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St. Maria Goretti and her Murderer, Alessandro

by James Likoudis

Mr. Likoudis is the former President of Catholics United for the Faith.


The story of St. Maria Goretti, Virgin and Martyr, is a simple one. It can be told in a few words, and yet it involves a drama of awesome proportions, one repeated through the centuries.
It is the story of an innocent young girl killed in an attempted rape but who gave extraordinary witness to that virtue of chastity which in our day is so misunderstood and even mocked and ridiculed.


The notion that we can commit sins and become guilty of moral wrongdoing does not sit well with citizens of the post-Enlightenment. It clashes with their self-esteem; it is unscientific, unmodern and unfashionable.

Yet throughout history the prevailing consensus has been that guilt is a natural response to one's deliberate and voluntary complicity in moral wrongdoing, and that man persists in suffering both in body and in soul when his guilt remains unconfessed and unatoned.

-Dr. Donald DeMarco


It is also a story of the eternal conflict between the spirit of that world for which Christ would not pray, and between the values of the City of God whose inhabitants love God above all things and the City of man which is based on the inordinate love of self. It is a story of guilt and pardon and grace, and of the mercy of God. It is a story of the repentance and conversion of a murderer, and the latter's acceptance into the family of the young daughter whom he killed with 14 stab wounds, the last piercing her heart.

Again, the story of St. Maria Goretti is simple, but it contains many lessons for the people of today. One of those lessons concerns what would shock many today- namely, the "goodness of guilt". A Canadian philosopher, Dr. Donald DeMarco, has observed:

The notion that we can commit sins and become guilty of moral wrongdoing does not sit well with citizens of the post-Enlightenment. It clashes with their self-esteem; it is unscientific, unmodern and unfashionable. Yet throughout history the prevailing consensus has been that guilt is a natural response to one's deliberate and voluntary complicity in moral wrongdoing, and that man persists in suffering both in body and in soul when his guilt remains unconfessed and unatoned.

It was by a miracle of grace that the murderer of St. Maria Goretti, Alessandro Serenelli, would come to confess his guilt and be reconciled to God. He was a young man who had grown up to be religiously indifferent, sullen, coarse, and finally violent. St. Maria Goretti would be the young Virgin-Martyr who would transform that young man's life in dramatic fashion.

St. Maria Goretti, known affectionately to her family and friends as Marietta, was born in Italy in the year 1890 into a poor family near Nettuno, 20 miles outside of Rome. She had a very difficult life helping her mother on the farm. Fatherless at 9 years of age, she ran the household and cared for 5 brothers and sisters as her mother worked in the fields to earn bread for the family. Maria was devout and pious, and attentive to prayer. She could not read or write, but was intelligent and had an "iron will". The words of her mother Assunta were fixed in her soul. "You must never commit sin, at any cost."

In 1902 at 11 years of age, just 2 months before her 12th birthday, Maria was accosted by the young man Alessandro Serenelli who lived with his father in the same house as the Gorettis. Alessandro once again was insisting on sexually molesting her. He threatened her with death if she would not have an immoral relationship with him. Maria's response was, "No! No! it is a sin!" Her words have echoed down the years of the 20th century and into our own to inspire others to give witness to the Gospel demand for purity of life. As we read the pages of the Old and New Testaments, we see that God, the Author of Life, expects everyone to lead a chaste and pure life, not to indulge in sins of the flesh. Maria Goretti gave her life defending her purity rather than to yield to the sinful desires of a young man driven by anger and lust. Living in the same household with the Serenellis, the father Giovanni and his son Alessandro, had already proved very trying for young Maria. Both father and son abused alcohol, Alessandro had posted suggestive pictures of sensuous girls on the walls of his bedroom, and did not practice the faith. In response to his indecent overtures, and being repeatedly repulsed, on that fateful day July 5, 1902, the frustrated Alessandro was to stab Maria 14 times, causing her to suffer an agonizing death. She succumbed the next day of her wounds. She had repeatedly warned Alessandro he was risking eternal damnation.

