Many years ago, my dad was going through his father’s desk and showed me a precious, antique Christmas card. Attached to the card was a relic of Saint Maria Goretti. I was about the age of Saint Maria Goretti was when I first saw it, and he gave it to me a few years later. It was my first experience with a relic and my first experience of a Saint choosing me instead of me choosing them to be a patron and friend.
The Brief but Beautiful Life of Maria Goretti
Many are familiar with her story. At age eleven, she is the youngest martyr canonized. Refusing over and over the advances of an 18-year-old boy working on the family farm, the last time he proceeded to stab her 14 times in rage for her refusal.
Somehow, Maria lived through being stabbed in the heart, lungs, and intestines long enough to be transported to the hospital and undergo surgery without anesthesia. When she was asked if she forgave the man who had hurt her so brutally, she said, "Yes, for the love of Jesus I forgive him... and I want him to be with me in Paradise."
She died twenty hours after being attacked on July 6th, 1902.
As an attempted rape victim, why is she considered a martyr, when typically we understand a martyr as someone who dies for the faith?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines martyrdom as “the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith: it means bearing witness even unto death” (CCC 2473). Maria bore witness to the gifts of purity, chastity, and saving the gift of herself for marriage, even unto death. She reminded her attacker that what he wanted to do was a sin. Alessandro, her attacker, admitted before his death that, “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.”
Maria’s witness is extremely important in our culture today, where, as Pope Saint John Paul II said during a homily in 2003 celebrating the 100th anniversary of her death:
Pleasure, selfishness and directly immoral actions are often exalted in the name of the false ideals of liberty and happiness. It is essential to reaffirm clearly that purity of heart and of body go together, because chastity "is the custodian" of authentic love.
She Knew Who She Was
Maria was just 11 years old when she witnessed with her life the gift of purity and chastity. Maria knew she was a gift, and she desired to give the gift of herself in an authentic way, not to have that gift taken from her. How was she able to do that at such a young age? She grew up in a home of deep poverty and she never went to school. Even though her parents could not provide the best of material things or the best education, they gave her the greatest gift of all: faith.
In that same homily, John Paul II pointed out:
The Church has always recognized the role of the family as the first and fundamental place for the sanctification of its members, starting with the children.
Maria knew her own dignity and worth. Romans 10:17 tells us that faith comes through hearing. Little Maria’s faith came through hearing her parents love the Church and each other. Faith was not something just reserved for Sundays for the Goretti family, but was integrated into every aspect of life, including sexuality and purity. Virtues don’t exist in a vacuum. They build and strengthen each other, so as much as Maria was pure, she must have also been courageous, prudent, and charitable. She must have learned this from her parents' witness and teaching.
The Witness to the Witness
We can see a glimpse of this in her mother’s actions after Maria’s death. She stood in the hall of the tribunal as Alessandro’s trial was taking place and forgave him on behalf of the family, even though he had no remorse and showed no repentance at that time.
Miserable and near despair for six years, Alessandro had a dream of Saint Maria Goretti where she again forgave him. His life changed at that point, and after he was released from prison, he spent the rest of his life serving at a Capuchin monastery, but not before going to visit Maria’s mother, Asunta, and asking her forgiveness. He then went to Mass with her where he then asked pardon from the parish community. Maria wanted Alessandro to be with her in Heaven, and her mother played an active role in accomplishing her daughter’s last desire.
To Be Reconciled
Reconciliation is rooted in the Latin word cilia meaning "eyelash." To be reconciled means to "come eyelash-to-eyelash again." We see this profoundly in Assunta and Alessandro. Assunta and Alessandro sat together at Maria’s canonization Mass. Assunta was the first mother to witness her child’s canonization. It’s probably safe to say that Alessandro was the first murderer to witness his victim’s canonization.
Yet we also experience this same deep reconciliation that Alessandro experienced when we encounter the mercy of God in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
There, too, is the witness in the martyrdom of Saint Maria Goretti. She was willing to risk it all for the sake of Alessandro’s soul, to die so that he might live. When she reminded him what he was wanting to do was a sin, she desperately wanted him to come back "eyelash-to-eyelash" with the Lord. When she forgave him before she died and wished him to be in paradise with her, she again desired this eyelash-to-eyelash relationship for him.
This reconciliation was something she received through the gift of faith given through her parents, a gift more precious than anything they could have given her. Saint Maria Goretti is not only a model of purity and chastity, but also a model of what it means to have a friendship with the Lord, so close as eyelash-to-eyelash.
How has reconciliation with someone who hurt or offended you brought you closer to the Lord?