No Soul Too Dark: Visiting Maria Goretti

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Photo courtesy of Michael Seelen.

Time to call Rome: we had another miracle to attribute to St. Maria Goretti.

My husband and I strode into St. Maria Goretti Parish in Madison, Wisconsin with our five young children skipping, tripping, and hanging on for dear life, not quite sure what we were doing. It was 4 p.m. on a Thursday and everyone had been crying fifteen minutes earlier when we’d discussed the plans for the afternoon: visiting the relics of St. Maria Goretti at a nearby church. There’d be long lines, we told them. We’d have to wait outside, we said solemnly. But this was important. A saint had visited our city, and it was the least we could do to go say hi. Then there was lots of crying, about the lines, about wanting to go home, about wanting to go without the siblings who were crying and wanting to go home. My husband and I closed the car doors and debated one last time with muffled cries coming from inside the car. Should we go, we wondered. Friends who had gone in the morning had waited two hours to see her. I was just about to call off the whole thing when my husband, filled with the Holy Spirit, announced that we’d all go together, as planned, and that was that. And we did.

Pulling up to the parking lot of St. Maria Goretti, we saw a big RV with a picture of Maria Goretti on it with the words “Pilgrimage of Mercy” on the side. I started to perk up. That’s right, I thought, this was more than us simply being polite to a visiting saint. We were participating in a gesture of mercy from Holy Mother Church, an indulgenced pilgrimage in our own city, an encounter with the body of a young woman filled with God’s mercy. God Himself was shouting from the rooftops to our little family: I am merciful! Here is proof of My mercy! Heart consoled, I was ready to brave to the lines.

As we hurried toward the doors, I began to notice that there weren’t any lines. They’d probably look like the ones at Disney once inside, I thought grimly. But as we opened the doors and stepped in, they weren’t there either. I began to get suspicious.

I could tell my husband noticed, too, and we cruised through the meeting hall and long narthex before our luck could run out. We passed a series of large displays about the life of St. Maria Goretti and her incredible story. About her humble home, her difficult childhood including the death of her father, the details about her death at the hands of her would-be rapist Alessandro Serenelli.

We turned the corner and the church doors were open, revealing the glass casket near the altar and a wax form of her body inside, concealing her remains. There was no line. A miracle of mercy for our young family and tired kids.

We continued our brisk pace up the aisle and I whispered quickly the correct form for reverencing the relics to our children and all at once we with her, kneeling together in front of the casket, hands big and tiny on the glass, for a moment united in prayer together and with St. Maria. And then we moved on.

We were back outside in the narthex, our whole trip lasting no more than four minutes. What just happened, I’d asked my husband. He laughed and shook his head, later confiding that he’d had a few words with St. Maria en route, asking if she could pull a few strings for our family that was on the brink of meltdown.

My oldest daughter and I stayed behind for a few minutes, revisiting the displays about St. Maria’s incredible witness of God’s mercy. The displays on her assailant, Alessandro Serenelli, caught my eye. He had had a dark childhood, raised without faith, and a father who was an alcoholic. He’d stabbed Maria multiple times for not having succumbed to his advances. He was imprisoned for twenty-seven years for his crime. Six years into his sentence, he was filled with despair when Maria appeared to him in his cell, offering mercy and promising that he’d be with her in heaven. Peace filled his heart and he served the remainder of his sentence as a model prisoner. After his release, he lived twenty-four more years with the Capuchins as a lay brother, having become the “gentlest of souls.” A prayer card with a photo of him kneeling before St. Maria’s image took my breath away. On the back is a prayer that he be raised to the altars of the Church.

This is our faith, the great mercy available to us all: that God’s mercy can transform rapists and murderers into saints. No one is beyond the reach of His transformative love if we simply have the humility to ask and receive it.

I am profoundly grateful that the Holy See arranged for St. Maria Goretti to visit us, to let us see and touch God’s mercy, to let it illumine us and our families. Nothing is too dark for God: we are all capable of becoming luminous images of Him like St. Maria Goretti…and Alessandro Serenelli.

Copyright 2015 Meg Matenaer.
Photo courtesy of Michael Seelen.

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