Earlier this month, the Church celebrated the feast of St. Maria Goretti, a young Italian girl whose story has particular significance for our time. She has rightly been described as a model for young people, but her courage and uncompromising virtue make her a model for everyone.
Maria was born Oct. 16, 1890 in Corinaldo, in Italy’s Ancona Province, about 80 miles north of Assisi. She was devout; although she did not learn to read, she learned the lessons of the Catechism and received the Eucharist.
Maria was the third of seven children of Assunta and Luigi Goretti, who did farm work. Her family was very poor; her father died of malaria when Maria was 9 years old, and the family moved to another farm. Maria, the eldest girl, cared for her baby sister and did housekeeping and sewing while her mother and the other children did field work. The Gorettis lived in a building with a widower, Giovanni Serenelli, and his son, Alessandro, who was 20.
On July 5, 1902, when Maria was 11 years old, Alessandro went to her while she was in the house with the baby and made sexual advances. She strongly refused him. According to his testimony, she told him that what he was asking her to do was a mortal sin that would send him to hell.
“God does not want it!” she cried. He persisted, and when she would not submit, he first choked her and then stabbed her 14 times.
Maria’s mother and Serenelli’s father found Maria bleeding profusely. She was rushed to a hospital; doctors operated but could not save her life. She endured a night of bitter suffering that included desperate thirst; because of the many stab wounds she had, she was unable to be given water. She died the next day, July 6, but before her death she forgave her attacker and said that she wished for him to be with her in heaven.
Serenelli was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison. While a prisoner, he reported having a dream in which Maria, wearing white, visited him and gave him lilies. That led him to repent. Released after 27 years, he sought and received forgiveness from Maria’s mother. He was received into a monastery as a brother and remained there until his death in 1970 at 87.
Maria Goretti was canonized June 24, 1950, by Pope Pius XII in St. Peter’s Square. She was then the youngest person ever canonized, and for the first time a canonization had to be held outdoors to accommodate the enormous crowd that attended. Assunta Goretti was present; she is the only mother in history to have attended her child’s canonization.
St. Maria Goretti is honored as a patron of young people, purity and forgiveness. Today, when sexual permissiveness is rampant and sex without marriage is commonplace, she is an especially appropriate model. But she has other truths to teach as well.
I marvel at her courage. She was only 11 when Serenelli attacked her; she must have been terrified, and yet she resisted physically and spiritually to the limit of her strength. When she could not escape, she endured violence rather than give in to him. She defended not only her bodily purity but also her spiritual integrity. She is a model for all of us when we are pressured to compromise our faith or virtue.
She also is a patron for anyone who speaks or acts against prevailing values. When popular opinion runs contrary to biblical teaching, when Christian morality is sidelined or mocked, it can be hard to buck the current and identify oneself as adhering to faith and the law of God. Maria Goretti did it at 11; more than that, she gave her life for what she believed.
Most of us won’t be put to that severe a test, but we face everyday situations in which we can choose to be silent and acquiescent, or to let our beliefs be known even if that leaves us exposed to ridicule. St. Maria Goretti is a patron and a guide for every one of us who has ever wondered, Do I have the strength to do this?