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.
The pilgrimage of St. Maria Goretti in the United States has drawn huge crowds wherever she stops. It has skyrocketed new interest and devotion to her. Just in time comes a new book called The Life and Witness of Saint Maria Goretti: Our Little Saint of the Beatitudes by Father Jeffrey Kirby.
His title tells us Father Kirby has something more in mind than just a straight biography of this popular saint. He and I had a long chat about his connection to Maria Goretti and his aims in writing this book that in less than 100 pages sheds major light on the young saint and her family and relates them to the Beatitudes to enlighten the path in our own lives.
How did you become familiar with Maria Goretti and become devoted to this saint?
When I was a seminarian at the North American College and I wanted to leave the hustle and bustle of Rome for a day, I went to Nettuno, where her shrine is. It was a cheap train ticket. It’s beautiful little city on the water, 40 minutes outside of Rome. The American cemetery from the Battle of Anzio there is like a little piece of America. It was a nice trip on a Saturday to visit with the saint and the shrine, and have a nice meal. That’s how it started.
What happened as you continued to visit her shrine?
I got to know her story more and more, and developed a devotion to her. The trips become more of a spiritual visit. Then, and after when I would visit any holy places, I would always try to match the life of the saint to the Beatitudes. That was a big part of my own spiritual formation as a seminarian to understand the Beatitudes.
I always thought Maria Goretti was an America saint because of the American cemetery right there. Anzio was the second bloodiest battle in Europe during World War II. [Anzio and Nettuno, next to each other, were the battleground.] The American soldiers camped in Anzio would go to her shrine at Our Lady of Grace Church and pray to her and Our Lady. That’s how the devotion to Maria Goretti began in the United States. The American soldiers brought her story back. So I say she’s one of our American saints.
A couple of years ago I was talking about Maria Goretti in one of our parishes and I mentioned the American connections. Afterwards an older gentleman came up to me and said he was one of the veterans from the battle of Anzio, and he pulled out from his wallet a holy card of Maria Goretti. He still carried her in his wallet.
What really stood out for you about her?
Three things really stood out about Maria Goretti. First was her devotion to purity and chastity. Second was her perseverance in virtue even in the midst of a threat to her life. She wasn’t going to waver. Third, her profound mercy. These three just stood out immediately. My own spiritual formation was deepened by what I revered most in this little saint.
I was ordained[for the Diocese of Charleston, S.C.], became a vocation director, and had a devotion to Maria Goretti, so imagine my shock and joy when I heard they were going to have a Pilgrimage of Mercy, and she was going to visit the United States for the first time. As many times as I visited her shrine, now she was visiting my country — an American saint comes home!
Is that why you wrote this exceptional book now?
My publisher St. Benedict Press (TanBooks,com), one of the supporters of this visit to America, told me we really don’t have a contemporary biography of Maria Goretti. They asked me to do one. I told them I had my notes from the seminary, but they’re not just a biography, but also a spiritual formation and examination of conscience. They loved it. That was exactly what they wanted.
Exactly how does this treatment make your book different from a usual biography and very personal for readers?
There are eight chapters, one for each Beatitude. Each has a little bit of religious instruction, and then an explanation on how Maria Goretti and her family lived that Beatitude. It also has a workshop in holiness on how we need to apply the Beatitudes and the example of Maria Goretti in our own lives.
For example, in terms of our work ethic, what are the Church’s teachings on work? Then it shows the Goretti family were hard workers, from early morning to late at night.
Then the chapter asks questions like: How do I work? Am I lazy? Do I try to avoid responsibility? Do I cut corners? Make excuses? That section concludes with a through examination of conscience with all the questions that pertain to that Beatitude.
That’s the difference in this book. It’s a biography about the saint, but it is also a practical guide on how we are called to live the Beatitudes in our own lives. That’s the part people really enjoy. That’s what I was doing as a seminarian, and this was an opportunity to share that spiritual formation with other people.
With this approach, what were you hoping to accomplish or avoid?
What I did not want in my life or in peoples’ lives was to encounter Maria Goretti, to be inspired by her life, but then do nothing. So then nothing would change in their own lives. That’s what I did not want. I did not want a warm, fuzzy biography. This is the story of a great saint and ways in which we are called to be saints in our own lives. You have to put that grace to work.
We look to the saints for their intercession but also we need to see their example so we can live saintly lives now. That’s the part I really wanted to stress.
What are the examinations of conscience parts like?
The examinations of conscience — one after each chapter — are tough. When Maria was very young her father died of malaria. So one examines the vocation of the Christian father. It talks about the role of the Christian father, the parents, and the responsibility of the Christian family. It examines how spouses treat each other, how spouses are responsible for the Christian family and are to be examples of mercy.
So the examination of conscience after each chapter forces the reader to go deeper and apply the graces of God and the example of saints to their own lives. For example, I would image and hope that someone who is a Christian father and hasn’t been attentive to his responsibilities would read the book and realize, “I need to be a better husband and father.”
That’s the hope of this book: conversion of heart, deepening of discipleship, greater love for God and neighbor. It’s not a feel-good biography.
This book seems to be for all ages — youngsters too?
Our 8th graders [St. Mary Help of Christians School] traveled from Aiken to Atlanta to see her. They really captured the saint's life and the spirit of a pilgrimage.
Two weeks before we went they used this book. We did a whole teaching series on Maria Goretti, on the importance of preserving in virtue. We went through her life point by point. Some examinations of conscience we had to adapt.
Those kids got it. They were so excited when we arrived at the church. She’s about their age, and they were so impressed they had to go up and touch the glass and see her.
I was sitting a few pews behind them, watching all the kids go up. The kids really understood and were praying and brought their rosaries and touched the reliquary. And after, they spent more time in prayer. She really captivated hearts.
For me it great to see Maria Goretti again — “Hello, old friend!” Then to see these young Christians form new friendships with the saint was beautiful and powerful for me as a friend of Maria Goretti and also as a priest.
Watching that, my prayer was to bless them with the virtues to be good Christians, and when they go to high school to hold onto that friendship with Maria Goretti and be good Christians.
What a blessing for our country: Our Holy Father came, Maria Goretti came, and on Dec. 8 the Jubilee Year begins.
The Life and Witness of Saint Maria Goretti: Our Little Saint of the Beatitudes, $8.95 from TanBooks,com