When I was a young girl, my mother would often tell us stories of the saints. I loved it, and today’s saint, St. Maria Goretti, was one of my favorites.
Perhaps it was that she was young, like me, and I felt closer to her than the adult saints.
Maybe it was that her holiness lies in her rejection of a premature sexuality, something I also understood.
Whatever it was, this little girl saint spoke to me, and I loved her.
But when the time came to choose my confirmation saint in 10th grade, my choice proved how silly and clueless I was about the whole point of choosing a confirmation saint.
You see, as much as I loved Maria Goretti and wanted to emulate her choice of virtue over sinfulness–the very reason why she would have been my perfect confirmation saint–instead, I chose Saints Catherine of Siena and Catherine Labouré.
Why? I didn’t know anything about the two Catherines. At least, certainly not as much as I knew about Maria. But, you see, I didn’t have a middle name, and I wanted one. And I had decided that my confirmation name would be it. As a young Mexican-American girl, choosing the middle name Maria was anathema–at the time, it seemed to me that about 98% of Mexican woman had Maria somewhere in their many names, and I refused to be one of them.
How stupid and vain.
Granted, since then, I have learned about the amazing lives of Saints Catherine of Siena and Labouré, and I love them dearly. But I do feel that if I ever make it to Heaven, I will approach St Maria with a sheepish look on my face. I’m sure she’ll embrace me and laugh, but I will forever be ashamed of my foolish and immature decision.
So what’s so special about Maria Goretti, and why is she a saint?
The thing I love about her is that her story is both sadly commonplace but joyfully extraordinary. Her death is, for me, an example of someone other than Christ turning water into wine–the ordinary into the extraordinary.
In 1902, Maria was an 11-year-old girl when 20-year-old Alessandro Serenelli made sexual advances toward her, which she refused. She said it would be a mortal sin. He stabbed her 14 times.
That’s the water.
How often are young girls taken advantage of, raped, and murdered? Once is too many. And we all know it happens way more than just once. In that sense, Maria’s experience was not unusual.
But what she did after was extraordinary. Of course, we don’t know how many girls have done the same before or after. But we do know Maria’s story, and on her deathbed, she forgave Alessandro, saying that she wanted him to be in Heaven with her some day.
That’s the wine.
The story doesn’t stop there.
Alessandro went to jail for Maria’s murder and after three years, he repented of his sin. When he was released from jail 27 years later, he begged Maria’s mother for forgiveness, which she gave him. He became a lay brother in a Capuchin monastery and stayed there for the rest of his life.
As we near the first-ever canonization on U.S. ground (Bl. Junipero Serra, this September in Washington DC), it’s fun to note that Maria’s canonization was the first-ever canonization in St Peter’s Square, and the first time a mother was blessed to attend the canonization of her child!
According to an AP article published on June 25, 1950, “The ancient rite was carried out in St Peter’s Square because the Basilica, the world’s largest church, could not hold the great Holy Year throngs wanting to attend.” Vatican radio estimated 500,000 attended.
Some ten years before he died, Alessandro wrote about what he had done in his will:
I’m nearly 80 years old. I’m about to depart.
Looking back at my past, I can see that in my early youth, I chose a bad path which led me to ruin myself.
My behavior was influenced by print, mass-media and bad examples which are followed by the majority of young people without even thinking. And I did the same. I was not worried.
There were a lot of generous and devoted people who surrounded me, but I paid no attention to them because a violent force blinded me and pushed me toward a wrong way of life.
When I was 20 years-old, I committed a crime of passion. Now, that memory represents something horrible for me. Maria Goretti, now a Saint, was my good Angel, sent to me through Providence to guide and save me. I still have impressed upon my heart her words of rebuke and of pardon. She prayed for me, she interceded for her murderer. Thirty years of prison followed.
If I had been of age, I would have spent all my life in prison. I accepted to be condemned because it was my own fault.
Little Maria was really my light, my protectress; with her help, I behaved well during the 27 years of prison and tried to live honestly when I was again accepted among the members of society. The Brothers of St. Francis, Capuchins from Marche, welcomed me with angelic charity into their monastery as a brother, not as a servant. I’ve been living with their community for 24 years, and now I am serenely waiting to witness the vision of God, to hug my loved ones again, and to be next to my Guardian Angel and her dear mother, Assunta.
I hope this letter that I wrote can teach others the happy lesson of avoiding evil and of always following the right path, like little children. I feel that religion with its precepts is not something we can live without, but rather it is the real comfort, the real strength in life and the only safe way in every circumstance, even the most painful ones of life.
–Alessandro Serenelli, May 5, 1961
Today, pilgrims will throng Corinaldo in Italy, to see where Maria was baptized and where she was murdered.
In Nettuno, they will visit the Pontifical Basilica Shrine of The Madonna of Grace and of St Maria Goretti, where, what is left of her body–not incorrupt, as some have erroneously written–can be revered.
For those of us stuck at home, we can make a virtual visit on the sanctuary’s website–http://www.santuarionettuno.it–where they appear to have a live cam. We can also see many photos of the site there and follow them on Facebook (in Italian)!
Art: Photograph of Saint Maria Goretti, 1902, unknown photographer, 1902, PD-US; La Casa di Santa Maria Goretti, detta la “Cascina Antica” (a destra). Le Ferriere, by Torvindus, own work, 21 March 2006, CC-SA; Santuario di Nostra signora delle Grazie e di Santa Maria Goretti a Nettuno (RM), Stefano.nicolucci, 28 September 2008, CC-SA; all Wikimedia Commons.