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Learning Forgiveness from St. Maria Goretti

Although Maria Goretti is remembered for her violent death as a martyr for holy purity, she is a saint because of the way she lived

The girl was twelve years old, brought to the hospital by the neighbors who had found her. She had been stabbed fourteen times. The panicked women had tried to stop the bleeding by pouring vinegar and salt into her wounds. Now the surgeons held her down as they tried to stitch her torn body.

But it was to no avail. She had been punctured in the lungs, the heart, even her intestines. For twenty-four hours she clung to life, repeatedly forgiving Alessandro until she died on July 6, 1902. The news of the murdered child who forgave her assassin attracted thousands, who came to pass by her coffin.

It was in this forgiveness, this last act of life, that a little Italian girl named Maria showed the world that the solution to the perplexing profundity of evil is plain and simple forgiveness.

Alessandro Serenelli had always been a troubled, solitary boy. Ever since he learned that his mother had tried to drown him in a river when he was a baby, he wondered if there was something wrong with him—especially when he thought of his brother, locked away in an asylum. Alessandro was troubled, indeed, and the filthy banter of the sailors he had been spending time with only made his thoughts darker.

At eighteen years old, Alessandro was lonely. Since he always felt too awkward and unsure to venture out at night with his uncouth companions when they went seeking women, he began instead to cut lewd pictures from magazines and newspapers and affix them to the wall by his bed.

Despite his dissipation, Alessandro worked doggedly alongside his father in the hardscrabble existence of the tenant farmers outside Rome, who broke their backs under wealthy and indifferent landowners. It was there that he first saw Maria Goretti. Her father, Luigi Goretti, had recently died of malaria, and now Alessandro and his father shared a house with his widow, Assunta Goretti, and a young and unassumingly beautiful daughter. It was on Maria that Alessandro’s tortured desires turned, even as she vehemently turned him down when he made a forward physical advance or two.

Though she lived in terror of Alessandro, Maria was silent. She was a brave girl who was primarily concerned about her mother, and rather than add to her innumerable griefs and worries over their survival, she kept her fears of Alessandro to herself and Jesus, to whom Maria was purely and simply devoted with the uncomplicated, unconditional love of a child. She took delight and comfort in knowing that the low labors of her life were not wasted in the eyes of Jesus, who saw all.

But on a hot July afternoon, Alessandro cornered her in the kitchen when all were afield. Maria resisted him. In a frenzy of enraged rejection, Alessandro seized his bill hook and lashed at her tiny body. Maria crumpled to the floor. Alessandro fled the scene but was arrested a few days later and sentenced to thirty years in prison.

It was in prison that he had a dream of Maria that altered the course of his life. She was even more beautiful than he remembered, and the vision of her made his angst and impenitent frustration melt away. She gave him a great green sheaf crowned with fourteen white lilies, one glorious flower for every one of the wicked wounds he dealt her. “Alessandro,” she said—these the words she repeated in the hospital as she lay dying—“I forgive you and I want you to be with me in paradise.”

When Alessandro was finally released, he went immediately to Assunta Goretti, fell to his knees before the old woman whose daughter he had brutally murdered, and begged her forgiveness. The old woman took Alessandro to her tired old breast like one of her own babies and called him her beloved son.

In this day and age of wounds and resentments, a little forgiveness would go a long way. In fact, it would go all the way. Instead, people are burdened, embittered, and bludgeoned with innumerable indictments, all too often political in nature, obsessing over sins past and present, real and imaginary. Though injustice is committed rampantly behind closed doors, in the public square, and on the internet, and it must be punished whenever possible according to the dictates of justice, how often do we hear of forgiveness?

We see forgiveness denigrated everywhere. Hollywood fans the flames of rage and revenge with self-absorbed messaging of un-forgiveness, poignantly delivered in Alejandro Iñárritu’s harrowing film, The Revenant, which abandons the thrilling historical narrative of Hugh Glass in favor of a fictional slaughter of revenge for the audience’s presumed satisfaction. Rare are the instances like the time when that Dallas family spoke words of tender forgiveness at the trial of the police officer who shot their sibling to death, thinking him an intruder when she accidentally entered the wrong apartment after a long shift.

We all need forgiveness for our faults and flaws, even as Alessandro Serenelli needed Maria Goretti’s. Sadly, such forgiveness is not easy to come by in a world out for blood, and there are those who must descend even to the depths of despair to find it. But when it is found, the power of forgiveness is strong, mighty enough in its mercy to cleanse us of all sin, for it is, as Shakespeare says, “an attribute to God himself,” who will forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Although Maria Goretti is remembered for her violent death as a martyr for holy purity, she is a saint because of the way she lived, and especially for the forgiveness she gave Alessandro before she died. It was her forgiveness that made it possible for Alessandro to be with her in paradise. May we all do likewise and find similar forgiveness ourselves from those we injure, so that we too might join the forgiven, all of the forgiven, in paradise to be reconciled forever in love.

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