Saints for Our Times: Young saint modeled chastity, forgiveness
By Mary Lou Gibson
In the 1950s, most Catholic school children were very familiar with the story of Maria Goretti, the young Italian girl who paid for her virginity with her life. We heard how she tried to fight off her attacker, the teenage son of a neighboring farmer. The nuns told us how brave she was as she lay dying in the hospital and that she showed compassion to her murderer saying “Through love of Jesus, I forgive him with all my heart.”
She was acclaimed as a model of purity and innocence and praised as a martyr for chastity and the Christian life. It was not a goal that Maria had sought or even thought about. She was the third of seven children born into a farm family in 1890 near Ancona, Italy.
The family moved to the Pontine Marshes area when Maria was 8. They hoped to better their fortunes by becoming tenant farmers. However, it was not a good place for them. Disease was rampant and Paul Burns writes in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” that Maria’s father died when she was 10. She was left to look after the house and the younger children while her mother, Assunta, worked longer hours in the fields.
Maria never received any formal education and could not read or write. She longed to receive her First Holy Communion and that became her focus. According to her biographers, Maria seemed to grow spiritually throughout the spring of 1902 so that when the local priest examined her, he found her well prepared for the sacrament. Her mother got her a dress and a friend brought her a new pair of shoes to wear for the ceremony on May 29, 1902. During the month of June, Maria received the Eucharist four more times.
The family shared living space over an old barn with the Serenelli family. Maria was almost 12 and was becoming a beautiful young woman. She attracted the attention of Alessandro Serenelli, who was nearly 20 years old and had previously made some sexual advances to Maria. Burns reported that he threatened to kill Maria if she told anyone. So Maria was home alone on that hot afternoon of July 5 when Alessandro came home and tried to drag her into a bedroom intending to rape her.
Editor Bernard Bangley writing in “Butler’s Lives of the Saint” describes that Maria struggled against him with all her strength. Her refusal and desperate crying infuriated and frustrated Alessandro to the point that he threatened her with a knife. When she continued to fight against him, he repeatedly stabbed her over and over again – about 14 times.
Author Sarah Gallick reports in “The Big Book of Women Saints” that Maria’s younger brother came home and found Maria soaked in blood on the kitchen floor. She was taken to the hospital in a mule-drawn cart. She underwent surgery without anesthesia, but the surgeon said there was no hope and she received the last rites.
During the 24 hours it took for her to die, Maria repeatedly prayed that her attacker would repent, but Alessandro refused to believe this. She also disclosed to the priest that she had been in fear of Alessandro for some time, but did not want to say anything lest it cause trouble with his family.
Alessandro was arrested, but because he was not yet 21, he avoided the death penalty and was sentenced to 30 years of hard labor. Gallick writes that he remained unrepentant and showed no signs of remorse or regret for many years. But in November 1910, he wrote to the local bishop and asked him to visit. Alessandro told the bishop that he had a dream in which Maria appeared to him and gave him lilies which burned immediately in his hands. He then expressed remorse for what he had done.
He then became a model prisoner and was released from prison after 27 years. One of his first acts was to visit Maria’s mother and beg her forgiveness. Ann Ball writes in “Modern Saints” that Assunta told him she could hardly refuse when Maria had been so willing to extend this forgiveness. He even testified at hearings for Maria’s beatification which began in 1929. Jill Haak Adels writes in “The Wisdom of the Saints” that Alesandro’s prison experience and subsequent remorse for his crime has been cited as an argument for the abolition of capital punishment.
What happened next in this story has almost a fairy tale ending. Alessandro became a gardener at a Capuchin monastery and lived to see Maria beatified in 1947 and canonized in 1950 as a martyr for chastity. He died at the monastery in 1970.
When Pope Pius XII beatified Maria in 1947, it was because her death had been that of a martyr and no miracles were required. The pope called Maria “the St. Agatha of the 20th century.” Soon afterwards, people reported a shower of favors received through her intercession and the two miracles necessary for sainthood were speedily certified. The interval between her beatification and canonization was one of the shortest of any cause recorded at the Vatican, Ball wrote.
Maria’s canonization was not based on a single moment’s struggle against sin, Ball explained, but upon her practice of heroic virtue through her entire short life. As the cause for her canonization went forward, the prevailing thought among her supporters was that Maria would choose to die rather than to sin.
Maria’s remains are in the church of Our Lady of Grace in Nettuno, Italy. She became the patron saint of the Children of Mary and of teenage girls. Her feast day is July 6.