A while ago I went to the hospital to see a woman who’s dying. I went there to anoint her. When I entered the room I said, “Hello, you’re on our hospital list.” But she wasn’t hearing so well and she thought I’d said, “You’re on our impossible list.” She smiled after saying this, but it got me to thinking. Nobody’s on an impossible list, everything is possible with God.
On July 6th we celebrated the feast day of Saint Maria Goretti. You may remember I spoke of her on the 5th of July. Maria was born in 1890 in Northern Italy. She was born into a poor farming family and her father died when she was very young. Her mom struggled to put food on the table for Maria and her five siblings. On a hot July day in 1902 Maria sat outside mending a shirt. A neighborhood boy by the name of Alexander came to the house. This boy had been in the habit of repeatedly pestering Maria with advances. She always resisted and told him to go home. On this day, however, he dragged her into the house and because of her resistance he attacked her with a knife stabbing her repeatedly.
An ambulance brought Maria to the hospital and it was seen at once that she couldn’t possibly live. In those next few hours Maria showed more concern for her family and the man who attacked her. She prayed for Alexander and she forgave him, hoping to one day “See him in Heaven”, she said. The man who killed her was Alexander (Alessandro) Serrenelli. He was an eighteen year old who was very much addicted to pornography and in his own words said, “My behavior was influenced by pornography and the bad examples of friends which I followed without even thinking, I was not worried and looking back now at my past, I can see that in my early youth, I chose a bad path which led me to ruin myself.” After being captured and tried, and still being considered a minor, he was sent to prison for thirty years of hard labor. He began his sentence in an unrepentant rage. He even attacked a young priest who was sent to see him in his cell.
After three years of hard labor Alexander was finally willing to let a local Bishop visit with him. He later sent this Bishop a thank-you note and in that note he told the Bishop about a dream he had had. He wrote that he had dreamt of Maria Goretti and in this dream she had given him a bouquet of white lilies, which in the dream, immediately turned black and disintegrated when he touched them. This dream marked the beginning of Alexander’s conversion. Peace began to invade his heart, he began to live a constructive life, and he began to live in repentance. After twenty seven years of his sentence Alexander was released three years early for good behavior.
After leaving the prison the very first person he visited was Maria’s mom, he asked her to forgive him. Which she did saying, “If my daughter can forgive you, who am I to withhold forgiveness?” They went to Mass together and they received the Eucharist together, kneeling side by side at the communion rail.
Alexander eventually became a Third Order Capuchin and spent his remaining days working quietly as a gardener for The Brothers of St. Francis Monastery. He lived long enough to see Maria Goretti become a canonized saint of our Church and in 1970 he died a peaceful death.
Why have I told this story? I’ve told it because I think because it’s a story that gives hope, because in the eyes of God nobody is a lost cause. Nobody’s on the impossible list. Repentance and conversion are always possible and sometimes they’re even a miraculous. The Gospel always calls us to repentance and in today’s Gospel we’re called to it twice. Jesus says, “But I tell you if you do not repent you will all perish as they did!” This call to repentance, however, is also combined with divine patience. The fig tree is given more time to bear fruit. We are given more time to bear fruit. God is patient. And with our rationalizations and stubbornness in not wanting to always follow the narrow way or the good path we need a God who is patient. We are all, at one time or another that non-bearing unproductive fig tree. But God lavishes us with his grace waiting for us to produce abundant fruit and this fills us great hope because our God is kind and merciful he is quick to bless and slow to punish. Nobody is on an impossible list.
I want to end with something Alexander wrote just before dying, “I feel that religion with its precepts is not something we can live without, but rather it is the real comfort, the real strength in life and the only safe way in every circumstance, even the most painful ones of life.”
Let us be great Saints,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley