The life of St. Maria Goretti reminds us that we are children of God
Among the list of “young witnesses” to the Synod underway in Rome right now is St. Maria Goretti. Maybe you’ve heard of her because she’s the patron saint of victims of sexual assault. Maybe you know she was stabbed when she was resisting the attack of a young man in the tenant building they shared. Maybe you know that she forgave him as she was dying.
Maria is a well-known saint because she was so young — she died when she was only 11 — and showed such courage to not only resist her attacker but also to forgive him. Before she died, she said she wanted to greet him in heaven.
Perhaps it is possible to imagine that a young girl could have such a clear heart and strong mind. Perhaps she had not seen enough of life to lose her idealism. Perhaps the witness of her faith seems a little too black and white for the grey areas we usually wade around in.
Read between the lines of what happened to her, though, and you’ll see choices that made faith real for her — not an interest or an idea, but something as real as the air she breathed. And the final choice she made — to forgive her attacker — was just another choice in the same pattern.
Maria was born in 1890 to a poor family in Italy, the third of seven children. At one point, they lived on their own farm, but they had to give it up. Her father, Luigi, took on work as a migrant laborer, toiling for wealthy landowners. The family traveled with him from place to place.
Then Luigi caught malaria and died. Maria was 9, and took on household duties as her mother, Assunta, took Luigi’s place in the fields. She should have been a fourth-grader, but Maria stayed at home to cook and sew and watch her younger siblings. They saved every scrap and penny, but the family was happy and close-knit.
So right there, we can see that Maria was learning how to hold on to a vision of herself that was informed by faith and family, rather than by her circumstances or suffering. Under the pressure of such poverty, most families crumble, but the Gorettis relied upon God and got stronger and clearer.
Alessandro Serenelli and his father lacked this resilience. They were migrant workers, too, and joined the Goretti family in the tenant building to save rent money. His father turned to alcohol and Sandro, as he was known, turned to crime stories and lewd novels. Then he turned to Maria.
Maria is the patron saint of victims of sexual assault because she resisted him, yes, but there’s more to it than that. We recognize saints as models of heroic virtue, and Maria’s virtue is that she refused to let go of her dignity as a child of God. Even when Sandro tried to steal it from her, then forcibly take it from her, then end her life, Maria never lost sight of who she was as beloved by God. When she was sinking in cruelty, she found bedrock in the deepest layer of who she was.
Our identity as beloved children is inherent to all of us and we never lose it, but it grows more present to us when we make faith real every day. And as it grows, that identity changes us — it helps us find courage when we need it most — and it changes other people.
It changed Maria’s mother, Assunta: At Sandro’s sentencing, she was asked if she had anything to say. He admitted to the crime and seemed proud of it — he showed no sign of remorse or repentance. The whole town had turned out to see the trial and were crying out for Sandro’s condemnation. Assunta stepped forward and proclaimed: “I forgive Alessandro!”
It’s a stunning thing to say in a moment like that, but Assunta said that if Maria could forgive him, she could do no less. Justice called for Sandro’s punishment in order to mend the social fabric and keep people safe — and that’s an absolutely essential response to such harm; it should be our first concern, in fact. These women also knew that forgiveness sets us free from the pain others inflict on us, and has the power to set them free, too.
Sandro was sentenced to 30 years in prison and spent the first three in solitary confinement full of rage. One night six years later, he had a dream where Maria approached him in a garden. She handed him 14 white lilies — one for each time he stabbed her. As he received each one, they turned into a glimmering flame. She told him that he would see her in heaven one day.
The forgiveness Maria had sown so prodigally finally took root in his heart, and he was transformed. He began to visit with the prison chaplain, to pray, to read the lives of the saints (just like you are doing!). When he was released, he went straight to Assunta to beg forgiveness. She welcomed him into her home and he joined her family. When Maria was canonized in 1950, they had to move the event outside into St. Peter’s Square to hold the half-million young people who showed up, and both Assunta and Sandro were in the crowd.
It’s not idealistic or naïve to cling to that vision of who we are as loved by God. It’s the realest thing we have, in fact — it’s more real than our own bodies — and it’s the only thing that can finally save us.
Josh Noem, M.Div, is senior editor for Grotto Network, a digital storytelling platform that accompanies Catholic young adults.
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