Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Little Saint of Great Mercy

Yesterday, I had the privilege of traveling to Belleville, IL where the remains of St. Maria Goretti were available for veneration at the Cathedral of St. Peter.

I took with me several rosaries I had collected from friends and family members who wanted them touched against Maria's casket, along with a rosary of my own. While in the very long line, my friend Dani bought me a copy of a photograph titled "The Mother and the Murderer" of Maria's mother and Allessandro Serenelli, who killed Maria. I touched the image to her casket as well.

Here's some background for you:

St. Maria Goretti was murdered at the age of 11 after resisting the attempt to rape her by her neighbor, 19-year-old Allessandro Serenelli.

Initially told, with a blade to her throat, that she would die if she resisted, upon refusing she was stabbed nine times and left to die, unconscious, on the kitchen floor of her parents' home. When she woke up, she managed to crawl across the floor to the door, which she opened to begin crying to the outside world for help. Unfortunately, Allessandro was the only person who heard her pleas, and he returned to stab her again an additional five times before returning to his own home.

When she was found, still alive, she was taken to the hospital where she underwent surgery in hope of saving her life, without any anesthetic. She offered the pain she experienced for the conversion of sinners, and when she was told she couldn't have any water because it would only leak out through her horrible deep wounds, she offered her thirst for sinners as well -- in remembrance of Jesus on the cross, who also was not permitted any water.

Her last words were, "I forgive Allessandro Serenelli, and I want him to be with me forever in heaven."

Serenelli was sentenced to 30 years in prison, where he spent many of his days, true to the patterns of many sex offenders, blaming Maria for everything that had happened, insisting that if she had only done as he told her, she'd be alive and he'd be free. While in prison, however, Serenelli experienced a profound and massive conversion to Christianity, which he entirely attributed, through his whole life, to a vision he had of Maria coming to him to give him a white lily for each time she was stabbed, eventually telling him she forgives him.

Allessandro was eventually released from prison, and returned to Maria's home to apologize and beg forgiveness from her mother. Maria's mother is said to have told him, "God forgives you, Maria forgave you, how can I not forgive you?" following which she embraced him and considered him like her own son.

The story of St. Maria Goretti is one which has touched millions. Though she is often painted as the poster-child of the struggle for purity, her veneration and Sainthood are due to her extraordinary act of forgiveness, the model of which inspired her mother and even her murderer for the rest of their lives. And if you ask me, it is entirely inappropriate to consider an 11 year old victim of attempted rape a model of purity, simply for the fact that had she given in, she would not have been guilty of impurity -- she would not have been guilty of anything, she would have been an 11 year old girl who had been the victim of the obscene and horrific crime of rape.

With all that said, I, too, find myself moved by Maria's story. I can't hide, however, that I find myself equally troubled by it. Though not a victim myself, several of my close friends are rape survivors, one of them when she was only nine years old. Some of them have forgiven their attackers, and some of them have not been able to. It is a situation which ought to evoke a deep and compassionate sympathy from everyone, as it is an assault which deeply wounds a person in a great number of ways and marks a certain change in the pattern of their lives, thoughts, self-image, and relationships.

And Maria's story is disturbing. She was, I can't say it enough, a child, attacked in her mother's kitchen with a blade to her throat and told if she didn't give in she would die. There is no doubt that it took extraordinary bravery to still refuse Serenelli's advances in the face of certain death, but even if she hadn't refused, she would not have been any less pure, any less a child, and would only be "less innocent" in the sense that her quiet childhood innocence would have been horribly violated in an irreparable fashion.

While I am surely touched by the story, I am also fascinated by it -- captivated by the forgiveness of her mother, who in my mind had to have been crazy; shocked at the piety and devotedness with which a murderer and sex offender could live out his life after prison, a man who in my mind is difficult to see as anything short of insane.

But perhaps that is why, in the midst of all this chaos, I am so touched by the example of this little girl, whose childlike grace afforded her the capacity to find it in her struggling heart to not only forgive her attacker but hope to spend an eternity with him in heaven.

I am taken aback by this marvel of compassion in the same way I am taken aback by the image of Christ beaten and bloody on the rocky ground, stripped naked, stretched across a cross, and crying out: "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do."

Mercy in the face of sin is a comfort to me, and brings joy to my faith. But mercy in the face of tragedy is perplexing to me, challenging to me. It puts my faith through the fire and asks an uncomfortable question: does God command me to love and forgive even in instances such as these?

Intellectually, we all know the answer is a resounding yes. But in practice, in our heart of hearts, in our flesh and in our spirits, it is an undeniably difficult matter, and an unavoidably difficult question.

St. Maria Goretti, pray for us, especially that we may be even more deeply inspired by your model of forgiveness, which the Church sees fit to venerate for the inspiration and compassion it will evoke, if we allow our inner selves to struggle against the invisible God and eventually find that he, and his ways, are grace.