Saint Maria Goretti - Martyr of Purity in the Modern Age
Maria Goretti was a member of a Passionist parish in Natuno, which was located near the Pontine Marshes in Southern Italy. She had been born near Ancona, but upon the death of her father in 1900, her mother, Assunta moved her and the rest of her children to the town of Ferriere di Conca where her brother-in-law maintained a small estate. He gave the family a plot of land and they worked as tenant farmers. With my mother I visited the property at Easter in 1981. Both of us expected to find a small shack. To our amazement, the house was considerably larger than the one in which I grew up. It truly was the approximation of a mansion, but without decorations.
Since the two families shared the accommodations, their quarters were divided into apartments. Both families worked the fields during the day and Maria Goretti had the task of caring for her small brothers and sisters. While Maria Goretti was given over to piety and a life of prayers, particularly by the constant recitation of the rosary, her twenty-year-old cousin, Alessandro Serenelli was addicted to pornography. In May 1902 Maria Goretti had made her First Communion. Distance from the church and poverty had kept her from the necessary instructions to receive this sacrament. From then on, she felt like she lived in the presence of God.
On July 5, 1902 Maria was on the front porch of her home playing with her baby sister. When she looked up, she saw her cousin Alessandro leering at her. With a large carving knife, he compelled his cousin into the house where he attempted to force himself on her. She resisted. He stabbed her multiple times. The screams of the baby girl who had been left on the porch summoned Assunta and her brother-in-law who restrained Alessandro. Maria Goretti died the following day, having expressed pardon for her cousin “for the love of Jesus.”
From then on she was known as a martyr for chastity. Miracle after miracle was reported when prayers were offered in her name. In 1929 the Passionists removed her body to the shrine of Our Lady of Grace, which they maintained near her home. This began the Promotion of her Cause. Pope Pius XII deemed it important for the Church to beatify her in 1947 in light of all the travesties committed against women during the Second World War. On the advice of the College of Cardinals, he canonized her only three years later in 1950.
During the canonization ceremony, Assunta Goretti and her family were seated in a special loge overlooking Saint Peter’s Square. The poor woman was almost 100 years old. Seated next to her was the Very Reverend Malcolm Lavelle, a General Consultor of the Passionist Congregation, (later Superior General of the Passionists and the First Executive Secretary of the Union of Superiors General). When the banner was lowered over the portico of Saint Peter’s Basilica, Assunta Goretti let out an audible gasp. Twenty years later, when Father Malcolm recounted the story to me in Rome, he remarked, “It was only that gasp of wonder that tells you about heaven.” Her title was Martyr of Purity in the Modern Age. For mother and priest alike, it was a moment of pure mysticism.
- Father Jerome Vereb, C.P.