Servant of Mary Sr. Cecilia Fandel
Special to the Catholic Herald
I was one of more than 13,000 pilgrims who traveled to St. Maria Goretti Parish, Madison, to venerate the relics of St. Maria Goretti, the youngest canonized saint in the Catholic Church, on Friday, Oct. 16. I went because I chose St. Maria Goretti as my patron saint when I was confirmed, and I have a devotion to her.
Her sacred remains, transported throughout the country in a large van, are in a clear glass casket. As her body is not incorrupt, the skeletal remains are held within a full length waxen figure. Her presence in the United States is termed a “pilgrimage of mercy” by organizers – preparation for the Year of Mercy, called for by Pope Francis, that begins Tuesday, Dec. 8.
Born Oct. 16, 1890, Maria Goretti was an illiterate peasant girl who lived in poverty with her parents, who were sharecroppers. At age 11, the pious girl resisted a sexual assault by 20-year-old farm worker, Alessandro Serenelli. She died July 6, 1902, the day after the attack, from the 14 stab wounds she sustained during the attempted rape. Her dying words were, “I forgive Alessandro Serenelli, and I want him to be with me in heaven.”
Serenelli was sentenced to 30 years of hard labor. Unrepentant for six years, he had a dream one night about Maria Goretti, who handed him 14 white lilies. That experience penetrated his soul, and he sent for a priest to confess his sin and guilt.
He was a completely changed man and spent the rest of his life as a Franciscan lay brother, doing penance for taking an innocent life. After he was released, he went to Maria’s mother to ask for forgiveness, and she did so, saying, “Maria forgave you, how can I not?”
Together, they went to church, where he asked the entire community for forgiveness.
Maria was canonized a saint June 24, 1950, by Pope Pius XII in the presence of her mother, family and over a half-million people. Countless miracles have been attributed to her. She is the patron saint for Catholic youth and forgiveness – those who need to be forgiven and those who need to forgive.
If there was ever a time in history that needs to have a model in a society struggling with crimes such as pornography, sexual assaults, date rape, domestic violence and human sex trafficking with victims as young as 12, it is now.
We can pray to her for courage to speak out against such crimes and to work for better protections for our youth. Our youth can pray to her for courage to make good decisions when it comes to partying and dating and to resist anything that will destroy their integrity or damage their self-esteem.
We can all pray for the grace to admit guilt, ask forgiveness, and to forgive – not always easy things to do.
In Madison, 600 pilgrims, including some from as far away as Colorado, passed before the casket every hour. We were a diverse group – people of every race and culture, families, youth, professionals, all ages, the curious and believers alike.
We were encouraged to touch the casket, pray for healing, forgiveness, or other needs for ourselves and others. Each of us was given two cards – one with a likeness of St. Maria Goretti and the other of Alessandro Serenelli, who never tired of saying, “Maria’s forgiveness saved me.”
At 6 a.m., Oct. 17, my sister, Margaret Ferry, and I attended the closing Mass with about 300 pilgrims. As the body was removed from the church, we followed it to the parking area, where it was loaded into the van and continued its pilgrimage.