Father Anthony Gerber held a precious gift on the visit to St. Peter Cathedral in Belleville, Ill.
Given to him by the Discalced Carmelite Sisters for his ordination in May 2011, the gift is a small monstrance, gold in color, about six-inches tall and containing a first-class relic of St. Maria Goretti.
Father Gerber brought the relic to the veneration of St. Maria's major relics at the mother church for the Diocese of Belleville. For about an hour Oct. 19, the first-class relic -- a bone fragment -- was in the presence of its former host -- the skeletal remains of St. Maria, encased in a wax statue of her likeness inside a glass-sided casket.
An associate pastor at St. Joseph Parish in Cottleville, Father Gerber patiently awaited his turn venerating the saint, then knelt in silence at the casket. For 15 seconds -- the allotted time to keep the line moving -- the earthly remains were inches apart, separated by glass, as close as they've been in 80-plus years. Father Gerber then went to the pews for prayer and reflection.
Later, outside the cathedral, he described himself as "overwhelmed by God's mercy" and admitted to being "a little weepy" reading displays about her story as he went through the line.
"The story is quite profound," he said. "How merciful she was, and how merciful God is."
The story of God's mercy starts several years before St. Maria died at 11 years old on July 6, 1902. Neighbor and family friend Alessandro Serenelli, a teenager and nine years her senior, took an impure liking of her. Lewd and crude remarks led to sexual advances, and after being rebuffed, he plotted to rape her. St. Maria fended off his assault but suffered grave wounds, ultimately dying -- the Church ruled -- as a martyr in protecting her virginity.
Mercy became evident on her death bed when she forgave Serenelli, who had stabbed her 14 times in the attempted rape. According to mariagoretti.com, her last words were, "I forgive Alessandro Serenelli ... and I want him with me in heaven forever."
Serenelli was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison. The story might have ended there, but for Serenelli seeing a vision of St. Maria six years into his sentence. She again forgave him and gave him 14 white lilies, one for each stab wound.
From that point, Serenelli was a changed man and "finished his sentence in tranquility," the website states. "His behavior became so docile, and the transformation of his person was so dramatic, that he was released three years early."
The story didn't end there either. After his release from prison, he visited St. Maria's mother, Assunta, and asked for her forgiveness, too. Saying that God and Maria had forgiven him, she forgave him as well.
Serenelli, Assunta and five siblings of St. Maria attended her canonization by Pope Pius XII on June 24, 1950. She's the youngest saint ever and the first canonized outdoors in St. Peter's Square. Serenelli went on to be a lay monk with Capuchin Franciscans and referred to St. Maria as his "little saint" for forgiving him and leading him to a life of holiness. He died in 1970.
Father Gerber called Assunta Goretti's story of forgiveness "amazing. That struck a chord; I think all of us have been through a situation where we've hurt somebody or done something we regret and hope we can be forgiven. The mom forgiving him is just profound. His story is profound as well. The dream with the lilies -- very powerful."
In the moments in which he knelt before the major relics, he was overwhelmed by her mercy and God's.
"I just had a feeling of God's divine Mercy and how he lavishes it upon people," Father Gerber said.
Father Gerber was among about 10,000 pilgrims, many from the Archdiocese of St. Louis, who visited St. Peter Cathedral and venerated St. Maria in the 16-hour stop of the 54-day Pilgrimage of Mercy in the United States. Sponsored by the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the Treasures of the Church and the families of Brian and David O'Neill, St. Maria's relics will be venerated at 51 churches in advance of the Year of Mercy before being flown back to Italy on Nov. 13 and returning to Basilica of Nostra Signora delle Grazie e Santa Maria Goretti in Nettuno, Italy.
Father Gerber visited Rome a couple of years ago but was unable to get to Nettuno. No matter. St. Maria came to him.
"It's like she's saying, 'It's OK; if you couldn't see me in Italy, I'll come to your home then; I'll go to your country,'" he said. "It's like she's visiting us."