About ten years ago I was blessed to visit the major relics of St. Maria Goretti in Nettuno, Italy. This past weekend my wife and I were blessed to venerate her relics here in Milwaukee during her tour of the United States. More information about the tour and future cities she will visit can be found here. It is amazing for one so young to give her life
for Jesus and I thought I would reflect on her as well as some misconceptions about her martyrdom in this post.
Maria Goretti was born in 1890 in Corinaldo, Italy. Her family soon moved close to Nettuno where her father died shortly after they settled there. It was very difficult for her mother, Assunta Carlini, to provide for her six children. An orphan boy named Alessandro Serenelli used to live with the Goretti family and he was greatly attracted to Maria. He would encourage her to join him presumably alone in another room and twice before he tried to rape her but she always refused his requests or got away. On July 5th at 3:00 in the afternoon in 1902, Maria was sewing up a shirt at the top of the stairs outside when Alessandro came from behind with great passion and dragged her inside. He tried to force her to submit to his lustful desire but she refused saying, “It is a sin. God does not want it” and that such an act would lead to hell. Alessandro became enraged that his request was denied and threatened her with a dagger but she would not yield to him.
After not being able to convince her to give into him and in the heat of the moment he stabbed her a total of 14 times. Her diaphragm, lungs, heart, and throat were all pierced. While in the hospital, she forgave Alessandro saying, “Yes, for the love of Jesus I forgive him…and I want him to be with me in Paradise.” Twenty-four hours after the attack, she died and entered into heaven. Alessandro was arrested and sentenced to thirty years of prison. He later had a vision of Maria Goretti presenting him with flowers as an act of kindness that completely transformed him so that he repented from his previous evil acts and sought to live a virtuous life. After leaving prison, he went to ask for and received forgiveness from Maria’s mother, Assunta. He went to live with capuchin monks and was their gardener until his death in 1970. Maria Goretti was canonized by Pope Pius XII in 1950 and Alessandro tried to go to the canonization but his driver died the night before and he was unable to go. Most of the local newspapers had already been printed the night before and reported that he attended the canonization even though he was not there.
From Maria’s story carefree children and young people with their zest for life can learn not to be led astray by attractive pleasures which are not only ephemeral and empty but also sinful. Instead they can fix their sights on achieving Christian moral perfection, however difficult and hazardous that course may prove. With determination and God’s help all of us can attain that goal by persistent effort and prayer. (Homily at the Canonization of Maria Goretti by Pope Pius XII)
The story and canonization of Maria Goretti is often subject to misinterpretations regarding the cause of her sainthood. Some think that she is a saint because she was a virgin or because she would rather die than not be a virgin but this is not true. Virginity is not a one-way ticket to heaven and people are not holy because they are virgins. This type of thinking is a pietism that emphasizes virtuous ideals without a proper regard of the human person. Saints are canonized for us because they are witnesses to Jesus Christ in their lives and deaths. St. Maria Goretti is celebrated in the Church not only as a virgin but also as a martyr and the word “martyr” in Greek means witness. If she is a witness, one must ask for what or whom is she a witness. No martyr has been canonized because they die for ideals or virtues like virginity, or fortitude, or patience. That would be foolish. Many saints may be exemplars of various virtues but the end of these virtues is to live the life of discipleship called for by Jesus Christ. Maria Goretti’s virginity is a beautiful expression of her discipleship but her death was a death for Christ and not the ideal of virginity as shown in the collect for her Mass below.
This innocent child’s death mirrors that of Jesus Christ because of her love for Jesus and her neighbor. She is a model of following Jesus in purity and chastity because she did not want to offend Him by the sin of fornication with which she was tempted several times. In the face of her own death she loved her murderer by warning him that such an act would lead to hell and separation from Christ. Her love for Christ and Alessandro is united in the forgiveness she gave before her death because she knew what we often forget that Jesus loves those who hate us and He does not want to lose them also. St. Maria Goretti is a saint because of her heroic witness to the love of Christ even in the face of death and it is this witness, her pure love of God and neighbor as expressed through her virginity, that calls us to live like Jesus as she did.
Father, source of innocence and lover of chastity, you gave St. Maria Goretti the privilege of offering her life in witness to Christ. As you gave her the crown of martyrdom, let her prayers keep us faithful to you teaching. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen. (Collect from the Mass for St. Maria Goretti)