Saint Maria Goretti
To hear the story of the courageous Saint Maria Goretti – committed to purity, willing to undergo death rather than participate in sin, willingly forgiving her attacker even as she lay on her deathbed – one would be amazed to learn that this “Little Saint of Great Mercy” was only eleven years old.
The youngest canonized saint in the Catholic Church, Maria lived a simple life with great joy, endured a brutal attack with great sanctity, and has produced countless miracles around the world. Fr. Carlos Martins, the generous priest who is donating many of the relics coming to the Our Lady of the Angels chapel, said that of all the saint relics he ministers with, St. Maria Goretti has by far produced the most miracles.
Maria Goretti was born to a poor peasant family in 1890, the third of seven children living in Corinaldo, Italy. Her father, a farmer named Luigi Goretti, moved the family when Maria was six years old from the east side of Italy (near Ancona) to the west side (near Nettuno) in hopes of escaping the widespread poverty in that area.
Sadly, Maria’s father would pass away from malaria when she was just nine. Her mother, Assunta Carlini, dutifully took his place working in the fields along with Maria’s older siblings, leaving young Maria the role of caring for her younger siblings. The family scraped by but was able to survive by working the fields for an Italian Count, and sharing a building with a man named Giovanni Serenelli, and his teenaged son, Alessandro.
Despite the hardships, the family was very close and loved God. Maria was a cheerful young girl who would bring back any treats from kind neighbors or merchants to share with her siblings. Maria would make frequent trips into the nearby villages to sell eggs and chickens and she would visit the shrine of Our Lady of Graces. Her family was too poor to pay for Masses in her father’s memory, but she would pray the rosary every night for the repose of her father’s soul. Maria quickly grew in grace and maturity and her piety was noticed by all those around her.
Along with her role of caring for her family, Maria also was tasked with cooking and cleaning for the Serenelli family. The 20-year-old Alessandro began to develop an impure attraction towards Maria. He would utter rude and inappropriate comments towards her that caused Maria to tearfully run away. In June of 1902, Alessandro began ordering the 11-year-old Maria to perform increasingly difficult chores, none of which were able to be completed to his satisfaction, while he continued to make several physical advances on Maria. The pious future saint could rebuff Alessandro’s crude actions but chose to remain silent, not speaking to her mother about her tormentor for fear of causing trouble.
On July 5 1902, Maria was sitting outside the steps of her home watching her napping younger sister Teresa while mending one of Alessandro’s shirts while he was out threshing beans. Knowing Maria would be alone, Alessandro returned to the house and suddenly sprung up behind her, demanding she enter a bedroom with him. As usual, Maria refused, but this time Alessandro grabbed her, pulling her into the bedroom and closing the door.
Alessandro demanded that Maria submit to him, but she vehemently refused, protesting that what he wanted to do was a mortal sin, and that he would go to hell. Undeterred, Alessandro attempted to rape Maria while she fought desperately and continued to scream “No! It is a sin! God does not want it!”
Alessandro first attempted to choke Maria, but when she insisted that she would rather die than to submit to sin, he became enraged. Alessandro stabbed Maria 14 times with an awl, before fleeing to his bedroom where he pretended to be asleep.
Little Teresa awoke crying from the noise of the attack. When Maria’s mother, Assunta, came to check on Maria, she found Maria on the floor bleeding. Maria was rushed to the nearest hospital in Nettuno, where she survived for 20 hours, undergoing a painful surgery on her lacerations without anesthesia. The surgeons were amazed that Maria had survived the attack at all, and when Maria awoke halfway through the surgery, a saddened doctor said to her, “Maria, think of me in Paradise.” Maria, looked inquisitively at the doctor and said, “Well, who knows which of us is going to be there first?” When the doctor solemnly told her that she would soon be entering Heaven’s gates, Maria replied, “Then I will gladly think of you.”
Maria gave a dying deposition to the Chief of Police, recounting Alessandro’s sexual harassment and attack. With just minutes left to live, Maria was asked if she forgave her murderer. Maria’s last words were “I forgive Alessandro Serenelli…and I want him with me in heaven forever.”
Maria died on July 6, 1902 at the age of eleven.
Unrepentant for his attack, Alessandro was sentenced to 30 years in prison. For many years, he was uncommunicative with the world, still refusing to show remorse for Maria’s murder. One night, Alessandro had a vivid dream in which he was standing in a garden next to Maria, who was dressed in white. Maria turned to him, smiling, and offered him a handful of flowers, but each lily he took from her transformed into a still, white flame at his touch. Then Maria disappeared.
When Alessandro awoke, he was a changed man. Alessandro immediately repented for his crime and began to reform his life. He was released from prison after serving 28 years, and his first act in freedom was to travel directly to Maria’s mother and beg for her forgiveness. Assunta duly granted it, saying, “If my daughter can forgive him, who am I to withhold forgiveness?” The two attended Mass together the next day, receiving Holy Communion side-by-side.
Filled with contrition for his actions and grace in his heart from his vision of Maria, Alessandro converted to a life of holiness, and became a Franciscan lay brother, working as a gardener in a Capuchin monastery.
Numerous miracles were attributed to St. Maria Goretti following her death. The story of her holy resilience in the face of death affected many and she became widely venerated. The information-gathering process for Maria’s canonization began in 1935. More than 30 people testified towards Maria’s sanctity, including Alessandro Serenelli himself. Alessandro asserted that he was not able to complete his assault on young Maria, and thus she died as both a virgin and a martyr. Maria was beatified on April 27, 1947.
On June 24, 1950, Maria Goretti was declared a saint by Pope Pius XII. Along with becoming the youngest saint in the Church’s history, the crowd at her canonization Mass was so large that more history was made. St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest church in the world, couldn’t contain all of the pilgrims who had traveled to celebrate Maria’s canonization, many of them being youth. Thus, the Mass was moved to St Peter’s Square, becoming the first open air canonization ever.
Maria’s 82-year-old mother was in attendance, becoming the first mother to ever see her child canonized, as well as 66-year-old Alessandro Serenelli, who knelt down among nearly 500,000 people in the crowd, and cried tears of joy.
Saint Maria Goretti is the perfect embodiment of what it means to be “pure of heart.” On her feast day in 2003, Pope John Paul II, speaking during his Sunday Angelus, said that the life of Saint Maria Goretti “reminds the youth of the third millennium that true happiness demands courage and a spirit of sacrifice, refusing every compromise with evil and having the disposition to pay personally, even with death, faithful to God and his commandments.”
In a time when selfishness and pleasure can take precedence over sanctity and purity, we can look to the life of this great saint to stand firm in our values and virtues. Together let us join our voices with those standing in St. Peter’s Square in 1950, who when asked by Pope Pius, “Are you determined to resist any attack on your chastity with the help of the grace of God?” they answered with a resounding “YES!”