see injustice or evil action. But we should also do something about it, and remember that grace transformed people like Paul who persecuted and helped kill Christians and Alessandro who took the life of a young woman and turned them around. May we use that grace too to help others experience the healing powers of God’s love, and never give up on those who seemingly have walked away from God, but rather through prayer and mercy strive to help them to find a lasting relationship with the God who is love.
Have a blessed week!