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.
St. Maria Goretti has arrived in the USA for her “Pilgrimage of Mercy,” a tour that will run through 18 states. (See the tour stops and dates here.) In Part I we looked at the reasons, hopes and expectations for the pilgrimage of this youngest canonized saint in the Catholic Church. Now it’s time for a few more fascinating details and insights generally not well known.
Father Carlos Martins, the Director of the tour, shared a number of these additional facts and insights. A member of the Companions of the Cross, an order with the charism and mission of evangelization, he is an expert biographer of St. Maria Goretti.
As the Director of the Treasures of the Church, a ministry that evangelizes through the use of relics of the saints, he has seen countless hearts moved and healings realized through the intercession of Maria Goretti.
“Venerable Pope Pius XII beatified and canonized Maria. He loved her and had a heartfelt devotion to her,” said Father Martins. “He felt especially connected with Maria following his beatification and canonization of her. In the hospital room where she died—now converted into a chapel—stands a glorious marble altar. It was personally donated by him.”
Her canonization in 1950 was the first ever held outdoors. St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest church in the world, was too small to contain the 500,000 people that came to attend it from all over the world. In the words of Pope Pius XII, “I have been forced by the piety of the whole world to leave the Basilica of St. Peter which, for the first time in its glorious history, is hopelessly inadequate.” Maria’s 82-year-old mother, Assunta, was present and heard Pius XII in his homily call her daughter a “powerful intercessor with the Lamb of God.”
Prominent American Connections
Father Martins revealed a good reason why Maria is coming here. “America has a connection with the Goretti family and with her personally,” he said.
Two years prior to Maria’s martyrdom in 1902, her father died of malaria. Father Martins explained that, as the family didn’t own the land they farmed (nor even the seed which they planted), his death was a terrible blow to the family. “To make ends meet Maria took the role of ‘mother’ while her mother took her father’s place in the field. They would lose the land and the dwelling otherwise. They were the abject poor.”
But when Maria died, there was no one left to take her place, and her mother could no longer provide for her family. Thus, the same week that her eldest daughter died, her mother was forced to give up all five of her remaining children for adoption. Maria’s two sisters were raised by Franciscan nuns and the three boys were sent to live in Rome.
“Then Angelo, the oldest brother, immigrated to America, being processed at Ellis Island,” Father Martins continued. “Within a year the second brother Sandrino came. Unfortunately, he died in an accident in less than a year. He is buried in Phillipsburg, N.J. Finally, Mariano came who also settled in New Jersey. The two brothers married and started families. There are Goretti descendants throughout the northeastern United States today.
Another American connection came during World War II. In January 1944 the Allies made a major landing—“Operation Shingle”—in Anzio and Nettuno, an area 37 miles south of Rome and alongside the Basilica that holds St. Maria’s remains. However, the powerful German army was able to surround them. A fierce battle went on for weeks. Although the Americans and other allies suffered a staggering 43,000 casualties, they ultimately drove the Germans back and pushed on. That contingent was the contingent that eventually liberated Rome.
Father Martins pointed out, “Maria’s hometown was liberated from Hitler’s army by the Americans. Today, there is an enormous American military cemetery in Nettuno where nearly 8,000 US soldiers are buried. It is one of the largest US cemeteries on foreign soil.”
An interesting side note is that while American soldiers were stationed in Nettuno, they taught the locals to play baseball. That was the beginning of baseball in Italy, and the sport caught on. Eventually the people formed a team called the Nettuno Baseball Club.
“The Nettuno Baseball Club is a powerhouse team,” added Father Martins. “It’s won more national championships than any other team in Italy — all from what was taught by the American GI’s.”
An American Cardinal Steps In
But America’s involvement doesn’t end there. At the time of the canonization the Goretti house in Nettuno, where Maria had lived and where she endured the attack that would kill her, had fallen into terrible disrepair. Enter the great American churchman and Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Francis Spellman. He had a great devotion to the saint.
“Spellman spearheaded the renovation of the house where she was martyred,” Father Martins affirmed. “He was one of those great Catholic New Yorkers who seemed to be able to move the world.”
The house was structurally preserved and the renovation was completed in 1953. Inside the house, next to the spot where Maria fell, mortally wounded, a plaque in Italian commemorates this outstanding American involvement. The translation reads:
On the Fiftieth Anniversary of the passing of
St. Maria Goretti
Through the munificence of the Eminent Cardinal Francis Spellman
Archbishop of New York
Of the American Association of the Knights of Malta
And of Mister John S. Burke of New York,
This humble house was restored
With greatest care
And was returned to its state during the time of the
The Passionist Fathers are grateful.
“If not for Cardinal Spellman, the Knights of Malta and Burke, the house would be a pile of rubble today,” Father Martins said.
To honor the memory of the cardinal’s great involvement, when preparations for this tour officially kicked off last November, Cardinal Edwin O’Brien, Grand Master of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre and former personal secretary to Spellman, celebrated a Mass at her shrine in Italy.
