Bishop Fleming’s Homily at Novena to St. Maria Goretti in Collooney


“The Door of Mercy is always open to everyone.”

This is the theme given to me at the beginning of this Novena.

Some years ago I drove down to Nettuno from Rome. I visited the home of Maria Goretti and I will never forget the effect that my visit had on me. I understood for the first time what happened to this young girl in this farming area south of Rome. This wasn’t a case of ‘date rape’ or an attack by a stranger. She died at the hands of the boy next door, with whom she had supper every evening. She was twelve years old. He was twenty. Portrayed as famous for defending her virtue, for me, her greatness lies in the chain of acts of mercy and forgiveness which she began.

Maria Goretti lived with her family in a two story farmhouse out in the countryside. The entire ground floor was given over as a shed for the cattle, a shelter from the heat in summer and the cold in winter. The first floor was divided in two. Maria’s family lived in one half and the Serenellis’ lived in the other. A door from each living space opened into a common eating area where both families came together for supper each evening. In that farmhouse, therefore, you had two families, living under the one roof, in constant, daily contact with each other. And you know what happened; Allesandro from one half of the house killed Maria from the other. For me the appalling tragedy was not only Maria’s death but the destruction of the warm, friendly relationship between two families living under the same roof. Suddenly, in the course of a few minutes, the peace and harmony which they enjoyed was shattered. Maria was dead and Alessandro was in hiding. The open doors which saw the two families living together in peace were shut with a loud bang.

But no sooner were they shut than the first attempt to open them again arose with Maria’s forgiveness of Alessandro as she lay dying in hospital. They opened further when, having been released from jail, Alessandro went to her mother to ask forgiveness for what he had done and she gave him that forgiveness. The doors re-opened fully when, on the day of Maria’s canonization in Rome, Alessandro was invited to be present in St Peter’s Square. As it were, the door of tragedy, closed by death and violence became a holy door – a door of mercy and forgiveness.

The Open Door of mercy.

An open door, like the doors into that one common eating area in Nettuno, is a sign that everyone who comes to the door is welcome to enter. It says much the same as the light in the window which Mary Robinson made famous while she was President of Ireland. The Door of Mercy in every Cathedral, which was opened last November and which will remain open until next November, says to us, in particular, that everyone is welcome in the Church and should feel at home here. You will remember the scene in the Gospel where one day, when Jesus was asked where he lived by someone he casually met on a road in Judea; “Come and see, he replied; so they went and saw where he lived, and stayed with him the rest of the day.” (Jn 1. 38-39). The open Door of Mercy makes this invitation of Jesus real for us today. It is as if he is saying to us; ‘why don’t you come in, see where I live and stay for a while. No pressure. You are most welcome.’

By making this year a Year of Mercy Pope Francis is also saying to each one of us; no matter how long it is since you were inside a church; no matter how far removed from the Church you feel yourself to be; no matter how unworthy you think you are, no matter how closed you feel the door might be, you are most welcome. Furthermore, he is saying to us that, no matter how far removed from the experience of everyday life it seems to be, it is in a Church, in this church here in Collooney, we will find the mercy of God. Pope Francis said; “It is indeed my wish that the Jubilee be a living experience of the closeness of the Father, whose tenderness is almost tangible, so that the faith of every believer may be strengthened” (Letter to Archbishop Fisichella)

The phrase which speaks volumes to me is that last one, where the Pope talks of ‘of the closeness of the Father, whose tenderness is almost tangible’.

When I think of Alessandro on the run, full of remorse for killing Maria, then returning, giving himself up and going to jail, coming back to ask her mother’s forgiveness and then giving his life to God as a Capuchin brother, I realize what the Pope is talking about; ‘the closeness of the Father, whose tenderness is almost tangible’. It was that closeness and that tenderness which inspired Alessandro to ask forgiveness and then dedicate his life to God.

The notion that the tenderness of God the Father is almost tangible, that you can almost touch it, seems distant from the faith experience of many people, especially young people, today. But for the Pope, it is real. It is as if God the Father is a young father, not an old man with a grey beard in the clouds, holding his small baby close to chest; filled with the joy of having become a father; full of tenderness. That’s the image of God I would like you to take away from this Novena and pass on to others. That was the experience of God that Alessandro had in the years after Maria’s death. For despite the murder of a young girl which he committed, he discovered the closeness and the tenderness of God’s love and forgiveness.

My prayer is that during this Year of Mercy and especially during these days of this Novena, each of us, in our own tin pot ways, may experience the closeness of God to us; a God whose tenderness is almost tangible.