Saturday, October 30, 2021

Choosing a different path: Alessandro Serenelli and the dignity of life

Several years ago, I breathed in the sea-air of Nettuno, Italy. I shared an enormous pizza with my fiancĂ©, looked for seashells, and frolicked in the breeze. I also knelt in prayer in front of the relics of St. Maria Goretti, a saint beloved by many. As a young girl in Italy, she strove for virtue and holiness. One day, a neighbor, the nineteen-year-old Alessandro Serenelli, threatened and attempted to rape her, and stabbed her over a dozen times before she died. As she died in the hospital, she uttered her final words: “I forgive Alessandro Serenelli…and I want him with me in heaven forever.” This happened in 1902, in Italy.

Alessandro was filled with anger and hatred and began his lengthy prison sentence. During his time in prison, St. Maria Goretti appeared to him and offered him her forgiveness. After this, Alessandro sought God’s forgiveness and mercy, steeping himself in prayer. After his release from jail, he reconciled with Maria Goretti’s mother, and became a lay brother for a community of Franciscans—an order which focuses intensely on repentance and the love and mercy of Christ. 

His life was filled with joy, peace, and quiet service. In 1950, Alessandro was able to attend the Mass for the canonization of St. Maria Goretti, and after his death in 1970, a letter he had written—a spiritual testament—was discovered, in which Alessandro reflects that “Now I look serenely to the time in which I will be admitted to the vision of God, to embrace my dear ones once again, and to be close to my guardian angel, Maria Goretti, and her dear mother, Assunta.” The witness and legacy of St. Maria Goretti and Alessandro Serenelli is a powerful glimpse of what God’s mercy and love, working in our lives, can look like.

If Alessandro lived in modern-day Oklahoma, he would probably be on Death Row. 

He would, most likely, hear the stories of the infamous executions of recent years. Of Charles Warner who, in 2015, was heard saying “It feels like acid” and “my body is on fire” as he was being killed. Of Clayton Lockett in 2014, who writhed and mumbled and, 43 minutes after the execution began, died. Of John Marion Grant—a man who stabbed a woman several times before she died—who was flung into two dozen full-body convulsions and vomiting before he died in the execution chamber on October 28, 2021.

If Alessandro Serenelli lived in Oklahoma in 2021, he may have undergone a similar fate.

There’d be protesters standing and praying outside the facility. There’d be thousands of signatures petitioning the governor to spare this man’s life, to let him live. There’d be countless tears shed by people across the state as they sacrificed and prayed, hoping against hope that his life would be spared.

His life, the life of a guilty man. A man who stabbed and killed a young girl, but a man nonetheless. A human being, a unity of body and soul. Strapped to a table and killed.  Alessandro Serenelli is a beautiful example of repentance, forgiveness, God’s mercy and hope…and if he lived in Oklahoma right now, he would probably be executed. Killed.

It’s not a matter of how “humane” the execution is (can an execution of a human person be humane?)It’s not a matter of whether or not the execution is botched (really, after hearing and seeing the agony that those men have gone through, how can we support this penalty?). It’s a matter of life and death, of God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness and love, of recognizing the inherent dignity and worth that every single human life has.

A person is a person, no matter how small, no matter how young, no matter how old, no matter what terrible things we have done. We are better than this; we don't need to execute these people. We are called to something greater. 

As Jesus Christ, the Son of God, says in Matthew’s Gospel:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt 5:43-48)

While research hasshown that there are, in fact, innocent people on Death Row, most of the people there are very guilty. People who have committed horrific acts, people who need to be disciplined for what they have done. Rejecting the death penalty is not a matter of letting a bunch of hurt, angry, violent people loose on society; no, standing against the death penalty is a matter of acknowledging the humanity of each person. 

Some of these people may have experienced clouded judgement “in the moment,” or perhaps they knew no better way to respond (as the saying goes, “hurt people hurt people”). Some of these people may have known exactly what they were doing when they tortured, raped, and/or murdered others. They may be completely unrepentant. Yet, regardless of what may or may not have been running through the minds of these men and women, let us ask ourselves:

--Is responding to this act of violence WITH violence and killing, a good way to live? (or, as one sign I’ve seen puts it, Why do we kill others to show that killing others is wrong?)

--Does stooping to the death penalty, taking into our hands the life of another human person, follow Christ's command to "be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect" and to "love your neighbor"? 

Jesus notes that “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on [your] right cheek, turn the other one to him as well." (Matt 5:38-39). Friends, we don't have to live by the old "an eye for an eye" system of punishment.

Each execution piles more heartbreak and violence onto already-tragic situations involving violence and heartbreak. The people on Death Row may repent, or they may not. It is not our choice to make, and we can't force transformation and repentance. What we can choose is the path that we take, both individually and as a society. We can choose, in the face of all the agony and sorrow that has been committed, a different route. We can choose the hard work of mercy, forgiveness, and healing. We can choose life. 

Let’s find another way, a better way, a healing way. Let’s fight for the precious gift of life from conception to natural death, and let’s work together in creating a more peaceful, Christ-centered culture. Let's all strive to recognize and rejoice in the beautiful humanity of each other.

"God must come first, do not forget it. He calls you and believes in you. You are rich in his love. Many souls are linked with yours, and you will have an account to render. You must go to Christ, without whom you can do nothing." ~Servant of God Jacques Fesch, a man who murdered a police officer in 1954, underwent a tremendous conversion, and was executed in 1957 at the age of twenty-seven years old

All holy men and women, saints of God, pray for us!  


  1. Beautifully said. I will continue to advocate for the sanctity of all lives, and I'm glad I have someone like you in it with me!

    1. Thanks, Tiffany! Good for you-it is so encouraging to me that we can advocate for life like this together! :)