Organized by the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, it was a glorious liturgy. “We used Cardinal Spellman’s chalice. The miter he wore during Vatican II and his crimson zucchetto we placed in the sanctuary as a tribute to him,” said Father Martins. He added that one of the goals of the tour is to once again renovate the house in Nettuno—which is now a chapel—and which is in need again because “nothing has been done in the almost 65 years after Cardinal Spellman did what he did.”
“But here again, America shines,” says Father Martins. “I explained the situation to Sir Patrick Allen, a Knight Commander of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre and president of a top-rated masonry company in New Jersey. He immediately accepted to become involved in both the restoration work and the tour of St. Maria, accepting the position of National Coordinator. “He has been indispensable to this project and has shown himself a true friend of St. Maria. I am grateful for his assistance in these substantial projects,” says Father Martins.
“So much of America is tied up in this story,” Father Martins affirms.
Nearby is the Basilica of Our Lady of Grace and of St. Maria Goretti, where St. Maria’s relics—her skeletal remains reposed in her wax likeness—are venerated. “We are attempting to tackle the Basilica’s needed repairs too,” states Father Martins.
Unique in Touching All Hearts
There is something unique about St. Maria Goretti and her story. Father Martins has the answer why.
“She is so incredibly disarming for everyone,” he said. “She disarms men, disarms women and is irresistibly appealing to children. There is no segment of the population that is not attracted to her. Maria leaves nobody unaffected when they hear her story.”
It’s a story of mercy and of forgiveness and heroism, all from an 11-year-old girl.
“For many men, a male saint does not appeal to them because they cannot relate,” says Father Martins. He points out the effects on prison inmates to illustrate what he means.
“I’ve done a lot of prison ministry. Prisons are a collection of exterior tough guys who are really weaklings inside,” he said. “Most prisoners are unsure of their own identity, and they possess a fragile masculinity. They’re unsure of themselves. Presenting a male saint who’s got it all together often makes them feel worse. But a little girl saint is different. Maria Goretti is appealing to them because she is not a threat to their broken masculinity. That sets her up to be a very powerful witness to them. She is able to ‘slip past security’ and enter their hearts in a gentle way. She effects powerful change among inmates.”
After all of the horrible suffering Maria went through, she still forgave her attacker and killer, in his prison cell, no less. It was a deep forgiveness “that turned a very hardened man’s life around.”
“For women, too, there’s a connection because women have an affinity for one another,” Father Martins said. “She’s a little sister. It melts their heart. Some women, however, feel resentment toward other women because their own image of themselves is so poor. Like many men, a lot of women resent other women because they are a threat to their identity. But because Maria is 11-years-old, that resentment doesn’t come in. Rather than the jealous instinct, the ‘big sister’ instinct kicks in.”
She’s the saint for children too. “Little kids identify with her because she’s one of them,” explains Father Martins. “When children encounter her they are changed. Sainthood is all of a sudden a very different thing for them. It is something close, something achievable. She didn’t accomplish extraordinary things like some of the more famous saints. St. Thomas Aquinas was a genius, St. Thomas More resisted the cunning entrapment set for him by the King of England, and St. Joan of Arc commanded armies. Maria agreed to do what God wanted her to do — forgive a guy who did ugly things to her. That puts sainthood within the orbit of these children.”
In his many years of operating his Treasures of the Church ministry, Father Martins has seen St. Maria Goretti accomplish many great things. “In my experience there isn’t anyone who remains unmoved after hearing about Maria. Her witness simply works magic.”
Miracles that change hearts, bring about forgiveness, and also a return to purity —she’s a patroness of Mercy and a patroness of Purity — are highly anticipated on this September –November tour. So are other healings.
Just one of the many highly visible physical miracles he’s witnessed concerns a man’s arm which was hours away from amputation. Father Martins shared the details:
“I was told of a man whose arm was scheduled to be amputated from a terribly infected spider bite. When I was asked to pray for the man I recalled that Maria’s father died of an insect bite. I thought, ‘Maria is going to be very interested in this.’ So I visited the man in his hospital room, taking along a relic of St. Maria, with which I touched his inflected arm. His arm was as black as night from infection.”
The result? “When the surgeons began to prepare the man for his surgery just hours afterwards, they discovered that there wasn’t a single thing wrong with that arm. Examining it carefully, they discovered that there was not even a bite mark to be found.
“Since then there have been five other amputations she has prevented, which I have witnessed. Every time I asked her to intervene for someone in such a state, she always has. Dramatically so.”
Considering St. Maria Goretti’s track record with healings, her family and hometown’s U.S. connections, and Pius XII’s naming of her as a “powerful intercessor with the Lamb of God,” Father Martins is led to conclude:
“I think she is prepared to repay America for what it has done for her. I think you’re going to see miracles like you’ve never seen on a tour. This will be Homecoming for a powerful saint who loves America. You’ll see.”