The amazing story behind this photo…

Looking at this photo, you might think it is two friends having a chat with each other. Or maybe a mother and son deep in conversation.

It would probably shock you to know that this photo is of a woman sitting with her daughter’s murderer – many years after the murder took place. You might now think that she didn’t know that he was her daughter’s killer at the time? Nope, she absolutely knew that it was.

The man’s name is Alessandro Serenelli. The woman’s name is Assunta Goretti. And her daughter’s name was Maria Goretti or, as she is popularly known as today, Saint Maria Gorelli.

I only learned about Saint Maria a couple of years ago. I was preparing a session for our students about saints and I came across this incredible story. However, I was shocked by it and I didn’t fully believe all the facts. I did some research and couldn’t believe that it was true. But something else happened that prompted me to use St. Maria as part of my session. I was in Arnold Hall one day and there is an alcove behind the curtains, in which there is an altar and some statues. I looked in the corner and there was a statue of a young girl holding lilies. I immediately knew it was Saint Maria Gorelli. The statue had always been there and I had not noticed it until that moment – the moment I needed to see it. And it confirmed for me that I needed to tell the students about this young girl. And they were completely amazed at this story.

The Goretti family shared a residence with the Serenelli family, who consisted of Giovanni, a widower and his son Alessandro. Maria had a traditional Italian religious upbringing and was very faithful in her practice. She knew her catechism very well and would go to Mass daily.  We are told that Alessandro was quite the opposite –  he was an angry youth and spoke crudely to Maria, often in a sexual way. This became constant and he often threatened her with violence.

One day, in July 1902, Maria was once again threatened by Alessandro and he tried to rape her. Maria responded to him by shouting: “No it is a sin! God does not want it!” Alessandro, filled with rage, took out a knife and stabbed her nine times. Thinking she was dead, he went into his room and locked himself inside. But Maria regained consciousness and began to crawl towards the door. Alessandro came back out of his room and stabbed her a further five times. Maria was 11 and Alessandro was 20.

When Maria was found, she was taken to hospital. The doctors tried to save Maria but she died the next day as a result of an agonising infection. But her final words were shocking and, for many, unbelievable:

“I forgive Alessandro Serenelli…and I want him with me in heaven forever”

However, Alessandro was unrepentant. When he was on trial, he tried to blame Maria, stating that he was protecting himself from her attacking him. Alessandro was found guilty and, because he was a minor, only sentenced to thirty years in prison. Even whilst in prison, Alessandro would not accept responsibility for his actions. He was often violent towards other inmates and spent much time in solitary confinement as a result of his fighting. But one night, six years later, he had a dream which changed his life forever.

In his dream , he saw Maria and, without saying a word to him, she was handing him fourteen white lilies (the symbol of purity), one by one. The fourteen lilies symbolised the number of times that he had stabbed her. Alessandro saw this as an act of forgiveness and that Maria was indeed in heaven. He woke up and called for the local Bishop. He confessed his crime and experienced a complete change of heart. In fact, his transformation was so dramatic that he lived out the rest of his sentence as a model prisoner. Gone were the rage, the fighting and the denial. He was actually allowed out of prison three years early due to his behaviour.

Alessandro sought out Maria’s mother, Assunta, and he begged her to forgive him for murdering her daughter. Incredibly, Assunta forgave him with the words: “”If my daughter can forgive him, who am I to withhold forgiveness?”

Alessandro went to live with a Franciscan religious order and became a lay brother, doing odd jobs around the monastery as a porter and a gardener. He lived a quiet, peaceful and, many would say, a holy life.

In 1950, the Pope declared that Maria was a saint. In the ceremony in St. Peter’s Square, both Assunta and Alessandro were present together. After leaving prison and throughout the rest of his life, Alessandro prayed to and remained devoted to Maria Gorelli until his death in 1970. He wrote a letter for the world, a kind of spiritual testament, which you can read here:

Now I have worked as a chaplain in HMP Liverpool and I have come across many Alessandro’s (before he changed his life). I have witnessed first-hand how hardened many of them were to any kind of therapy, psychological intervention or even common sense. Their anger, hatred, addiction and sin ran deep within them. I saw up close their violence in the segregation unit and the hospital wings. I also heard their excuses, their stories of how it was someone else’s fault and how their upbringing made them do it. And how it wasn’t them.

That is why the events I have described above are remarkable. And that is why I had to double-check the facts about Saint Maria and her killer, Alessandro. But his conversion was real and lasting. And it came about through an intervention of a young girl, whose holiness, purity and refusal to allow a man to treat her as an object, were truly incredible. But what was even more incredible was her desire to forgive him.

Not to let him off the hook. No, he served his sentence and rightly so. But, as he told someone later in his life, it was her forgiveness that saved him. When he experienced this forgiveness, it completely transformed him. This wasn’t human forgiveness – this could only have come from the one who utterly forgives. And Saint Maria was following the example of Christ in doing what she did. And, having seen the impact of crime on people through my experiences in prison, her forgiveness would have saved other women and men from experiencing Alessandro’s rage and depravity upon his release. 

God’s forgiveness completely heals. It can make the impossible become possible. It is that powerful. And thankfully I have seen how God’s forgiveness has transformed many lives.

It goes beyond finger pointing or arguments about whether someone should be forgiven or not. Both then and now, many would say that what Alessandro did was unforgivable. “An eye for an eye!”  “He should have been given the death penalty!!”

But while we debate and try to come up with our moral judgements, a young girl totally cuts through all our expectations and arguments. Maria’s forgiveness brings a healing, a wholeness and a peace that we would never be able to bring about by all our moral wrangling. 

Today is the feast day of this young saint. Take some time to get to know her. She is truly an inspiration.

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