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Maria Goretti: Little saint of great mercy

First slide

Rays of the sunrise broke through the trees as a half-dozen men carefully lifted a heavy glass and gold casket over their heads outside St. Veronica Church in Chantilly Oct. 22. Inside the casket, slowly lowered from a large van, were the relics of 11-year-old St. Maria Goretti, covered with a waxen mask and resting serenely on a red velvet pillow.

A few dozen volunteers and eager pilgrims holding candles first watched in silence, then sang "Salve Regina" as the casket was wheeled into the building. By the end of the day, an estimated 7,000 people had knelt before the relics and pressed their hands against the glass separating the saint from the sinners.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be that close to the youngest (canonized) saint," said Jill Bender, a St. Veronica parishioner who brought her 10- and 9-year-old children to venerate the relics. "I have young children, so it means a lot."

St. Veronica hosted the major relics of St. Maria Goretti, who was stabbed to death by an attempted rapist, for one full day as part of a yearlong "Pilgrimage of Mercy" across the United States. The Holy See hopes that her message of forgiveness, and the story of her attacker's remarkable conversion, will resonate with modern-day pilgrims during the Jubilee Year of Mercy that will begin Dec. 8.

A horrific attack

By age 11, Maria Goretti's faith already had helped her through the death of her sharecropper father two years earlier. Maria's mother, Assunta, was left to support the family by toiling in the fields outside Nettuno, Italy, with their neighbors, Giovanni Serenelli and his son Alessandro. Maria became a second mother to her five siblings, caring for them like her own.

"She got up before anyone else. She made sure that food was on the table. She was so serious that people used to call her 'the little old woman,' " said Companions of the Cross Father Carlos Martins, who organized the pilgrimage through his "Treasures of the Church" relics ministry.

But Maria's greatest troubles were sexual advances from Alessandro, who was nine years her senior. Embarrassed, she kept his lewd remarks a secret.

On July 6, 1902, Alessandro unexpectedly came back early from the fields. His advances became violent. Little Maria fought back so fiercely, screaming at Alessandro that what he wanted was a sin, that he was unable to complete the attack. Enraged, Alessandro drew a knife and stabbed her 14 times.

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The power of forgiveness

Maria was taken to the hospital, where a priest asked her if she would forgive her attacker. "I forgive Alessandro Serenelli ... and I want him with me in heaven forever," she said. Shortly afterward, Maria died.

Her attacker was unmoved. Sentenced to 30 years in prison, Alessandro blamed Maria for everything that happened. His behavior was so bad that he wasn't allowed to mix with other inmates.

Six years into his sentence, he changed radically, almost overnight. Alessandro said that he had a vision of Maria, who offered him 14 white lilies — one for each of the stab wounds.

"His conversion was so dramatic that they wanted to release him after 13 years, but he refused," Father Martins said, explaining that Alessandro wanted to take responsibility by serving the remainder of his sentence. "After 27 years, they didn't give him a choice."

Five years after his release, Alessandro sought out Assunta and asked forgiveness for the murder of her daughter. Life had not been kind to her. After the murder, there was no one to fill Maria's place running the household, and Assunta could not fulfill her agreement with the landlord. The same week her daughter was killed, Assunta had to give up all five of her remaining children for adoption.

"Alessandro did not just murder her little girl," Father Martins said. "He destroyed her whole family."

Yet, inspired by her daughter's example, not only did Assunta say that she forgave Alessandro, from that day on she referred to him as 'my son.' Alessandro eventually joined the Capuchin order, where he spent the rest of his life in prayer and penance.

Saint for the modern age

St. Maria Goretti's story has resonated enough to draw thousands of people, like the ones at St. Veronica, to make a pilgrimage to the saint's relics.

"She speaks precisely to the message of mercy which Pope Francis is trying to disseminate and remind the world about. To committers of crime, people who have baggage in their lives. She speaks to them that mercy is attainable and it's offered by the Lord," Father Martins said. "To victims, it's an empowerment that they no longer need to identify themselves as a victim. Through Christ, they cease being a victim."

Marjorie LaVigne, a St. Veronica parishioner who watched the casket being carried inside, agreed.

"It's one thing to say you forgive someone," LaVigne said. "But to say that you want them to be with you afterward in the Lord's presence — it feels like another level of forgiveness."

Stachyra Lopez can be reached at mstachyralopez@catholicherald.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015