On Sunday the 6th of July 1902, the 11-year-old Maria Goretti died of the injuries she received the previous day when she was stabbed repeatedly by a 19-year-old youth, while rejecting his sexual advances. As his weapon, Alessandro Serenelli had used an awl, a sharp tool for punching holes in leather. Maria, or Marietta as her family and friends called her, had been stabbed 14 times, and left lying in a pool of blood. The awl had penetrated her throat, her back, and there was damage to her diaphragm, her lungs and even to her heart.
She went through more torture as the horse-drawn ambulance that carried her on the seven-mile journey to hospital jolted over rough and uneven roads. But her suffering didn’t finish when she arrived at hospital: her mangled body was in such a terrible state that the doctors couldn’t use any anaesthetic for the two-hour operation. Even after surgery, her agony wasn’t over. She continued to suffer all through Saturday night, Sunday morning, and into Sunday afternoon, and she eventually died shortly before four o’clock. But well before Marietta breathed her last, she said about her attacker, “for the love of Jesus I forgive him… and I want him to be with me in paradise.
At first Alessandro didn’t show any signs of repentance, and he was sentenced to 30 years imprisonment with hard labour. He eventually repented after a dream in which Maria appeared to him with a bouquet of 14 lilies – one for each wound he had inflicted upon her. When he was finally released from prison, Alessandro arrived one day at the door of Maria’s mother Assunta, begging her forgiveness. Assunta forgave him from the depths of her heart. In 1950, Alessandro attended Maria’s canonization ceremony in Rome, sitting next to her mother Assunta. He later became the gardener and doorkeeper at a Capuchin monastery, and died in 1970.
We all experience conflicts and divisions, most of them less tragic than what Maria Goretti had to undergo. Friendships break down, marriages unravel, and many are left with huge emotional wounds. To realise that an 11 year-old girl was able to forgive her killer is a great inspiration for us adults.
There is a famous prayer of Saint Ignatius of Loyola that can help us to forgive. It is in his Spiritual Exercises, and is called the Suscipe (“take”). Many people have a problem with this prayer: they baulk at the opening line which invites God to “receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will”. As I heard someone saying recently: “if God is going to take my memory, does that mean I’ll be only left with Alzheimer’s?”
I understand this prayer of Saint Ignatius in a much more positive light. When I ask God to take my memory, I’m asking God to take away my way of remembering things and to replace it with his way of remembering. I’m asking God to change the way I remember the past, so that from now on I can look back on my past as God does. Now, when God looks at my past, God sees his love at work in my life. If I can receive the grace to see my past as God does, then a shaft of light will appear even in the darkest hours, because God has the power to kindle a fire even within my darkest night. And so, I can be graced to become a little bit more forgiving, a little bit more like the great Saint Maria of Goretti.
Take Lord, receive, all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. You have given all to me. To You, O Lord, I return it. All is Yours, dispose of it wholly according to Your will. Give me only Your love and Your grace; that is enough for me.
Photograph: John Hart (Wisconsin State Journal)