St. Maria Goretti, Virgin and Martyr
A story like many others…
In every respect other than her death, Maria Goretti’s brief life seems a story repeated over and over again across the globe. The third of seven children, she was born in 1890 in Corinaldo, Italy, to a poor family. By the time she was five, her parents had lost their farm and hired themselves out to work for others as tenant farmers. The family moved often, finally ending up in Nettuno, not far from Rome.
When Maria was nine, her father died, and her mother and siblings threw themselves into work to feed the family. Maria kept house, cooked and watched her baby sister. It was a hard life. There was no time for school, for the family was too busy trying to survive. Like many of the poor, the Gorettis could not afford a home of their own, so they shared living quarters with another family, the Serenellis. And like many young girls in similar circumstances, Maria was the victim of unwanted sexual advances on the part of Alessandro, the Serenellis’ 20-year-old son. She said nothing about his unwelcome invitations, which she refused, for she was a frightened child and he was a grown man threatening to kill her if she told.
In 1902, 11-year-old Maria was sitting on the steps mending a shirt when Alessandro grabbed her and dragged her into the house. He held an awl and threatened to stab her if she refused him again. Maria did just that. She had been a bit behind the other children in catechism class, but everything she needed in this moment came to her with absolute clarity. “No,” she cried as he tried to choke her, “It is a sin! God doesn’t want it!” She struggled and tried to run for the door. He caught her, and when she said that she would rather die than give him what he wanted, he stabbed her fourteen times with the awl before running away.
Her family heard the baby crying and ran into the house to find Maria bleeding on the floor. In the hospital, the doctor operated on her without anesthesia. “Think of me in Paradise,” he suddenly said in the middle of the surgery. “Which of us will get there first?” she mused. “You, Maria,” he answered. “Then yes, I will remember you,” she promised.
“I want him with me in heaven!”
She knew she was dying now, and so still more came to her with astonishing clarity. There was someone who needed something from her, indeed, who needed the greatest gift she could give before dying. Alessandro Serenelli needed her forgiveness, and the forgiveness of God. She told the police the name of the man who had harmed her, but she added, “I forgive him, and I want him with me in heaven!”
Alessandro took a long time to accept that forgiveness. Sentenced to thirty years in prison, at first he showed no remorse. Years later, he had a dream, which he recounted to a bishop who came to visit him in jail. He saw the little girl he had killed handing him lilies she had gathered, but they burned in his hands. He woke and he knew that the forgiveness she had given him was a power mightier than he could conceive, and that this power was at work in him. Alessandro’s heart broke open, and he began to accept the forgiveness of God.
A miracle of forgiveness
Twenty-seven years after Maria’s murder, Alessandro was released from prison. He went straight to Maria’s mother, Assunta, and begged her forgiveness. Who was she to refuse, the mother said, what her daughter had given so readily? The next day, they went to Mass together as if they were mother and son. Alessandro became a Franciscan lay brother, working in the garden of a monastery until his death.
It was this miracle of forgiveness and conversion that sealed what many had already begun to suspect: that illiterate child who died was a martyr filled with divine charity. In 1950, Pope Pius XII canonized this “20th century St. Agnes” in the presence of her mother, her siblings, and her erstwhile neighbor, who had killed her only to discover in her an intercessor, a sister and a friend.