St. Maria Goretti was born in 1890, the second oldest of six children born to Luigi and Assunta Goretti. Devout and impoverished, the family moved when Maria was six in hopes of escaping poverty. However, only a couple of years later, Maria’s father died, leaving Assunta to labor in the fields for the family’s survival and Maria watching her siblings and doing household chores. The Goretti family shared living quarters with the Serenellis, a father and his youngest son, who worked the same fields.
Alessandro Serenelli, the young man who lived with the Gorettis, had sorrow and trouble in his past. The details of a brother who had an epileptic seizure followed by being institutionalized and a mother who couldn’t handle the suffering and nearly took Alessandro’s life as an infant add to the complexity of his suffering and disordered passions. The 20-year old Alessandro made a couple of sexual advances toward 11-year old Maria, but she refused despite his threats. Young Maria, aware of the fragility of her family’s economic situation, did not tell her mother about these advances.
On July 5, 1902, Alessandro left working in the field to return home to Maria, alone except for her youngest sibling. His father was asleep in the shade nearby. For a third time, Alessandro made advances and when Maria again refused, he stabbed her multiple times before fleeing to his room. When he heard Maria moving still, he came out and stabbed her a few more times, for a total of fourteen stab wounds. Maria was able to call for help and Alessandro’s father rushed up to her before calling for her mother. Despite attempts at the hospital to save Maria, she died within twenty-four hours on July 6th, speaking of her forgiveness for Alessandro and her hope that he would be in heaven with her someday. Alessandro was questioned but remained unrepentant.
The canonization process for Maria started shortly after her death and her story was well known. In 1950, Assunta Goretti attended the first open air canonization to be held at St. Peter’s square. It was the first time a mother was present at her child’s canonization. At the time of the canonization, Maria was the youngest person to be declared a saint. St. Maria Goretti’s feast day is July 6th.
Witness of Courage
While St. Maria Goretti’s story might seem difficult to relate to for many, her witness of courage in the face of difficulty and temptation is utterly relatable. Whether one has experienced sexual harassment or been pressured to act against one’s convictions, Maria offers a striking example of being willing to suffer for virtue. Often the call to suffer for virtue is more internal and, thankfully, doesn’t entail giving our very lives. The way the young Maria responded when confronted with something she knew was wrong is the way I desire to respond when confronted with sin. A firm and unwavering focus on what is truly good and the accompanying desire to seek the good of the one causing pain are graces we can beg of this young virgin-martyr Maria.
Consider moments of weakness and difficulty where God’s grace is clearly needed. Consider those who are struggling with habitual sin, addiction, or near-impossible situations. Consider the virtues our culture needs to be courageous and bold in the face of vices.
St. Maria Goretti, witness of courage, pray for us!
Patroness of Forgiveness
St. Maria Goretti is the patron saint of rape victims, youth especially young girls, and for purity/chastity. However, unofficially, I think of St. Maria Goretti as the patron saint of forgiveness. Her words “I forgive Alessandro Serenelli … and I want him with me in heaven forever” were uttered as she neared a painful death. The forgiveness she offered eventually had a transformative effect in Alessandro’s life and also prompted Assunta Goretti to offer her own forgiveness to Alessandro. After twenty-seven years in prison, Alessandro was released and approached Maria’s mother to see if she could forgive him for what he did to her daughter and her family. Assunta replied, “God has forgiven you, Maria has forgiven you, and I too forgive you.” (from Charles Engel’s Alessandro Serenelli: A Story of Forgiveness, pg. 49)
This offering of forgiveness in the midst of tremendous suffering is a radical grace from God. St. Maria Goretti’s story is one I have long known, yet I didn’t experience much personal connection to it until adulthood. Experiencing fractures and division in my extended family, I found great comfort in turning to Maria, someone who offered abundant forgiveness that bore miraculous fruit. She knew what it was like to be wounded by another and have great pain inflicted upon her. Yet she also knew the freedom that comes from offering forgiveness. More than justice or revenge, Maria Goretti is a model of desiring the good of the other and longing for their eternal salvation even when directly suffering from their sinfulness.
Consider the people you need to forgive. Consider the people you thought you forgave and yet lingering bitterness still remains. Consider the people you have wounded, known and unknown, and the forgiveness you would desire from them.
St. Maria Goretti, patroness of forgiveness, pray for us!
Intercessor for the imprisoned
St. Maria Goretti’s story would be entirely terrible if we were unable to see a glimpse of the divine perspective. Dying a few months before her twelfth birthday, Maria had a desire for Alessandro to be holy. Alessandro was sentenced to thirty years in prison, but if he had been a year older, he would have been sentenced to life in prison. He was without remorse during the trial and remained so during the first several years in prison. In December of 1908, Alessandro had a dream.
He said his cell became a garden, bright with sunshine. A beautiful girl dressed in white approached him and he realized it was Maria walking toward him without fear. This time the tables were turned. It was he who wanted to flee from her. Maria stood before Alessandro and presented white lilies she had gathered as she moved toward him. She handed them to him one by one. Each flower turned into a small flame as he grasped it. She gave him fourteen lilies, one for each of the wounds he inflicted on July 5, 1902. Alessandro awoke a changed man.
Alessandro Serenelli: A Story of Forgiveness, Charles Engel, pg. 40
This dream brought about a dramatic change in Alessandro. He recognized the wrong he had done and wept for his sins. He was released after twenty-seven years, in part due to good behavior. He sought the forgiveness of Assunta and traveled multiple times to spend time with the Goretti family. For most of the rest of his life, Alessandro lived and worked in Capuchin friaries, atoning for his sins and offering witness of the goodness of Maria. As part of the canonization process, Alessandro willingly was questioned many times and was asked to recount the details of his crime as well as Maria’s virtuous refusal.
St. Maria Goretti’s story is so closely linked with Alessandro’s story. His conversion was spurred on by the dream of Maria directly offering him forgiveness. The beauty of the Gospel lies in part in the reality that people can commit horrendous crimes and be reconciled with God. From St. Paul to Alessandro Serenelli, the path to Christian holiness can be both shocking and hopeful. Alessandro’s story highlights freedom being offered in prison and new life coming from a place of death.
Consider the imprisoned both those unrepentant and those mourning their crimes. Consider those on death row. Consider the unique ways you are imprisoned and desire true freedom.
St. Maria Goretti, intercessor for the imprisoned, pray for us!