As she lay dying, when the parish priest of Nettuno brought her Holy Viaticum and asked whether she forgave Alessandro, she replied, "Yes, I forgive him and want him to be in Paradise with me some day."

Soon afterwards, there was general recognition by all who knew her or had become aware of her martyrdom: "That girl who was killed at Conca was holy." There was popular acclaim that Maria had shown extraordinary courage at the most critical moment in her young life- a fortitude that may well have stemmed from her reception of the strengthening Sacrament of Confirmation at the age of six.

It is interesting that in the many biographies that were soon to appear concerning St. Maria Goretti, the words of the greatest of theologians, St. Thomas Aquinas, were aptly quoted:

Not only is a martyr one who dies rather than deny a truth of the faith, but he also who dies for the sake of some virtue, or to avoid sin against any commandment.

Pius XII who would beatify the 11 year-old martyr in 1947 and then canonize her on June 24, 1950, noted that St. Maria Goretti stood not only for purity of soul and body but also for "mastery of the spiritual over the material, for docile love of her parents, for sacrifice in harsh, daily labor, for poverty accepted as the Gospel teaches us to accept it, for love of prayer and of Jesus in the Eucharist, for charity in her heroic forgiveness [of her murderer]."

Maria's own mother,Assunta, who lived a life of grinding poverty, but who gave Maria such excellent example in never missing Mass and in observing the commandments and teachings of the Church, declared soon after the tragedy: "My God, I was not worthy to have such an angel!" Everyone on the farm agreed that the child allowed herself to be killed rather than yield to temptation. All remembered her goodness, her uprightness, and regretted her sad end.

Maria's dear friend and companion, Theresa Cimarelli, bore witness to Maria's blameless life, and to her modesty, reserve, and simple dignity: "She was truly a girl brought up from childhood to please Our Lord." Alessandro Serenelli, a murderer at 20 years of age, was to give his own testimony to the virtue of the young Catholic girl who sacrificed her life to preserve her virginity. Years later, after his conversion and having spent 27 years in prison, he was to confirm the verdict of the thousands who already regarded her as a Saint of God: "Maria Goretti is really a saint, a martyr. How many times at night, when I cannot sleep, I begin to think, 'If there are martyrs in Paradise, she is the first among them -- after all I did to her.'"

With Maria Goretti, we will also see the eruption of the supernatural in the lives of those who were captivated by the drama of her life and death and her extraordinary fortitude. For God would give the seal of His own divine approval on her sacrifical death offered for the love of God and in hatred of sin. Remarkable miracles and cures were to follow that would assure the devotion of Catholics world-wide to the child-saint. Only one such miracle is recounted here. It was that of a little girl Stefania Zuccari, two years old, who lived on the Via Illiria in Rome. She had been seriously ill with heart trouble afflicting her from birth. Stefanie was taken by her parents to a solemn Triduum of Prayer held at the Basilica of Saints John and Paul, where the remains of St. Maria Goretti had been taken. When the little girl was lifted up to touch the urn containing the body of the martyr, she was instantly cured to the amazement of the doctors who examined her.

But no miracle was to be greater than the conversion of her murderer! It was an astonishing sequel to the drama of a would-be rapist who was sentenced to 30 years of prison. Unrepentent, showing no remorse for his awful crime, Alessandro would undergo a remarkable change. This was to occur after a remarkable dream he had during his 8th year of imprisonment.

"The dream was so vivid he could not distinguish it from reality. The prison bars and walls fell away and his cell was a sunlit garden blooming with flowers. Towards him came a beautiful girl dressed in pure white. He said to himself: 'How is this? Peasant girls wear darkish clothes.' But he saw it was Marietta. She was walking among flowers, smiling, and without the least fear. He wanted to flee from her but could not. Marietta picked white lilies and handed them to him saying, 'Alessandro, take them!' He accepted the lilies, one by one, fourteen of them. But a strange thing took place. As he received them from her fingers, the lilies did not remain lilies but changed into so many flaming lights. There was a lily turned to purifying flame for every one of the 14 mortal blows he struck her on the fatal day in Ferriere. Marietta said smilingly, 'Alessandro, as I have promised, your soul shall someday reach me in heaven.'

