The Proof of Love: The Martyrdom of St Maria Goretti
Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man—though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.
If God’s love is proved by a sacrificial death for the salvation of people dead in sin, then our love must be measured by a like standard. The new commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12), urges us to pattern our love on the example of Jesus, who dies that we may live.
If our ability to love in a divine way seems unfairly offset by an impossible ideal—in other words, that Jesus can love like God because He is God, but we can’t—then we have to reckon with the violent, yet highly avoidable death of an eleven-year-old girl. When you find a mere human being loving as God loves by dying as God dies, and forgiving as God forgives, you encounter someone who understands not only the force of the new commandment, but also of the extent of the self-sacrifice involved in loving like Jesus.
Why Christ’s death constitutes “proof,” and why our outpouring of self in sacrifice bears witness to that proof, is explained by the hardness of heart that sin produces. We often need something to break our hearts open before they can feel the Lord’s gentle touch. The chastisement often precedes the tender contact, opening our ears to the Lord’s soft whisper. The servant, maybe at long last, is listening.
What our Lord’s sacrifice did to rocks and tombs upon His death, splitting or opening them, is a graphic sign of what any sacrifice made in union with Christ does for souls: It opens the way for grace. Our Savior concretely connects sacrifice and grace in the grain of wheat that must die in the earth before the fruits can come (cf. Jn 12:24). “Remember,” St Josemaria insists, “that you are the grain of wheat the Gospel speaks of. If you don’t bury yourself and die, there will be no harvest” (The Way, no. 938).
The ultimate triumph of St Maria Goretti’s martyrdom is this seed-like resurrection in the soul of her murderer, Alessandro Serenelli. More than a century after St Maria’s 1902 martyrdom the brutality of the attack and the generosity of the pardon continue both to disturb and inspire wonder. The extraordinary grace that steeled the eleven-year-old Maria against the advances of her twenty-year-old attacker reflects what Revelation says of the martyrs, “Love for life did not deter them from death” (Rev 12:11). But at the heart of her heroism was an unshakable, Christ-like love for a man who was “yet a sinner,” and a very vicious one. Her refusal at knife-point to cooperate in a sin that would have been only his, was like a seed planted that would lead to his conversion and rehabilitation.
The mercy in her dying wish—that her killer be forgiven and join her in heaven—puts her suffering and death into the category of a St Stephen, the first martyr. His dying prayer for forgiveness for those who stoned him seeded the soul of a consenting bystander, Saul, with the grace of conversion (cf. Acts 7:57-60).
St Maria Goretti’s “Yes, I forgive Alessandro with all my heart and I want him with me in heaven forever,” was both heroic and prophetic. Eight years into his 30-year prison term, the as yet unrepentant Alessandro was visited by Maria in a dream with, as he recounted, “words of rebuke and pardon. She prayed for me, she interceded for her murderer.”
Although he had a difficult road ahead of him—a prison term followed by several frustrated attempts at reintegrating himself into society—he was a changed man. He finally found a home as a brother with a community of Capuchin Franciscans, where he lived out his days in penance and humility.
However we may characterize the influences that derailed Alessandro’s mind and heart—in his own words, “the mass-media and the bad example of others”—his response to Maria’s goodness shows that even someone trapped in habits of lust, and bitterly unrepentant, can respond to another’s sacrificial love and experience it as a saving grace.
“If there is sacrifice when you sow love,” St Josemaria says, “you will also reap Love” (The Forge, no. 299). If you find the spiritually dead suddenly walking in newness of life, or people whose hearts had seemed petrified turning tender to the Lord’s touch, you may rightly conclude that someone, somewhere, has died in self-sacrifice. Someone has sown love with sacrifice and reaped the fruit promised by Christ.
Could it be that the path to healing for people caught in sinful habits—of lust or other vices—is an experience of an altogether ‘outrageous’ mercy such as St Maria Goretti extended to Alessandro? Could it be that the offer and reception of a bottomless mercy is in fact the path to salvation and healing for all of us? When God extends that love to us in our frailty and ugliness, when we see no evident merit in ourselves, no lovableness, perhaps we are best prepared to receive God’s free love freely, and to reciprocate in kind. Because in receiving divine love, we become not only lovable ourselves, but even capable of loving and dying like God Himself.
This is St Paul’s teaching, coming from one who knew firsthand the before-and-after of mercy and conversion. Everyone as pre-redeemed operates on principles, acts on interests, other than those of Christ. Having nothing else to live and die for, our fortunes are connected entirely to the flesh, as St Paul’s account of our collective checkered past demonstrates:
… you were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world… we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind, and so we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind… you once yielded your members to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity…fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry—[i]n these you once walked, when you lived in them. (cf. Ephesians 2:1-3; Romans 6:19; Colossians 3:5-7)
Even though redemption is an accomplished fact, our correspondence to the grace held out to us in Christ remains an unfinished story. The glorious resolution follows:
But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. (Ephesians 2:4-5)
Why did Jesus die for us as we were? To prove that His love is the single most persuasive force for our conversion. It is, in a sense, the only way He could show and prove it. We not only needed to hear it from God’s own mouth, but to see it writ large in the flesh of His Son.
We were not good. Alessandro was not good. In some way, all are enemies of what is good. But when the good One comes and lets us kill Him, then pardons us, and tells us that He came precisely to suffer death from us and for us, where can we hide from His mercy? Alessandro reportedly locked himself in his room for hours after the murder. Then he was locked away in prison for decades. Into that place Maria came as a messenger of mercy. In union with Jesus, she had offered herself in death. Now from the place of eternal life and love, she could offer him the fruits of that sacrifice.
Father John Henry Hanson, O. Praem., is a Norbertine priest of St Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California. He entered the community in 1995, earned his STB and Masters in Theology at the Pontifical University of St Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome, and was ordained to the priesthood in 2006. Currently, he is a formator in his community’s seminary, preaches retreats, is chaplain to several communities of women religious, serves Armenian rite Catholics at the Cathedral of St Gregory the Illuminator in Glendale, California, and is author of Praying from the Depths of the Psalms (Scepter Publishers 2019). He and his community are cooperators of Opus Dei.