Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in one of Connecticut’s largest news dailies. He holds an MS degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
It’s been confirmed. The body — the major relics — of St. Maria Goretti, beloved by countless millions, is heading to the United States.
When she arrives from Italy, the first public appearance will be on Sept. 21 at Sacred Heart Basilica in Newark, N.J. — public because she will initially be visiting a prison before that. As of the latest scheduling she will tour through 25 Catholic dioceses spanning 18 states in parishes, schools, and prisons, including New York, Boston, Newark, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta, Houston, Orlando, and Oklahoma City.
Why the tour at this time?
Maria Goretti is the Patroness of Mercy. This tour will be known officially as the Pilgrimage of Mercy. Very clearly, it is purposely a forerunner to the Holy Year of Mercy that Pope Francis declared to begin on Dec. 8.
The Congregation of the Causes of Saints, her basilica, and Treasures of the Church have put together this tour (MariaGoretti.com) to prepare and catechize in the United States for this great celebration in the life of the Church.
Extremely popular St. Maria Goretti, the youngest canonized saint in the Catholic Church, embodied mercy. She was only 11 years old when she died July 6, 1902, after she was stabbed 14 times during a rape attempt.
As she lay dying in the hospital, her last words were of mercy towards her attacker: “I forgive Alessandro Serenelli … and I want him with me in heaven forever.”
Cardinal Edwin O’Brien, the Grand Master of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre which has stepped in as a major help with this tour, stated: “May the opportunity to reverence her relics demonstrate the power of Divine Mercy and forgiveness awaiting every one of us who takes the message of Jesus seriously to heart.”
The Holy See wants this pilgrimage tour to be a profound spiritual experience for all Americans because St. Maria Goretti is a model for the forgiveness and mercy that sets the heart free and opens it to Christ’s healing presence.
Only Second Time Maria Goretti has left Italy
The entire tour booked so quickly it “astounded” Father Carlos Martins of the Companions of the Cross.
Yet there was no surprise when the Holy See asked him to lead this tour. Father Martins is the director of the Treasures of the Church ministry that evangelizes by bringing the relics of dozens of saints to churches and places throughout the United States, plus Canada and a few other countries. He is a Custos Reliquiarum (ecclesiastically-appointed curate of relics).
“She of course is the Patroness of Mercy,” Father Carlos affirmed of Maria Goretti. He also happens to be an expert biographer of her.
With the Year of Mercy opening less than a month after the tour concludes, the tour will prepare that idea that the pope wants to come back to the fore.
Father Martins explained, “Mercy is something the modern mind has forgotten. We’re living in an age where revenge is craved and sought after. The focus is so much on standing up for oneself that for someone who has offended there is no room for any mercy or compassion upon him or her.”
“To forgive an offender is one way to express mercy that no one is talking about.” But forgiveness can cut both ways — to the one offended and to the one offending.
Maria’s Story Paints a Vivid Illustration
Father Martins shared the overall details.
“What is unique about her is that she is so incredibly disarming for everyone,” he affirmed. “She disarms men, disarms women. She is appealing to children. There is no segment of the population that is unattracted to her.” Maria Goretti leaves no one unmoved.
That is why prison stops will be part of the tour. In all the prison ministry Father Martins has done, he has seen prison as “a collection of tough guys who are really weaklings inside. Maria is way to unlock that. The way she could forgive, after incredible violence and after being bullied by her assassin. For months and months he tried to seduce her. When that didn’t work there were several rape attempts. On this last he had resolved if he could not succeed, he would kill her.”
Yes, Father Martins again stressed, “After all of that Maria still forgave him.”
And her genuine, deep forgiveness had an affect “that turned a very hardened man’s life around.”
He was sentenced to 30 years in prison and eventually released three years early. Originally, authorities were going to release him after 13 years, but he refused to leave. He wanted to pay for what he had done.
“There was something deeper and profound in his person that was accessed after the apparition six years into his prison sentence,” noted Father Martins.
The man named Serenelli had been unrepentant. Then six years into serving his sentence, he had an apparition of Maria Goretti in his cell. That event turned him from a violent, brutal and merciless bully into a renewed and gentle person concentrating on spreading devotion to God and his victim. To his dying days he repeated: “Maria’s forgiveness saved me.”
So while St. Maria Goretti is known as the Patroness of Purity because she died fighting to keep her purity, and despite her horrific physical suffering before she died, her great virtue is considered her forgiveness of the man who did this violence and would eventually convert him.
Forgiveness and Mercy Are Major
That’s why the prison stops are also so important on this tour. Remaining unnamed for the time being, the prison tour will include a visit to death row.
Father Martins explained, “That was engineered because in that place where death seemingly has the last word, Maria will come representing God’s Word — and that Word spoken from his mouth is Life.”
That’s also why every stop is important. Many will be freed from their prisons of lack of forgiveness.
“People don’t know how important forgiveness is,” Father Martins explained. “When they hear her story, they’re thinking, ‘I always resented my dad, my cousin, my first grade teacher, but now I see the importance that I needed to forgive them from the heart.’ And all this is coming from an 11-year-old girl. That’s the disarming aspect.”
St. Maria Goretti’ s Remains
To be clear, the major relics are her remains inside a glass-sided casket. The wax statue of her in repose contains her skeletal remains which are not visible. Her body is not incorrupt. But her skeleton is complete except for some small amounts of bone that went into reliquaries and her right arm that her mother Assunta donated to the Church of St. Nicholas, known as the Sanctuary of St. Maria Goretti, in her birth town of Corinaldo.
Maria used her right arm to defend her purity in the attack.
Expected to draw huge crowds, every stop on the tour at the various churches, schools and prisons will include presentations on Maria Goretti’s life and virtues, plus other prayer and veneration opportunities. Masses will often be part of the liturgical celebrations. Check out the tour schedule thus far at MariaGoretti.com.
Sections on this website also explain more about Maria, her body, what forgiveness is and is not, answers to a host of questions about the tour, and more.
One question Father Martins knows will be answered. “I’ve been teaching about Maria Goretti and am familiar with her story for a long time,” he said. “I see many miracles before my eyes. Limbs scheduled for amputation hours away are healed. Cancer is cured.”
Why amputations? “Because one of the two miracles that brought about her canonization was the healing of the man’s foot,” Father Martins explained. “A Stone block fell on it and crushed it, and it was to be amputated.”
Ministering with many relics for almost 20 years, he has seen or had reported to him hundreds, even thousands of miracles. They include not only physical ones but healings of faith and new and deeper relationships with God and the saints which are probably the most spectacular.
And about Maria Goretti, his connection to her, and this promising tour? Father Martins told me, “Every time I asked her to intervene in my ministry, she always has.”
Even though Maria Goretti will be flown back to Italy on Nov. 13, with the outpouring of interest just from the announcement, Father Martins said, “We’re exploring a West coast tour for the New Year.”
After all, he believes, “I think ultimately it was Maria who organized this tour to come to America.”
Stay tuned for more information before the tour begins, and a few surprise facts. In the meantime, check MariaGoretti.com.