The Spirit gives life - the flesh has nothing to offer

Homily for the Twenty-First Sunday Year B

by Fr. Tommy Lane

Maria Goretti was born in 1890 in Italy, the daughter of Luigi and Assunta Goretti. Nine years later in 1899, her father Luigi began to work for a Count farmer south of Rome and made a deal with Mr. Serenelli that his family would share the same house with the Serenelli family, also laborers for the same farmer. Maria’s father Luigi died of malaria. In June 1902 Mr. Serenelli’s son, Alessandro, began to cause trouble for Maria. He began to boss her around and to make advances towards her which she shrugged off. Her big mistake was the she did not tell her mother because she did not want to cause trouble. The following month, on July 5th 1902, he decided that he would be denied no longer. Alessandro, aged twenty, motioned her towards the bedroom but she refused shouting, “No! It is a sin! God does not want it!” He stabbed her fourteen times. While being taken to hospital in Nettuno on a horse-drawn ambulance she told everything. In the nearby hospital she underwent twenty hours of surgery without anesthesia. During that time she forgave Alessandro and prayed for him. On the following day, July 6th, she died. She was not yet twelve years old. Alessandro was sentenced to thirty years hard labor. After six years in prison he was near despair and one night in 1910 Maria appeared to him in his cell. She smiled and was surrounded by lilies, symbols of purity. That was a turning point in Alessandro’s life and he regained his peace. His first deed after release from prison was to visit Maria’s mother and ask pardon. He accompanied her to Christmas Mass in the parish church where he spoke before the congregation, acknowledging his sin and asking forgiveness from God and the community. He took up work in a Capuchin monastery as the gardener. In 1947 Maria Goretti was beatified. Her mother was present at her beatification. In June 1950 Pope Pius XII canonized Maria Goretti declaring her to be a saint and martyr before a huge crowd of up to 500,000 people. Her mother was once again present, along with her four children. It was the first time in history that a mother was present at the canonization of her child. Alessandro was also present.

In May 1970 Alessandro died. He had left the following letter, dated May 1961.

I’m nearly 80 years old. I’m about to depart. Looking back at my past, I can see that in my early youth, I chose a bad path which led me to ruin myself. My behavior was influenced by print, mass-media and bad examples which are followed by the majority of young people without even thinking. And I did the same. I was not worried. There were a lot of generous and devoted people who surrounded me, but I paid no attention to them because a violent force blinded me and pushed me toward a wrong way of life. When I was 20 years old, I committed a crime of passion. Now, that memory represents something horrible for me. Maria Goretti, now a Saint, was my good Angel, sent to me through Providence to guide and save me. I still have impressed upon my heart her words of rebuke and of pardon. She prayed for me, she interceded for her murderer. Thirty years of prison followed. If I had been of age, I would have spent all my life in prison. I accepted to be condemned because it was my own fault. Little Maria was really my light, my protectress; with her help, I behaved well during the 27 years of prison and tried to live honestly when I was again accepted among the members of society. The Brothers of St. Francis, Capuchins from Marche, welcomed me with angelic charity into their monastery as a brother, not as a servant. I’ve been living with their community for 24 years, and now I am serenely waiting to witness the vision of God, to hug my loved ones again, and to be next to my Guardian Angel and her dear mother, Assunta. I hope this letter that I write can teach others the happy lesson of avoiding evil and of always following the right path, like little children. 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.”

Signed, Alessandro Serenelli

The story of Maria Goretti reminds me of a statement of Jesus in today’s Gospel,

“It is the spirit that gives life,
The flesh has nothing to offer”

Maria Goretti chose to live by her faith and not give way to Alessandro’s advances. In her case it is true,

“It is the spirit that gives life,
The flesh has nothing to offer”

She is a reminder to all people tempted not to wait until marriage, that

“It is the spirit that gives life,
The flesh has nothing to offer”

She is a reminder that the body is destined for resurrection and eternal life, that our body is not our own but belongs to God since we were baptized and that Jesus paid a very high price for each of our bodies, we have been bought and paid for by Jesus (1 Cor 6:14-20) as St Paul says. There is a cult of the body now. But what will happen to the body? It will die. What will happen then? It will have to be buried.

“It is the spirit that gives life
The flesh has nothing to offer”

Alessandro paid a price for not waiting until marriage, everybody does because God created sex not for lust but for marriage and there are always consequences for not waiting.

“It is the spirit that gives life,
The flesh has nothing to offer”

What makes you a man? Satisfying your strongest drive? No, dogs do the same. What makes you a man is having respect for women.

“It is the spirit that gives life,
The flesh has nothing to offer”

Sometime during the 1990’s five young men in Orlando High School in Orlando, Florida took out an advertisement in their High School Year Book, inserting a photo of themselves and their girlfriends and putting this caption on top, “True Love Waits.” They were making a statement because they knew that

“It is the spirit that gives life,
The flesh has nothing to offer”

You will reap as you sow. If you sow positive things in your dating relationship you will reap positive things in your marriage

“It is the spirit that gives life,
The flesh has nothing to offer”

How many people in trouble say, “Nobody told me. If I had known I would have made a different decision.” God is not making rules just to restrict us but because he loves us and wants to protect us. We can say ‘Yes’ to God’s love or to turn our backs. If we have fallen God is always there to forgive us and pick us up again. We can always go to Jesus on the cross through the Sacrament of Reconciliation asking for his mercy and forgiveness and leave any guilt and sin there and come away refreshed and renewed. We want to respond as the Israelites did in our first reading today, “We have no intention of deserting the Lord and serving other gods!…We too will serve the Lord for he is our God” After Jesus had spoken about the Eucharist many of his followers said, “This is intolerable language, How could anyone accept ?” (Josh 24:16,18) Many of Jesus’ followers left him when they misunderstood his preaching on the Eucharist (John 6:66) so Jesus said to the Twelve in the Gospel today, “do you want to go away too?” (John 6:67) Simon Peter answered, “Lord to whom shall we go to? You have the message of eternal life, and we believe; we know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69) As the response to our Psalm today said, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Ps 34:8)

(Maria Goretti’s action to preserve her chastity reminds us of Alexandrina who also acted to preserve her chastity instead of consenting to her molester.)

Copyright © Fr. Tommy Lane 2013

This homily was delivered when I was engaged in parish ministry in Ireland before joining the faculty of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland.

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