She was the youngest saint, having died in 1902, at only 11 years old. What was it that such a young saint accomplished in such a short lifetime, worthy of elevating her among the saints, forever known to us as “the little saint of great mercy”? How could her transformative prayers for the sinful heart of her murderer bring him also to great holiness, even after her death? And how did Maria’s example of mercy save the souls of both her murderer and her mother, as well as many who have sought her holy intercession?
I was one of those sinners who needed Maria’s intercession to be truly saved. During my high school years, I had fallen into such darkness that I could have been lost to God forever. As I began to seek the face of the Lord through RCIA, I prayed for a saint to find me. A saint to mentor me along the great journey and guide me out of this darkness. A saint who could help me in the areas of virtue that I struggled most severely. For this I prayed.
Through prayer it became clear that one of my greatest impediments to holiness was an inability to forgive. It’s funny how those of us who need God’s forgiveness the most have the hardest time forgiving our brothers and sisters. I needed mercy, but often withheld mercy from others. Like the unforgiving servant in Matthew’s Gospel, I had not seen my own folly until it was heaped upon me. Thankfully, Maria found me.
As I heard the story of Maria Goretti, my heart melted inside of me. Like her murderer Alessandro, I was instantly repentant and desired to confess the sins tarnishing my soul. I chose her to be my patron saint, and together we walked the road toward freedom. Her ability to forgive, and even more so, her mother’s ability to forgive, still astonish me. As I stood on the altar of St. Ignatius church during the Easter vigil and heard the priest pronounce the name of ‘Maria’ as he anointed my head with Chrism, I was sealed with a special gift of the Holy Spirit. I had the counsel of a great and humble saint, whispering the words of surrender of every unmerciful act, and reminding me of God’s own forgiveness.
Here is the story of the great little saint, to melt your own heart, and draw you closer to the mercy of her Creator.
Maria’s family was very poor. Her father teamed up with another man, Giovanni Serenelli, accepting an offer from an Italian count, who provided a home and land for the Gorettis to farm. Luigi Goretti worked hard sixteen-hour days for two years to provide for his family on the farm. After those two years, he was bit by a mosquito carrying malaria, which he died from ten days later. This was devastating to the Goretti family, as Luigi left behind a wife and six children. At this time, Maria who was only nine, had to take over her mother’s role of caring for the household and her five younger brothers and sisters. Her mother took over Luigi’s work on the farm.
Luigi’s partner; Giovanni Serenelli, lived next door with his nineteen-year-old son, Alessandro. The two men were not practicing the faith, and made it difficult for the Gorettis. Giovanni abused alcohol, and his son Alessandro began to take an impure liking to Maria. Alessandro started making crude remarks to Maria, which eventually became more threatening. He was an angry young man who desired to take Maria’s virginity. The frightened Maria was in a very difficult position. Her father was gone, the Serenellis were partners on the farm, and her mother was at her wits’ end trying to keep up with the farm’s demands. As well, Alessandro had manipulated the situation by offering to help her mother with some of the more demanding farm work. For these reasons Maria did not reveal Alessandro’s threats to her mother. She knew that her mother would try desperately to move the family away from the farm, potentially leaving them destitute. She also heeded the words of her mother Assunta, who said, “You must never commit sin, at any cost.”
On the day of her attack, Maria sat at the top of the outside staircase, watching baby sister Teresa and mending a shirt for Alessandro. The young man came in from the fields and walked past Maria into the house. A short time later he pulled Maria into the house, dragging her into the kitchen. Wielding the six-inch blade of a farm tool, Alessandro held the blade to Maria’s throat and said, “Maria, unless you do what I want you to do, I will kill you.” Maria refused, saying, “No! No! It is sin. God does not want it. You’ll go to hell.” Because of her refusal, Alessandro stabbed Maria nine times. He stabbed her with such force that for six of the nine wounds, the blade came out the other side of her body. The three wounds that did not pierce through were prevented only because they hit her spine. Maria fell to the floor of her kitchen, unconscious.
Alessandro ran next door and locked himself in his room. Maria regained consciousness, managing to drag herself about six feet to the door. She then lifted her body up enough to flip the door latch, attempting to cry out for help. Alessandro heard Maria, and he came back and stabbed her five more times. It was Alessandro’s father Giovanni who found Maria in a pool of her own blood, and yelled for help. When asked who had done this to her, Maria said, “It was Alessandro. He tried to make me do something that was a sin, but he couldn’t make me do it. He couldn’t. I wouldn’t let him.” In the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, “Not only is a martyr one who dies rather than deny a truth of the faith, but he also who dies for the sake of some virtue, or to avoid sin against any commandment.”
