Hope and Forgiveness: The Story of Alessandro Serenelli and St. Maria Goretti
Alessandro Serenelli is best-known on earth as the murderer of the beloved little saint of purity, Maria Goretti. His room where he stayed as a youth was full of pornographic images; he himself later said that he was influenced by “print, mass media, and bad examples.” He had good people in his life, but felt that “a violent force blinded me and pushed me…” At the age of 20, he fatally stabbed 12-year-old Maria in a violent frenzy when she firmly refused his sexual advances. The town nearly lynched him. At his trial and during his early years in prison, he denied responsibility, blamed his victim, and raged at the priest who came to him. These first twenty-six years of his life are a sickening portrait of a corrupted Italian youth.
In Heaven, however, Serenelli is a beloved prodigal son: a man who repented. This is the image of Serenelli we ought to fix in our minds: a humble man on his knees, Rosary in hand. The shocking details of his crime make the image of the deeply penitent Serenelli into a portrait of hope. For “where sin abounded, grace did more abound” (Rom 5:20). We must not forget to hope, especially when we stare into the face of a world blackened by sexual sin and violence.
Many holy men and women have committed sins that would horrify us to hear, before their repentance; but we do not hear most of them, nor in detail. Many saints and sinners feel remote. Serenelli is not. His crime is close enough to our time that we have photographs of him and of Maria’s mother Assunta; we have many details of his life and Maria’s because of the numerous records and interviews done around and after Maria’s death. His sin horrifies us because it is so present to us. I twice attended talks on St. Maria; the priest held a copy of the tool used to stab her!
The man on his knees is the greater shock. True, we know St. Paul’s and the Magdalene’s conversions; we read about many other saints who turned from lives of sin. But we are not shocked by those conversions. I believe it is because we do not “see” their sins as graphically as Serenelli’s; we do not have the details. Fortunately, we have as many details of his conversion as we do of his sin; our joy and hope is increased by the preceding horror.
The story of his unexpected conversion begins at Maria’s hospital deathbed: there, a priest told the dying girl that she must forgive her attacker. After a quiet moment, Maria said of Serenelli: "I forgive him, and I wish him to be in heaven with me."
Maria’s forgiveness changed everything. One night, six years after her death, she appeared to him in his prison cell with fourteen lilies: the symbol of purity. Fourteen–one for each of the wounds he had given her. His heart, hardened by sin and sunk into despair, knew that she offered him her perfect forgiveness.
From then on, he was a changed man. In a time when no one was released early for good behavior, Serenelli’s sentence of thirty years was shortened. He became a devout man and begged forgiveness of Maria’s mother Assunta. Then he became a tertiary at a Capuchin monastery and worked as a gardener. He spent the rest of his life in prayer and work, calling Maria his “Guardian Angel” whom God had sent to save him. His wish was to see God in Heaven, and to be next to Maria and Assunta there.
The evil that had a hold of Serenelli’s soul could only be broken by God’s supernatural grace. That grace was brought to him most of all by Maria, who had been sent by God. This is the most crucial piece of the story: God’s work in him. Yet God worked His miracle not only through Maria, but continued it through others who were still on earth.
Serenelli’s earthly life after his conversion was filled not by heavenly figures, but by people on earth who loved and forgave him. A judge recognized his good behavior in prison and released him early. Assunta told him that if God and Maria had forgiven him, she could not withhold her own forgiveness; she accompanied him to Christmas Mass and received Holy Communion alongside him. The Capuchin monks embraced him with fraternal charity–accepting among them a convicted murderer who had grown up with pornography and impure desires.
They did not see a man whose sins had to define him forever. They saw a man who wished to become a saint.
Serenelli reminds us to hope in God’s mercy; His supernatural grace can turn the hardest of hearts. At the same time, this story reminds us that God calls us to cooperate in the salvation of others! We must learn to forgive those who have hurt us and others; it is required of us. Christ taught us to pray: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And it is not only for our own sakes that we should forgive. The pure love of God shone through Maria’s forgiveness, changed Serenelli’s heart, and freed him from slavery and despair! A single act of true forgiveness is an extraordinary conduit of God’s grace.
Furthermore, we cannot count how much Serenelli needed the love of the men and women on earth who supported and strengthened him as he did penance in life of humble labor. We cannot imagine how the devil may have tempted him to despair, or back into impurity. But we do know that he did not walk his journey of redemption alone.
Serenelli’s conversion story teaches us to love the sinners we wish to hate. Even if we are not direct victims of violence and cruelty, we have the crucial task of forgiving and loving sinners, even those who have done the “unforgivable”; we ought to offer our constant prayers for their conversion and salvation.
We should also pray unceasingly for the contrite, who face diabolical trials and temptations as they do their penances. When we encounter them, we are called to aid them in returning to God and to celebrate God’s grace in them. To do any less would be to make ourselves into the older brother of the prodigal son: self-righteous and prideful, at odds with our Heavenly Father.
We are sent forth to bring Christ to others; and we cannot bring Him with a heart that lacks forgiveness. Like He Who prayed on the cross, we pray for those whom we see as the “worst”: “Forgive them, Father; they know not what they do.”