This week we celebrate the feasts of two great saints. July 4 was the feast of our patron, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, and today, July 6, is the feast of St. Maria Goretti, the Little Saint of Great Mercy. During this week as we reflect upon the meaning of freedom, we can look to these saints as examples of what true freedom really looks like. It may seem counterintuitive, based on our culture’s idea of freedom, to say that these two young people who closely followed the precepts of the Church and died before they were ever able to “achieve” anything of significance were paradigms of freedom. And yet their actions in the most crucial moments of their lives demonstrate how free they truly were.
Maria Goretti shows us the freedom that comes from forgiveness. Brutally murdered at the tender age of eleven after resisting attempted rape, she would have had every reason to feel an intense, righteous anger toward her attacker, Alessandro Serenelli. However, as she lay dying from fourteen stab wounds, she expressed nothing but concern for Alessandro’s soul, uttering words of forgiveness. She refused to harbor the venom of unforgiveness, even for an instant; she would allow it to poison neither her own soul nor Alessandro’s. While she acknowledged the weight of his grave sin, she didn’t brood over the damage that had been done or seek revenge. Instead, she let go of that burden and put it all in God’s hands.
Would Maria have been “exerting her freedom” if she had given in to feelings of outrage and resentment? Or would the weight of her anger have kept her from being truly free? No one would have blamed Maria if she had been unable to forgive this man, whose evil actions led to her excruciating death and ultimately tore apart her family. But she not only forgave him; she desired his conversion, saying that she wanted him with her in Heaven. She appeared to him after her death, expressing her mercy toward him. And Alessandro, who had been utterly unrepentant and vicious even in his imprisonment, was converted overnight—a miracle whose impact would play out over the course of his lifetime. This was possible only because of Maria’s interior freedom, her ability to resist the influence of all that would lead her astray and follow the voice of God.
Maria held fast to virtue even at the cost of her life, knowing that the joys and sufferings of this world are fleeting, that what truly mattered was preparing her eternal soul for Heaven—as well as Alessandro’s soul. She desired Heaven not just for herself, but for everyone, even sinners, even the very man who brutally murdered her. Even when he was at his very worst, she still understood that he was a human being, a child of God, meant for a life much greater than the one he was living. Not only that, she still believed there was hope for him, because she trusted in the boundless mercy of God.
Like Maria Goretti, Pier Giorgio Frassati was not swayed by the voices that tried to separate him from God. Even as he was surrounded by the noise of the world, he was firmly rooted in his faith and confident in doing what was right. He was willing to go against the current, championing political views that aligned with his deeply felt understanding of human dignity—unpopular though they were. Amid pressure to achieve success, wealth, and prestige, Pier Giorgio was unfazed, keeping his focus on God alone. Free from the expectations of others and from the fear of what consequences may result from doing what was right, he followed God’s call to serve the poor and galvanize Catholic young adults.
Pier Giorgio Frassati was born about eight hours north of where Maria Goretti was living in Italy, just fifteen months before her death. They overlapped on this earth for a brief period of time. Both died young, Pier Giorgio at 24 and Maria at just 11. Both suffered painful deaths without complaint—though Maria’s was certainly more traumatic and earned her the crown of martyrdom. But most importantly, both acted with tremendous interior freedom, resisting those who would keep them from becoming who God created them to be: His instruments in this world.
There are two types of interior slavery: the chains and pains of sin or the will of God. One is a slavery in which your will is in danger of being circumscribed; the other is where your will is given the necessary grace to act in accord with what is good and believe what is true. Pier Giorgio’s witness testifies that while the world might smack you around, your soul is a living dynamism that, when infused with the freedom of the love of God in Christ, no one can hold back. I believe Pier Giorgio sums up the feeling of true freedom when he said, “Our life, in order to be Christian, has to be a continual renunciation, a continual sacrifice. But this is not difficult, if one thinks what these few years passed in suffering are, compared with eternal happiness where joy will have no measure or end, and where we shall have unimaginable peace.”
—Jared Zimmerer, “Pier Giorgio Frassati as a Model of Freedom”