St. Maria Goretti
Feastday: July 6
Patron of youth, young women, purity, and victims of rape
Birth: October 16, 1890
Death: July 6, 1902
Canonized By: by Pope Pius XII in 1950
When one grows up having had frequently recounted to him or her various stories of the lives of the saints, they can all seem to blend together in one fantastic story featuring comic book-like heroes. While each one is always distinct, they share so much in common, not the least of which is how different from “regular people” they seem to be. Yet, it is precisely how regular they were which inspires the Church to propose them to her children in order that we might follow their example. Few were as normal as the story of the pure and forgiving little girl, Maria Goretti.
Last summer as part of my World Youth Day group’s pilgrimage through Italy, we visited the small Mediterranean town where St. Maria Goretti died and where her mortal remains are housed today. It was a breath taking moment to ascend the altar built over the wax figurine fashioned after her likeness which contains her relics. None of the paintings I had ever seen did justice to portray what a little girl she actually was.
At 11-years-old, she would become one of the youngest martyrs in the whole life of our Church- certainly in modern times. Although the circumstances of her martyrdom were far different than usual. Trials in life, though, began much earlier than that fateful day in July, 1902. Gripped by poverty in their home region of Ancona (Eastern Italy), Luigi Goretti moved his wife, Assunta, and five children (later to have one more child) to the Mediterranean coast where they hoped for a better life. Twice more in the West, they moved between farming villages working at the only trade they had: agriculture. In the year 1900, after having been bitten by a malaria-infested mosquito, Maria’s father, Luigi, succumbed to the disease and died on May 6, leaving their already impoverished family to fend for themselves. This laid even more responsibility upon the 9-year-old Maria whose mother now needed to tend exclusively to earning their family’s living.
Having received the sacrament of Confirmation when she was only 6-years-old, at that time, it was not the case that young children would necessarily have been admitted to Holy Communion before hand. A sincere consolation which she received the year after her father’s death was to finally make her first Holy Communion, for which she had waited with eager longing, on the solemnity of Corpus Christi. It could be said that, with the deep faith that was blooming within this little girl, her continuous communion with Christ her Lord provided the strength for her to persevere through unimaginable suffering.
After Luigi’s death, the only hope for Assunta to be able to provide for her six children, all of whom were under the age of 14, was to continue working on the farm in which Luigi had entered a crop share with Giovanni Serenelli. Giovanni was a wicked man. Knowing that he could exploit the Goretti’s in their desperation, he began to perform less and less of the manual tasks of the farm, demanding that Assunta and her children do all the work. Maria, he insisted, remained in the house to care for all of their domestic needs. It soon became clear that she was in a very dangerous situation. Giovanni’s 18-year-old son, Alessandro, who had originally just treated Maria harshly, began to be infatuated with her, despite her tender and innocent age. He had become addicted to reading erotic literature and keeping pornographic publications. As lust consumed his heart, he would flip flop between trying to scandalize Maria by making explicit advances towards her or else to attempt to win her attraction by being very sweet and romantic.
On the fateful day of July 5, 1902, Alessandro locked Maria into the house and demanded that she allow him to perform sexual acts with her. Horrified, she adamantly refused at which time, having violently grabbed her, he threatened that if she resisted he would kill her. With the bravery that most adults in that situation would lack, the child of only 11 years insisted, “No Alessandro, it is a sin, you will go to hell!” This is a very important part of what demonstrated her sanctity. Although Maria has rightly gone down as an outstanding example of the virtues of chastity and holy purity, these were not the only reason she resisted, for by no means could she be blamed for having acted sinfully by being overcome by a grown man. It was also concern with Alessandro’s salvation that drove her refusal.
In a fit of rage, he grabbed a butcher’s knife and holding it to her throat gave her one last chance to acquiesce. She pushed him away from her and began screaming for help, though to no avail as everyone was out in the fields. Alessandro grabbed her again and began to stab her, 14 times in total, before throwing down the knife and fleeing in terror at the sight of the carnage he had wrought.
When Maria was found, she was barely clinging to life. She was in such desperate condition that, upon seeing her beloved daughter, Assunta collapsed. Maria was rushed to the nearest hospital where a surgeon began immediately trying to close her wounds, but he knew it was to no avail. Several hours later, the following morning, gazing upon the crucifix, Maria died, having first declared that she forgave Alessandro, and begged her mother to do the same. “I hope one day he is with me in heaven,” she prayed.
Alessandro was soon apprehended and thrown into prison. For six years he maintained lies that it was Maria who constantly tempted him and despite his efforts to resist, he temporarily went mad and committed the crime. Hardly anyone believed him, but it was his consistent testimony. One night, within his jail cell, he had a dream in which Maria, dressed all in white, appeared to him in radiant beauty holding a bouquet of lilies. She handed them to him one at a time- 14 to be precise, the number of wounds he had inflicted upon her- and once he was holding them all, they turned into flames in his arms. When he awoke, he swore that he still saw them smouldering in his cell of solitary confinement. He was instantly converted.
Alessandro went on to serve out 27 of his 30 year sentence as a model prisoner and devout Catholic. Following his discharge, although it was hard to find work, the friars of a Capuchin monastery took him in to work as their gardener and he was incorporated as a lay brother. At Christmas of that year, 1929, he went to the home of Assunta to beg her forgiveness, which she generously granted, and side by side, they knelt together to receive Holy Communion at midnight Mass.
Maria Goretti’s canonization on June 24, 1950, presided over by Pope Pius XII, was the largest group of people in history, 500,000, to gather for the first outdoor canonization ever in order to witness the elevation to the altars of the youngest person to be declared a saint in all of the Church’s life. Present among the multitudes were Assunta and Alessandro. St. Maria Goretti was named by Pope Francis as a special patroness during the Jubilee Year of Mercy in 2016 in recognition of the fact that, despite being so young, she was fully aware of the mercy God had shown her in her brief life and so she became a messenger of that mercy, first to Alessandro Serenelli, and now to all the world.
St. Maria Goretti, pray for us!