Vengeance dominates the tide of social media these days. Sometimes it comes in the form of mob justice descending upon the perpetrator of a crime inadequately punished, other times as smaller and subtler smears against those who have wronged us.
But perhaps we could spend some time pondering on the perennial tug-of-war between two opposing forces: Vengeance and Mercy.
The desire for revenge is rooted deep in us. We want those who hurt us to hurt, those who shamed us to be shamed. Whether we inflict the retaliatory attacks ourselves or by inciting others, the root of that thirst is one and the same. Sometimes we confuse the desire for revenge with the desire for justice, and certainly there seems to be an overlap. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that at some point the streams diverge. Justice ends (ideally) in some kind of restoration, whereas unabated revenge ends in destruction.
Vengeance seeks to destroy the other party. Often we don’t realise that in the process it destroys a part of us as well. What feels like ointment on the surface, could it not in fact be poison that seeps into our hearts?
On the other hand you have Mercy. Where vengeance seeks to destroy, mercy seeks to redeem. There’s no doubt that mercy presents itself as a heavy demand on the one who has been wronged. Anyone who claims it is easy does not know what they are talking about. Mercy is epitomised by a Man of Sorrows who, while nailed to the cross prays for those jeering at Him, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Perhaps such radical mercy is a weight none of us can bear. But when we truly contemplate the effects of such a mercy, perhaps we would at least desire the capacity for it.
No story of radical mercy has captivated me as much as that of Maria Goretti, an 11-year-old girl from a small town in Italy who died a most tragic death in 1902. Maria’s neighbour, 20-year-old Alessandro Serenelli, had developed some kind of a sick and vile desire for the girl. When Alessandro attempted to rape Maria, her resistance and insistence that she would rather die than yield to him propelled him into an unfathomable rage, which ended in him stabbing her no less than 14 times.
As she lay dying on the hospital bed, Maria’s last words were: “I forgive Alessandro…and I want him with me in heaven forever.” Those words make me tremble; it’s as if Jesus Himself had whispered those words into her ears.
Meanwhile, Alessandro was not immediately contrite. He was even reported to have said in court that Maria would not have died had she just given in to him. However, a few years into his prison sentence, Alessandro recounted a dream to the visiting Bishop in which Maria appeared to him and handed him 14 lilies, as if a symbolic reminder of her forgiveness for each stab wound inflicted. Profoundly moved, he began living a converted life.
Alessandro was released from prison in 1929, after serving 27 out of 30 years. After being rejected by several communities, he found lodging at a Capuchin Franciscan monastery, where he began living a quiet life working in their garden as a lay brother. Said Alessandro, “Maria’s forgiveness saved me.”
On Christmas of 1934, he sought his victim’s mother, Assunta Goretti, and got on his knees to beg for her forgiveness. And imagine this: that night they attended Christmas vigil Mass together at their parish, and received Holy Communion side by side. Before the stunned congregation, Alessandro asked for God’s forgiveness and for the pardon of the community. Assunta later even adopted him as her own son. She said, “Maria has forgiven you, and surely God has forgiven you. Who am I to withhold my forgiveness?”
If Maria’s mercifulness wasn’t miracle enough, the chain of events it precipitated surely were.
An excerpt from a public letter written by Alessandro Serenelli, dated 5 May 1961:
At the age of 20, I committed a crime of passion, the memory of which still horrifies me today. Maria Goretti, now a saint, was my good angel whom God placed in my path to save me. Her words both of rebuke and forgiveness are still imprinted in my heart. She prayed for me, interceding for her killer. Thirty years in prison followed. If I had not been a minor in Italian law I would have been sentenced to life in prison. Nevertheless, I accepted the sentence I received as something I deserved. Resigned, I atoned for my sin.
Little Maria was truly my light, my protectress. With her help, I served those 27 years in prison well. When society accepted me back among its members, I tried to live honestly. With angelic charity, the sons of St. Francis, the minor Capuchins of the Marches, welcomed me among them not as a servant, but as a brother. I have lived with them for 24 years. Now I look serenely to the time in which I will be admitted to the vision of God, to embrace my dear ones once again, and to be close to my guardian angel, Maria Goretti, and her dear mother, Assunta.
May all who read this letter of mine desire to follow the blessed teaching of avoiding evil and following the good. May all believe with the faith of little children that religion with its precepts is not something one can do without. Rather, it is true comfort, and the only sure way in all of life’s circumstances—even in the most painful.
St. Maria Goretti, one of the Church’s youngest canonised saints, did not live to see the fruits of her mercy, and there’s no guarantee that we would see the fruits of ours in this lifetime either. But nonetheless, may the life of St. Maria Goretti, brief yet so intimately configured to the Divine Mercy of Jesus, sprout lasting fruits of mercy in our own hearts.