"Contentment entered his breast. And the scene of incredible beauty dissolved in silence. When he awoke, it seemed that the rabid, choking, consuming feelings of hate, destruction, and bitterness that ruled within him were loosening their invisible bonds from his mind and flesh." ("The Penitent" by Pietro DiDonato- Hawthorne Books, N.Y., 1962; pages 109-110)

The Dream was remarkable. Alessandro had never dreamed in his sleep. All he knew was that this dream of Marietta had opened up the gate of his interior world and exposed him to the light of God's grace and mercy. From that time on, he was consumed to make reparation for his awful crime and sin.

After 27 years of imprisonment, Alessandro was released. He was spared 3 years of confinement due to being a model prisoner. After various wanderings as a farm laborer, he was to spend the rest of his life living in a Capuchin monastery at Macerata. There the good Capuchins called him "brother". In the chapel of the monastery Alessandro was able to attend daily Mass and to find peace and solitude. He was to visit Assunta Goretti, whom he had last seen 31 years before at his trial. Begging Assunta's forgiveness, she placed her hands on his head, caressed his face and gently said, "Alessandro, Marietta forgave you, Christ has forgiven you, and why should I not also forgive. I forgive you, of course, my son! Why have I not seen you sooner? Your evil days are past, and to me, you are a long-suffering son." (DiDon ato, p. 142)

"The next morning people in the village of Corinaldo witnessed what could only happen among the poor of Christ. Assunta Goretti, with head held high and tears falling, took Alessandro Serenelli by the hand as a mother takes a son, and led him to Mass. At the altar rail side by side, she and he- he who had killed her daughter- raised their open mouths to partake of the flesh and blood of Jesus." (DiDonato, pages 142-146) From that time he was welcomed in that profoundly Christian family of the Gorettis as "Uncle Alessandro".

Alessandro would testify at length at the canonical process for the beatification of Maria Goretti- the only witness who could detail what had actually happened in a brutal murder. He died at the age of 89 after a long life of prayer and penance in expiation of his crime, always invoking the intercession of St. Maria Goretti as his "protector".

It was a remarkable scene on June 24, 1950 at the canonization of St. Maria Goretti in the open Piazza of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. "Never before had a million souls come to St. Peter's Basilica all at one time, nor in Catholic history had there ever been present at the ceremony of canonization the mother of the Saint." (Di Donato)

It was her love of Christ that led Maria Goretti to the heights of sanctity and salvaged the soul of Alessandro. It is the same Catholic Faith that continues to raise the standard of Christian purity and love in a re-paganized world. Maria suffered death for Jesus on the threshold of the century which would see more martyrs than all the preceding Christian centuries collectively. The Church, as Pope John Paul II has repeatedly reminded the world, never loses touch with martyrdom. She teaches unequivocally that no one will enter heaven who is not ready to die for Christ if the hour demands it. It is the definite meaning of the greatest of Christ's commandments: to love God above all things, more than life itself. The lifeblood of Maria Goretti shed in the most murderous century in the history of mankind, was a warning that with increasing godlessness, the despising of virginity and marriage, the current contempt for motherhood, and the diminishing of the authority of fathers, the family would suffer a shocking disintegration- a process that we see all around us today as we enter the Third Millennium. It is undeniable that in what stands for American and European culture today, children are bombarded and sometimes overwhelmed by a tidal wave of evil influences which social commentators note is unprecedented in history.

Today the example and witness of St. Maria Goretti can give both youth and adults inspiration and hope as the Church moves into its Third Millennium of evangelization.


St. Maria Goretti, pray for us!



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