Defying the efforts of emperors, popes, mathematicians and engineers to drain the area, the infamous Pontine Marshes — disease-ridden, brackish waters ten to sixteen miles wide — lay for 23 centuries southeast of Rome. Benito Mussolini not only made the trains run on time, he finally succeeded in draining the Pontine Marshes in 1928.

Reclaiming the land, Il Duce built low-cost housing and settled families in new cities and farms. The Lazio region now has a thriving economy, producing crops in abundance. Twenty-six years before, farmers and hired hands sweltered and sweated working acreage near the Marshes. On a muggy, hot July 5 in 1902….

‘No! It’s a sin!’

Nineteen-year-old Alessandro Serenelli excuses himself to return to the home he shares with his father, Giovanni. Both are foul-mouthed louts. Giovanni loves his grappa; Alessandro enjoys garishly colored rotogravures of scantily-clad women. Paradoxically, they board with a lovely family, the Gorettis, forced by hard times to take in lodgers.

Luigi and Assunta Goretti had traveled from northern Italy to Lazio with their children to find a farm of their own. All they got was an offer to sharecrop for Count Mazzolini, helping him reclaim his decaying estate from the Pontine swamp. An old cheese factory became their home. To help eke out a living, the family took in the Serenellis. A year later Luigi died. Now, Assunta takes his place in the fields alongside her sons.

The beautiful Maria, aged 11, assumes charge over the housecleaning, cooks meals, and minds the toddler. Every few days she trudges to the town of Nettuno two miles away with baskets of eggs for sale. Two years earlier, longing for “the hidden Jesus” in the Holy Eucharist, Maria arranged with a neighbor to learn the catechism. She did — so swiftly, in fact, she was allowed to receive First Holy Communion on June 16, 1901 at the age of ten, a year earlier than customary.

A year later, Alessandro enters the house. Maria is sewing, her little brother and a neighbor baby sleeping nearby. Bluntly, the young man tells Maria what he wants. She refuses. It’s not the first time. She kept silent before because he threatened to kill her and her mother. Alessandro is past talking. Dragging Maria to the kitchen, he kicks shut the back door. She fights him. “No! It’s a sin!” she yells. “God does not want it. You’ll go to hell!” Alessandro notices a butcher knife. “Submit!” “No!” He stabs the girl eight times and runs upstairs to his room.

Maria drags herself across the floor, manages to open the door and screams for help. Alessandro hears her and returns. Another six times he stabs her, then dashes from the house. The babies are crying. Knowing nothing of the assault, Giovanni wakens to hear the babies and finds Maria in a pool of blood. Assunta is called in from the field. Maria tells her about Alessandro. A horse-drawn ambulance conveys her to the hospital in Nettuno. Even with her mother cradling her, each jounce of the road brings new pain.

A crowd gathers. The parish priest hears Maria’s confession. Throughout the night doctors work on her injuries. Fearing she’ll not waken, Maria’s given no anesthetic. Fever wracks her body, but she’s allowed no water since her lungs and abdomen are punctured. Come morning the priest returns, asking the girl if she forgives Alessandro. “Through love of Jesus, I forgive him with all my heart!” Maria cries.

Seeing the Sacred Host, her Holy Viaticum, Maria exclaims, "It’s Jesus; I shall soon see Him in heaven!” In a little while she dies, offering her Calvary, 20 hours of unmitigated pain, for her murderer and all other sinners. At his trial, the sullen Alessandro defiantly claims the girl wanted sex with him but changed her mind. No one believes him and he’s sentenced to prison for 30 years.

Allesandro maintains his story about Maria until Bishop Blandini of Nettuno visited him in prison, telling how Maria forgave him as she died. Overcome, the young man drops his swagger and makes his confession — and publicly repudiates his allegations of Maria’s complicity.

Six years pass. In a dream Alessandro sees Maria, handing him a bouquet of 14 lilies — one for each of the wounds she received. Alessandro experiences a profound change. A model prisoner for the rest of his sentence, he’s released three years early for good behavior. First thing, Alessandro goes to Assunta Goretti. They had been corresponding. Now, in person, he begs the mother’s forgiveness. “Maria forgave you,” Assunta replied. “How can I do less?”

Come 1950, and the ceremony on June 24 is unique in Church annals. For the first time a holy one is announced in the piazza outside St. Peter’s Basilica — the youngest ever thus proclaimed, where 250,000 believers see and hear Pope Pius XII raise Luigi and Assunta’s daughter to the altar as Saint Maria Goretti, martyr for purity, patroness of rape victims, intercessor for the poverty-stricken; the model for youth.

July 6, the anniversary of her death, is proclaimed her feast day for the Universal Church. A banner with her likeness hangs from the balcony above the facade, wafting gently in the warm breeze. In a special box seat, dressed in somber black, Assunta Goretti — the first mother ever to see her child so honored by the Church of Rome — takes it all in.

Alessandro Serenelli found a job as a gardener in a Capuchin monastery, joining the Third Order of St Francis. By all accounts he lived an exemplary life, dying in 1970, with a prayer for all young people to resist the blandishments of evil temptation.

A disconnect with faith?

A girl resists a sexual encounter and is murdered. Her murderer spends his life in humble amendment for his misdeed. How foreign this story sounds to our ears a century later. Holy Mother Church’s teaching on sexual purity remains the same, along with her belief in the reality of the Eucharistic Jesus; yet both are taking quite a beating in the present culture of death.

Through almost two entire generations Catholics have been mucking through the “Pontine Marshes” now affecting Western Civilization. Statistics regarding casual sex and abortion on demand leave Catholics in America indifferent; indeed, many Catholic legislators assent to morally infamous laws, defending their need, while vigorously asserting their Catholicism. Parents bring their children to Catholic schools and religious education classes — then refuse to practice the Faith at home. What kind of disconnect is going on here?

In past ages, as history attests, the Catholic Church led the culture in education, art and morality. Lately, however, the Church has been floundering about, just barely staying afloat. An ever more secularized society has become intent on eliminating the Church’s moral authority from the culture by ridiculing the Faith and enmeshing the Church in one legal morass after another.

Now, even the Federal government deliberately challenges the Church by creating laws at variance with Catholic ethics in order to end, once and for all, the Church’s immemorial leadership in education and healthcare. And it all comes down, not to bishops and cardinals, but to mothers and fathers to keep the Barque of Peter on course.

So let me ask you, Gentle Reader — is love for Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, the “hidden Jesus” so cherished by Maria Goretti, at the heart of your family life? Will your daughter say, “No! It’s a sin,” or, “Okay, I’m on the Pill”? Will your son say, “God doesn’t want it,” or, “Hey, that’s cool’ I’ve got a condom”? There’s a connection between these answers and the state of the culture, I promise.

This article was originally published on July 5, 2012.