4th Sunday – Maria Goretti and the Gaze from the Cross

Crucifix d’Arezzo by Giacobbe Giusti

John 3:14-21

On the 24th June, 1950, less than fifty years after her death, Pope Pius XII canonised a new saint, Maria Goretti. The canonisation included several firsts. At eleven years old, she was and remains the youngest canonised saint of the Church. She was beatified a martyr, as she died, defending her purity. The attendance at her canonisation was so huge, that for the first time it was not held at the Basilica, but the square outside. For the first time, a mother was present at her daughter’s canonisation, along with her siblings. But most strangely, the man who brutally killed her, was present as well, now reformed and living the life of a humble Capuchin friar.

Maria was born to poor Italian parents. She was third among six children. Her father, Luigi Goretti, was a farmer. At one point, Luigi moved his family to another town, searching for work. They would settle down next to another farmer, Giovanni Serenelli, also struggling to make ends meet and to take care of his son, Alessandro. They would eventually find work on a farm and living close by, help each other. Three years later though, Luigi would die, when Maria was just nine years of age. It would be a time of terrible trial for the family. Her mother and some of her siblings worked in the fields alongside the Serenellis. It fell to Maria to watch her younger sister and also cook and clean for both the families.

At this time Alessandro, who was 20 years old, began to develop lustful feelings for Maria. He would say lewd things to her, always causing her to run away. At a certain point, he began to make direct sexual advances towards her and started to threaten her with violence. She would always repudiate him, telling him how he was falling into terrible sin. One fateful day, Alessandro decided to act on his lusts. In the middle of the day, knowing Maria would be alone, Alessandro came into the house and tried to rape her. She would fight him off, begging him to not sin. Seeing that he could not violate her, in his fury, he stabbed her fourteen times. He left her, dying and in agony. Some reports say that he simply went to his house and slept. Soon after her mother and family returned to find her almost dead and rushed her to the hospital. The doctors operating on her were amazed by the way she bore all her pain. She would die of her wounds the next day, but not before forgiving her attacker. Her last words would be “I forgive Alessandro Serenelli … and I want him with me in heaven forever.”

Alessandro was arrested immediately, but he showed no remorse for his actions. He would be sentenced to thirty years as he was still a minor under law, then, which was 21. In prison, he was subject to frequent rage causing others harm, leading him to be put in solitary confinement. One night, six years into his sentence, he had a vision. Maria appeared in a garden picking 14 white lily flowers and handed them to him one by one. This gesture of forgiveness, of love, would begin a process of slow but deep conversion in him. He would begin to be contrite for his actions. From then onwards, he would lose his anger, become docile and accepting of his sentence for his crimes. On his release, he first sought out Maria’s mom and begged her forgiveness on his knees. She would forgive him, saying she could do no less than Maria, and she would adopt him as her son. He would eventually become a Franciscan lay brother. He ended his life peacefully, in the monastery, praying, doing lowly jobs of the porter and gardener.   

Alessandro did not have an easy life. His mother suffered from severe mental illness and attempted to drown him as a baby. She would die soon after he was born. His dad was an alcoholic which prevented him from holding on to a job for very long. In his spiritual testament he left on his death, Alessandro notes the influence of pornographic material in his life, some which he found in his own house, probably from his dad. He also notes how he refused to take heed of the beautiful Christian lives of some around him, choosing instead to follow the path of his lusts.

Maria’s mother, Assunta, talking to Alessandro Serenelli

I’m thinking of this very shocking and moving story today, as we are presented with what many would call the summary of the whole Gospel, Jn 3:16: ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son…’. But immediately preceding that, Jesus says he has to be lifted just as Moses lifted the bronze serpent in the wilderness. Jesus is referring to an incident in the wilderness wandering of Israel. The people get weary and start complaining bitterly against Moses and therefore against, God. They have forgotten the misery of Egypt. After having been rescued from slavery, they accuse Moses of being a murderer, of bringing them out to kill them. In response to their venomous words, they are plagued by venomous serpents and they start to die. When Moses intercedes for them, God instructs them to look at a bronze serpent whereby they begin to be healed. Why this peculiar ritual? Because, the serpent became a mirror. It showed them who they had become with all their resentment, their bitter complaining and forgetfulness of what God had done for them. It was only as they saw themselves, for what they were, the healing could begin.

When we hear a story like Maria’s, we can react with horror and disgust for what was done and equally, for someone who does such an act. That would be instinctive. We want to see someone punished, condemned. Equally, we could excuse this man as having had a bad past as largely a product of his environment. Society’s standards of morality constantly change. Depending on what’s holding sway, we can swing from vengeful condemnation one moment, to providing cheap excuses the next. Neither of them though, offer any real mercy, any redemption. He is at the least condemned to live without healing, leaving him maybe more entitled to do the same things again. If our standards and values come simply from what others say, we will always be forced to justify ourselves, hide the things that are ugly and pretend that everything is okay. We can only make ourselves good by comparing with others. We are better because we would never do what those people do. And our sins, our wounds, the darkness within us will find expression in different ways. One day, we could even be left holding a sin which we never thought we would ever commit. 

Our redemption begins when we encounter Christ on the Cross, particularly his gaze from the Cross. How he sees you. Like a mother who loves you, even after you’ve done something terrible. A gaze which conveys deep-felt pain, but at the same time compassion and love. When we encounter this mercy, we can look and see what we are capable of. This is what I did to Jesus. What you did. As individuals. That is the beginning of redemption. This is why the beautiful unconditional love which Jn 3:16 speaks of, is intertwined with the ugliness of the serpent. That is the beginning of healing. That is the beginning of faith. It was in receiving Maria’s forgiveness that Alessandro could change. You know that in your worst moment, in your worst deed, you have been forgiven. You have been loved. You don’t need to justify yourself. God justifies you. God has not run away from you or condemned you, at your worst, when everyone else has left you. It’s the moment you can also confess your sins and find new life. That is the good news of this gospel.

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