Forgiveness and Repentance, The Anchor, July 16, 2010

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Into the Deep
July 16, 2010

Ten days ago the Church celebrated the feast of St. Maria Goretti, whose Christian response to suffering sexual abuse as a minor is a light not only for those who have endured the darkness of this horror but also charts a path for their parents and even for their abusers. In this mini-series on the truly Catholic response to the scandals demonstrated for us in the lives of the saints, her powerful witness, and the enormous impact it had on others, deserves to be highlighted and imitated.

In 1902, Maria Goretti was an 11 year-old girl living in Ferriere di Conca, about 40 miles south of Rome. Her father Luigi had died two years before of malaria, leaving Assunta, her mother, with the difficult task of providing for her, her two older and three younger brothers and sisters. While her mother and other siblings were working in the fields, Maria’s duties were to baby-sit her infant sister Teresa, cook, sew and clean their side of a duplex they were sharing with the Serenelli family.

About this time, Alessandro Serenelli, 20 and strong, began to lust after his 11 year-old next-door-neighbor. He would conveniently try to visit her while her mother and older siblings were out working. He pressured her to join him in one the bedrooms, but she repeatedly refused. When she said that she was going to tell her mother about his advances, he showed her a ten-inch dagger and threatened to kill her, a warning she took seriously enough to remain reticent.

Alessandro noticed that his threats of physical violence had worked to keep her quiet about his sexual harassment, so he decided to up-the-ante. On July 5th, Alessandro entered her house, showed her the dagger, and threatened to kill her unless she slept with him. She refused to submit, insisting that that would be a mortal sin for which they could go to Hell. He pulled her into an adjoining bedroom and started to rip off her dress. When she began to scream, “No! It is a sin! God does not want it!,” Alessandro began to choke her. As she insisted that she would rather die than submit to him, he began to strike at her with the dagger, stabbing her eleven times. Though severely injured, Maria still tried to escape, but Alessandro stopped her at the door by stabbing her three more times before running away. Eventually the cries of little Teresa drew the attention both of Alessandro’s father and Maria’s mother, who discovered Maria in a pool of blood. She was rushed to the hospital, where the doctors tried to say her life, but their efforts were futile. The wounds had pierced her lungs, heart and diaphragm. Surgeons were amazed she was still alive.

Maria awakened during the surgery, which was carried out without anesthesia. In the midst of tremendous pain, she told everyone what had happened and how she had long feared Alessandro, who on two previous occasions had tried to rape her. When those present asked her to pray for them in paradise, she realized that she was about to die. In the presence of the doctors and her family, she expressed her forgiveness for her murderer and said that she would pray for him one day to join her in heaven. She died the following day, looking at an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Alessandro was sentenced to 30 years in prison. For about six years, he was hardened and unrepentant, physically attacking priests who had come to visit. Then one night, he had a dream in which Maria appeared gathering lilies and offering them to him. When they were placed in his hands, they burned and melted. The dream had an enormous impact on him, convincing him that Maria was in fact praying for his conversion, that he, too, one day come to the resurrection. He turned his life around and began to pray each day to Maria, referring to her as “my little saint.” He became so exemplary a prisoner that he was released from prison three years early.

His first action upon being released was to visit Maria’s mother to beg for her forgiveness. Assunta Goretti said that if Maria had forgiven him on her deathbed, then she could do not less. The next day they attended Mass together, receiving Holy Communion side-by-side. In the midst of a stunned congregation, he acknowledged his sin, and asked for God’s forgiveness and theirs. He would spend the rest of his life doing penance as a gardener at a Capuchin monastery and was present with Assunta, many of those parishioners and others, when Pope Pius XII canonized Maria Goretti in 1950.

From St. Maria Goretti’s story, the Church can draw powerful lessons for those who have suffered sexual abuse, for their family members and for those who have committed it.

For those who have suffered sexual abuse, there is the powerful lesson of forgiveness. In imitation of Jesus’ prayer from the Cross and St. Stephen’s during his stoning, Maria prayed for the forgiveness of the one who had terrorized her and taken her life. As hard and as heroic as forgiveness may be for those who have been abused — and we shouldn’t minimize the difficult — the Lord does call each of us to it, which means that he will always supply the means to live up to that summons. He called us to forgive 70 times 7 times. When he taught us the Our Father, he told us that God would forgive our sins provided that we forgave others theirs. He gave a parable saying that all the sins others commit against us are like “one hundred days’ wages” compared to the sins we’ve committed against God, which are similar to “ten thousand talents,” or ten million day’s wages. If God has forgiven us that sum for what we’ve done against him, then we are called to forgive others what they’ve done against us.

Maria Goretti lived these lessons. She had a Christian heart that loved even of her enemies and prayed for her persecutors rather than held bitter grudges to the grave.

Forgiveness does not mean that we pretend that what others did was not evil or that we commute the requirements of justice for the evil others have done to us; in forgiving Alessandro, Maria Goretti did not ask that he not go to jail for his crimes.

Likewise, forgiveness does not mean forgetting the evil done. Jesus never said, “Forgive and forget,” because it is impossible for us to forget some types of evil done to us or to family members. Forgiveness means changing the significance of past wickedness in the present, converting it from something evil and painful in order to draw good out from that evil, through prayer or other means. Forgiveness allows us to transform the “manure” of past wickedness we’ve suffered into “fertilizer” for our Christian growth and the good of others. The greater the amount of evil suffered, the great the amount of possible fertilizer.

It was Maria’s forgiveness that taught her mother how to pardon Alessandro for murdering her daughter and to express that forgiveness by mutually approaching the altar.

It was Maria’s forgiveness — not so much his just civil punishments — that eventually paved the way for Alessandro’s conversion, for his recognizing and repenting for the evil he had committed, and for his begging forgiveness from God, from Maria, from her family and society. This request for forgiveness, this type of conversion of life, this willingness to accept one’s punishment for past evil, is what most victims hope for most deeply from those who wronged them, and it is what perpetrators most owe their victims.

The most effective means, however, to achieve this repentance and reparation, however, often will not come from the earthly standards of civil justice, but through the profound beauty of the Christian standard of heroic forgiveness. It converted the centurion at the Cross. It converted Saul at Stephen’s stoning. It converted Alessandro.

Let us pray, through the intercession of St. Maria Goretti, that such examples of forgiveness on the part of those who have suffered abuse at the hands of Church ministers will convert their abusers and so many others in the Church and in society.