If we really want to love, we must learn how to forgive. – St. Teresa of Calcutta
Forgiveness is not an easy feat for many of us, especially when we have been severely burned by someone who is close to us, perhaps a friend, family member, or even a former novice mistress, for those of us who have been hurt in the religious life.
The act of pardoning is a complex virtue that poses a challenge for many individuals, including us Catholics. When someone wrongs us, causing distress and agony, the suffering we endure from such torment can blind us, preventing us from seeking peace and love. If we succumb to anger, resentment, and animosity, these emotions can overpower us, occupying a space in our hearts that should be reserved exclusively for the love of Christ. Surrendering to these feelings creates an obstacle that hinders us from choosing forgiveness and finding freedom from the hurt and pain that has consumed our souls.
This month we celebrated the feast day of St. Maria Goretti, the youngest saint to be canonized and known as the patron saint of young people, chastity, and purity, who is also recognized for her embodiment of forgiveness. Despite being a mere child, she exhibited remarkable spiritual maturity. Faced with violence and mortal wounds inflicted by her attacker, she forgave him before drawing her final breath. At the tender age of eleven, St. Maria Goretti was stabbed fourteen times by her assailant, Alessandro Serenelli. Yet, she chose forgiveness over hatred, refusing to let hatred harden her heart. Her last words, spoken before her passing, were, “I forgive Alessandro Serenelli…and I want him in heaven with me forever.” How many of us could find it within ourselves to forgive as St. Maria Goretti forgave the man who not only stole the remainder of her childhood but also her very life?
It was due to St. Maria Goretti’s sincerity in forgiving her attacker that he experienced a conversion of heart six years later. He had a dream in which she appeared, presenting him with fourteen lilies symbolizing purity—the exact number of times Alessandro had stabbed her, ultimately leading to her death. As a result of this child’s forgiveness, her assailant was able to reconcile with God. He sought peace and love by confessing his sins to the Bishop and asking for forgiveness from St. Maria Goretti’s mother, Assunta Goretti. Alessandro spent the remainder of his days striving to live a virtuous life and even attended the canonization Mass presided over by Pope Pius XII in honor of St. Maria Goretti on June 24, 1950.
After Seranelli’s death, the Capuchin Friars with whom he had lived towards the end of his life found aletter written by him, which read:
I am now almost 80 years old. I am close to the end of my days.
Looking back at my past, I recognize that in my early youth I followed a false road—an evil path that led to my ruin.
Through the content of printed magazines, immoral shows, and bad examples in the media, I saw the majority of the young people of my day following evil without even thinking twice. Unworried, I did the same thing.
There were faithful and practicing Christian believers around me, but I paid no attention to them. I was blinded by a brute impulse that pushed me down the wrong way of living.
At the age of 20, I committed a crime of passion, the memory of which still horrifies me today. Maria Goretti, now a saint, was my good angel whom God placed in my path to save me. Her words both of rebuke and forgiveness are still imprinted in my heart. She prayed for me, interceding for her killer. Thirty years in prison followed.
If I had not been a minor in Italian law I would have been sentenced to life in prison. Nevertheless, I accepted the sentence I received as something I deserved.
Resigned, I atoned for my sin. Little Maria was truly my light, my protectress. With her help, I served those 27 years in prison well. When society accepted me back among its members, I tried to live honestly. With angelic charity, the sons of St. Francis, the minor Capuchins of the Marches, welcomed me among them not as a servant, but as a brother. I have lived with them for 24 years. Now I look serenely to the time in which I will be admitted to the vision of God, to embrace my dear ones once again, and to be close to my guardian angel, Maria Goretti, and her dear mother, Assunta.
May all who read this letter of mine desire to follow the blessed teaching of avoiding evil and following the good. May all believe with the faith of little children that religion with its precepts is not something one can do without. Rather, it is true comfort, and the only sure way in all of life’s circumstances—even in the most painful.
Peace and all good.
5 May 1961
It appears that even Allessandro Serenelli, a murderer, was able to embrace a spirit of forgiveness, and forgive himself for the heinous crime he committed in the past.
How frequently does forgiveness evade us? If we allow the radiance of Christ to illuminate the depths of our souls, we too, like the “Little Saint of Great Mercy,” can present our pain and suffering to God as an offering of merciful love. It is through the bestowal of His grace that we can attain peace and love by embracing the virtue of forgiveness. “For humans, this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).
Image: Saint Maria Goretti via Wikimedia Commons