Today’s memorials keep the memory of saints whose lives were unjustly taken. One was an Italian child, the other a Bohemian priest. One memorial is officially marked in the church calendar and the other is kept in the hearts of those who know the story.
He was transformed by her forgiveness.
First the story of Saint Maria Goretti: Forgiveness is a word thrown around on talk shows and in self-help books. Often, what is meant is not forgiveness, but “moving on,” or “putting the past behind you.” There is no moving on from a murder. A human being is dead, the life taken. Only forgiveness, of the kind Jesus offers from the cross, can heal and allow new life to take root and grow.
The power of forgiveness shines through the brief life of Saint Maria Goretti and of her killer, Alessandro Serenelli. Goretti was 11 years old when she died in 1902. Her impoverished family farmed in partnership with a widower, whose 20 year-old son began to make sexual advances towards the young girl. Goretti resisted her tormentor and was careful to keep her distance from him.
Neighbors and family members remember the two young people. Goretti was a kind child, busy caring for her younger brothers and sisters as her parents worked in the fields. When her father died, Goretti encouraged her mother and tried to take some of his work burden as her own.
Serenelli was an angry and hateful man.
Serenelli went to the farmhouse on a day he knew Goretti would be inside. He demanded sex and she refused. Serenelli pulled out a knife and stabbed her repeatedly.
Goretti lived for 24 hours after the attack. During that time, she prayed for Serenelli and forgave him.
Serenelli was sentenced to 30 years in prison for his crime. All who knew him say he changed after Goretti’s death. He was transformed by her forgiveness. He went to jail, and had to live with the knowledge of his sin, but Goretti’s mercy freed him.
After Serenelli was released from prison he went first to Mrs. Goretti and begged her forgiveness for the murder.
When Maria Goretti was canonized in 1950, both Assunta Goretti and Alessandro Serenelli were in Rome, together at St. Peter’s and together in the mercy of Christ shining from a child’s life and death.
The second story takes place some 400 years earlier, in what is now the Czech Republic. Jan Hus was a priest who cared for his people. He taught that the word of God in scripture and the word of God in the Mass should not be read, studied and understood only by those schooled in Latin. He advocated for the translation of scripture and the words of the Mass into every language, so that everyone might be able to learn and grow in the knowledge of God.
Hus taught that priests and laity alike should receive Christ at Mass under the forms of bread and wine. He did not think the fullness of the sacrament should be reserved to the priests, but that this abundance should be shared among all communicants.
Around 1411, the pope excommunicated Hus. He appealed to the Council of Constance, which was meeting at the time. He asked to be allowed to present his arguments before the council. Hus was promised safe passage, but, once he arrived in Constance in November 1414 and continued preaching and celebrating Mass, he was arrested and imprisoned.
On July 6, 1415, Hus —despite the earlier promise that he would be safe in Constance — was condemned to death and burned at the stake. It is reported that, at the place of his execution he knelt and prayed. As the flames rose and he neared death, Hus cried out, “Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on us.”
Many of Hus’ teachings bore fruit in the Second Vatican Council.