Today I would like to tell you the story of a remarkable young girl called Maria Goretti, who died in 1902 three months before her 12th birthday. Maria was born into a farming family, near Ancona in the east of Italy. She was one of seven children. They were poor farmers and eventually had to sell their own farm and work for others. They ended up working on another farm in Paliano, about fifty miles south of Rome. Her father contracted malaria and died when she was just nine. They ended up sharing a house with a father and son by the name of Giovanni and Alessandro Serenelli. Their life was hard, but they were a close family. Maria generally stayed in the house doing housework and minding the youngest children, while the others worked on the farm.
Alessandro Serenelli, was eight years older than Maria and several times had tried to take advantage of her, but each time she refused. One day when he knew she was in the house on her own, he cornered her and threatened to kill her if she didn’t give in to him. She refused and kept saying that it was a mortal sin and God would not want it and that he would go to hell. Eventually in a rage, he stabbed her fourteen times, leaving her for dead. When her family found her, she was rushed to hospital, but she died the next day from her wounds. However, before she died she said that she forgave Alessandro because she wanted him to be with her in heaven when he died.
Alessandro was arrested and sentenced to thirty years in prison. Initially he was completely unrepentant. In fact, as is often the case with sexual predators, he blamed Maria, saying that if she had just given in to him, none of this would have happened. It claimed that it was basically her fault. However, six years later Maria appeared to him in a dream. She was holding lilies and she allowed fourteen of them to fall into his hands, but as each one landed in his hands it turned to ashes. This experience brought about a profound conversion in Alessandro. He understood the fourteen flowers to mean the fourteen times he had stabbed her and that she had forgiven him. From this moment on, his life changed completely. He became totally repentant and a model prisoner, so much so that he was eventually released three years early because of his exceptional behavior.
When he was released, after serving twenty-seven years in prison, he went straight to Maria’s mother’s house and begged her to forgive him for what he had done. She said to him that if Maria was able to forgive him, she could too. The two of them attended mass together the next day and received Holy Communion side by side. Alessandro spent the rest of his life in a Franciscan monastery, helping out as a receptionist and in the garden.
Maria Goretti was canonized in 1950 by Pope Pius XII in St. Peter’s Basilica. Both Maria’s mother Assunta and Alessandro, as well as some of her siblings, were there for her canonization. Her canonization was the first one to be held out-doors in St. Peter’s square, because of the size of the crowd. It is estimated that about 500,000 people attended the ceremony. Alessandro died peacefully in 1970 at the age of 87. All this because of the bravery of an eleven-year-old girl, who was willing to suffer rather than offend God.
What has this got to do with us today? At the moment as we hear about so much evil, and sexual abuse, I think it is good to be reminded of the extraordinary good that God can bring out of the most evil of situations. Who would have thought that an 11 year old girl could inspire so many people and bring about the conversion of a murderer and rapist?
St. Maria Goretti, virgin and martyr, pray for us.