By the time Maria was found, she already had a fever. This, combined with the loss of blood by the time they reached the hospital, put Maria in a state of dehydration. Despite begging the doctors for water, they were unable to fulfill her request because of fear of peritonitis. Maria’s parish priest came to the hospital and asked her to recall how Christ had also asked for water from the cross, but was not given any. The priest then asked if she would offer up her thirst for sinners. To this Maria responded, “Yes, Father, I will,” not asking for anything else.
The doctors performed surgery to repair the perforations. Due to the extreme blood loss, Maria was not able to be given anesthetic, for fear of sending her into cardiac arrest. In surgery, the wounds had to be enlarged, in order to perform internal suturing. Offering every agonizing moment of that surgery for the salvation of sinners, Maria never cried out. Her bleeding continued, and the surgeons knew they could do nothing more for her. Before Maria died, she said these words, “I forgive Alessandro Serenelli, and I want him with me in heaven forever.”
Alessandro pleaded innocent at trial, stating that he was defending himself against the attack of Maria Goretti. Sentenced to thirty years in prison, Alessandro, who was filled with anger, blamed Maria. In his darkness, he believed that if Maria had only done what he wanted, none of this would have happened. In prison, Alessandro was such a violent prisoner that he was not allowed near the other inmates. He remained in isolation for six years, until one night Maria appeared to him.
“The prison bars and walls fell away and his cell was a sunlit garden blooming with flowers. Toward him came a beautiful girl dressed in pure white. He said to himself, “How is this; peasant girls wear dark-ish clothes?” But he saw it was Marietta. She was walking among flowers toward him, smiling and without the least fear. He wanted to flee from her, but could not. Marietta picked white lilies and handed them to him, saying, “Alessandro, take them.” He accepted the lilies one by one, fourteen of them. But a strange thing took place. As he received them from her fingers, the lilies did not remain lilies but changed into so many splendid flaming lights. There was a lily turned to purifying flame for every one of the fourteen mortal blows he struck her on the fatal day in Ferriere. Marietta said, smiling: “Alessandro, as I have promised, your soul shall someday reach me in heaven.” Contentment entered his breast. And the scene of incredible beauty dissolved in silence.” ~The Penitent, Pietro di Donato
After the vision of Maria, Alessandro completely changed. He requested a visit by the local bishop and confessed his sins. He lived a prayerful and holy life during the rest of his prison sentence. Because of his complete reformation, he was released from prison three years early, which was a very rare practice in those days. Alessandro knew that he had to find Maria’s mother and ask her forgiveness. Because of Alessandro, Assunta Goretti had been robbed of absolutely everything she had. In the same week that her little girl was murdered, Assunta had to release her five remaining children to adoption, unable to provide or care for them. Thirty years after Maria’s death, on Christmas Eve of 1932, the man who caused all of this misery showed up at her doorstep. When she opened the door, Alessandro said to her, “Maria Assunta, do you know who I am?” She confirmed that she did know who he was, and he said, “Do you forgive me?” Assunta looked at him and said, “Alessandro, Marietta forgave you, Christ has forgiven you, and why should I not also forgive. I forgive you, of course, my son! Why have I not seen you sooner? Your evil days are past, and to me, you are a long-suffering son.” On that night, Assunta Goretti took Alessandro into her home and adopted him as her own son. The two went to Christmas Mass together that night and received Communion side by side. Alessandro lived the rest of his life in a Franciscan Capuchin monastery at Macerata, dieing at the age of eighty-nine.
St. Maria Goretti stood not only for purity of soul and body but also for “mastery of the spiritual over the material, for docile love of her parents, for sacrifice in harsh, daily labor, for poverty accepted as the Gospel teaches us to accept it, for love of prayer and of Jesus in the Eucharist, for charity in her heroic forgiveness [of her murderer].” ~Pope Pius XII
In June 1950, Pope Pius XII elevated Maria Goretti to sainthood. For the first time in the Church’s history, the canonization was held outside, because of the incredibly large crowd it drew. Also, for the first time, a parent of the saint was in attendance at the canonization. Maria truly forgave her enemy and chose to become a saint. Alessandro desired to do sinful things to Maria; he brutally stabbed her many times, then lied to the court about his guilt, and was sent to prison with no repentance whatsoever in his heart. Maria appeared to him in his prison cell, and she broke through the hardness of his heart.
There is a power in forgiveness, especially when it is undeserved and unwarranted. Mercy is the language which God speaks to us. It is through his great love that he is able to pour out his mercy upon us. We in turn must emulate him and pour out mercy upon one another, even the most unworthy sinner among us.
“Let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of man” (2 Sam 24:14).
Copyright 2015 Kimberly Cook
Painting: Saint Maria Goretti by Noah Buchanan, Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, WI