Living in a politically and socially divided country, it is not easy to look with compassion on our enemies. According to the logic of the present cancel culture, enemies are to be destroyed, reviled and defeated, not forgiven…unless your soul is as pure as that of Maria Goretti. Then, your attitude toward your enemies is entirely different.
A story of heartfelt mercy
Maria Goretti was the eleven-year-old Italian saint who was murdered in 1902 after an attempted rape and brutal assault by a twenty-year-old man. Her attacker stabbed her fourteen times, and she died the next day forgiving her murderer and expressing her sincere desire that he would eventually be with her in paradise.
It’s hard to imagine a more Christ-like example than hers. And she was just eleven! She is an extraordinary testimony to God’s mercy flourishing so perfectly in a young soul.
The grace of that encounter was poured out not only at the time of her death. Over time, her murderer, Alessandro Serenelli, who spent the next twenty-seven years in prison contemplating his sins, was converted by the example of the heroic girl he had cruelly murdered.
Serenelli not only repented, he also entered religious life as a lay brother when he was released, received the generous forgiveness of Maria’s mother (who also had to find forgiveness in her heart for the man who murdered her daughter), and was even in attendance at her canonization in 1950.
The cascading rivers of mercy from the child to the mother to the family to the murderer was nothing less than the total victory of Christian forgiveness. It is really the only thing that can break the vicious cycles of retribution and heal the evils of this world.
Another adolescent martyr
Fast forward to 2016. The place is another country that begins with the letter “I”, not in Europe but in the Middle East – Iraq. The sufferings of Christians in this region of the world, particularly during the time of the Islamic State (recently destroyed), were extremely harsh.
In radical Islamic countries or territories, the radicals give Christians only three options, each of which puts them in a no-win situation: pay an exorbitant tax (called the jaziya, often called the “infidel tax”) that most people cannot afford; convert to Islam; or be driven out of one’s home country. Imagine living day to day with that kind of pressure.
One day in 2016, Islamic State radicals were going house-to-house in the city of Mosul, Iraq, enforcing the jaziya. When they showed up to one Christian home, the mother of the family answered the door, and the fanatics demanded that she immediately pay the jaziya.
The lady’s twelve-year-old daughter was taking a shower at the time, and the mother was concerned about the child’s safety, so she asked the men to wait for a moment while she got the money to pay the tax. However, the radicals refused to wait. Instead, they set fire to the home while the family was still inside.
The girl was caught in the blaze and burned so badly that she died of 4th degree burns in the arms of her mother a few hours later. Yet, the girl’s inspired heroism emerged from such an immense tragedy like incense offered on an altar of sacrifice.
Her last words were those of Christ: “Forgive them.”
The pure gospel
Word of this incredible story travelled quickly but because she was a minor, news reports provided few details of this girl other than her brutal murder and final heroism. Perhaps that’s all we really need to know.
It’s not hard to see her as a 21st century Maria Goretti from a different culture, proving once again that the grace of God is not limited to culture, time, age, or circumstances. It is accessible to all hearts and souls that are open to its transforming power.
The Iraqi girl had the same pure soul as little Maria Goretti; she offered the same ultimate sacrifice; and she witnessed to Christ in the same fashion, with her final breath. How is it possible for someone to die so horribly and yet have no resentment in her heart toward those who killed her?
That’s a question only Christ can answer.
Hers was the pure gospel message of forgiveness: love your enemies and pray for your persecutors (Mathew 5:44); forgive as you have been forgiven (Ephesians 4:32); and the seventy-times-seven forgiveness that Christ preached and lived (Matthew 18:22).
Cascading effects of grace
As far as I know, not a single jihadist was converted by the heroic forgiveness of the twelve-year-old Iraqi girl, but we must always remind ourselves that God’s graces doesn’t act with cause-and-effect immediacy. If it did, we would probably end up treating it like a commodity and trading on grace-filled experiences to get spiritual benefits. God doesn’t work that way.
Grace is a free gift but it is not magic. It usually works through a long, transformative process. Because God respects free will, it takes time for grace to sink in to sinful hearts (like ours). Grace worked on Alessandro Serenelli for 27 years while he was in confinement.
Grace produces its effects more like a crock pot than a pressure cooker! Its slow and steady heat has great power to change what it heats, if it is allowed to work.
But what is certain is that the girl’s admirable Christian act has entered into the heart of the Church, which has a very long collective memory. The inspiration of the Iraqi girl’s example immediately inspired those who spread the message to others (even to us!), and it will strengthen the faith of countless people over time and may even convert a few jihadists in its wake.
We will never know the ultimate fruits of her act. We also don’t need to know. We trust that the grace of that holy death will overflow from Mosul into the lives of others in cascading rivers as Maria Goretti’s act did.
However that happens and whomever it touches is up to God. In the meantime, we thank Him for giving us the extraordinary witness of another adolescent saint whose forgiveness is a constant challenge to us to forgive others, as we have been forgiven.
It also reminds us that chronological age is not an issue in the Kingdom of God. Childlike purity is its only measure: “The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14).
Resentment is the natural result of injustice and pain inflicted on us by others. It sometimes takes years of work to overcome the depth of resentment that blocks forgiveness in our hearts.
Then there are those who seem to have no resentment in their hearts toward those who do them wrong. Let’s just call that what it is: a grace that only God can give. It supersedes the natural human response and emerges directly from them in the gospel value. The two young ladies of our story certainly were given that grace.
That grace is available to us too, but since we generally lack the pure souls of children, most of us need to do the soul work of consciously bringing our resentments to light and surrendering them to Jesus. This is not a psychological exercise of purging anger or negative emotion from our souls. It is an act of the will. An act of surrender.
When coldhearted resentment meets the grace of heartfelt forgiveness, the heat of mercy always prevails.
During this Advent season, try to identify any latent resentments you may be carrying with you from past hurts and injuries. No one is saying you shouldn’t feel those resentments. What we are saying is that you should surrender them.
Another Child is coming to redeem them and pluck them from your heart with His grace of mercy.