Tuesday, July 12, 2011

God's grace can transform bad soil. Sermon of July 10th

Alessandro Serenelli, who murdered Maria Goretti,
venerates her whom he called "my little Saint"

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
July 10th, 2011
Matthew 13:1-23

A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, […] some fell on rocky ground, […] some seed fell among thorns, […] but some see fell on rich soil, and produced fruit.

As we consider the parable of the sower, we should recognize the incredible generosity of God in offering his grace so freely. When a farmer plants seed, he would never simply scatter it to and fro, on good and poor ground alike. But God is different from man – he is so generous and loving – and he sends his grace upon all types of people: Not just upon the good soil, but upon the rocky, hard, and thorny soil as well.
This is the essence of the parable: It is not so much that we become good and holy and then God loves us – as though the sower only sowed seed upon the good soil. Rather, while we were yet sinners, God loved us and sent his grace upon us. And, what is more, as we continue to strive for holiness and find (all too often) that we fall – God still raises us up and supports us.
God does not say, “Become a saint, then I’ll love you.” Rather, he says, “See how much I love you, now let me help you become  a saint!”

As I think about this parable, I am reminded of the story of St. Maria Goretti, the virgin-martyr of modern Italy, whose feast day the Church celebrated last week. St. Maria Goretti, if you recall, was a young Italian girl who – at the age of only eleven years – suffered a most terrible death.
Maria and her family lived in a housing complex together with a young man (who was, himself, not much more than a boy; only about 18 years old) named Alessandro Serenelli. Now, one day, Alessandro attacked Maria Goretti, with the intention of abusing her.
Maria resisted him and said: “No, don’t do it. It is a sin!” You see, even in that terrible moment, she was thinking more about Alessandro’s soul than about herself. She resisted mostly because she did not want Alessandro to commit a mortal sin and so risk his salvation. How greatly did little Maria Goretti love even her enemies!

When Maria resisted his force, Alessandro stabbed her several times with a knife and then left her to die. As Maria was rushed to the hospital, she was praying for Alessandro and she insisted that her family forgive him. She underwent a terrible surgery, without any anesthesia, and then she died.
Alessandro was arrested and tried for murder. He was convicted, but was spared the death penalty because he was so young. Sentenced to thirty years in prison, Alessandro seemed to be bad soil indeed – certainly, everyone thought that he wasn’t worth their prayers or forgiveness.
But as Alessandro was taken away and incarcerated, something wonderful was being prepared in heaven.

After a few years, when Alessandro was asleep, Maria Goretti appeared to her murder in a dream and let him know that she had forgiven him and that, now that she was in heaven, she was praying earnestly for him. Alessandro saw Maria sending down lilies upon him, from the Blessed Virgin Mary.
He was amazed. How could she love him so much?! After all he had done to her, Maria Goretti was spending her heaven praying for his conversion! And this is where the story really begins to get good.

Alessandro experienced an intense conversion while still in the prison. He realized that God still loved him and that the grace of God was sufficient for him. Though he had done a terrible thing, though he was bad and rocky soil, filled with thorns; still, God loved him and was pouring even more graces upon him. And the proof of God’s love was the love of little Maria.
When the time came for Alessandro to be released from prison, he went and begged forgiveness from Maria Goretti’s family. Then, he did something that I don’t think any one of us would have expected: He became a monk! This murder, this lost soul, now entered religious life and spent the rest of his life on earth as a brother.

Alessandro called Maria Goretti, “My little Saint.” He had learned how to love her in truth and purity. He had a great devotion to her and, wonder of wonders, was able to be present at her canonization Mass when the Venerable Pope Pius XII officially declaired Maria Goretti a saint.
There at St. Peter’s Basilica, sitting in the front, were Assunta Goretti (Mari Goretti’s mother) and Alessandro Serenelli (her murder).
How easy it is for God to take what was once bad soil and make it into rich soil which will bear good fruit!

And here we find a little challenge for ourselves as well. It certainly encouraging to recognize the infinite riches of God’s mercy, but we must also imitate that love. It will not due for us to say: “Well, sure, I’ll forgive my enemies, but first they have to prove they’re worthy of my forgiveness.” No! That’s not how God works! We must be merciful just as our Father in heaven is merciful.
Likewise, we cannot say: “Well, I’ll compromise with my neighbor, but first he has to give a little.” No! That’s not how God works! We have to sow the seed of mercy and love even in the bad soil. We have to stretch and give of ourselves for the good of others, even when they don’t deserve it.

Finally, we are challenged in another way when we recognize that we are called always and everywhere to spread the seed of the Gospel – that is, we have to preach the truth! Far too often today, we are afraid and we are cowards. We don’t stand up for what is right and we don’t challenge people to live the Gospel.
We make all sorts of excuses: “They’re not ready to receive it yet,” we say. “I can’t force my views on them.” No! Your job is to preach the truth, to sow the seed – let God give the growth. You speak the Gospel and God will due the rest.
When we think that others aren’t ready to hear the truth, we are often despairing of their salvation. It is like we are saying that they are such terrible soil that we ought not to waste our time sowing the seed of truth in them. This will not due!
Now, I am not saying that we should be “Bible-thumpers” or that we should be rude – of course not! Truth must be united with charity, and charity with truth. But, in today’s world, we Catholics need to learn to be a lot more bold – Courage!

Receive the seed of God’s word into your heart. Let it germinate there in good soil. Trust always that God will bring forth in you the great fruit of life everlasting.