St. Maria Goretti — A Martyr More Relevant Today Than Ever

Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God

The relics of St. Maria Goretti are displayed for veneration on Sept. 25, 2015, during the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.
The relics of St. Maria Goretti are displayed for veneration on Sept. 25, 2015, during the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. (photo: Kenna Knight / National Catholic Register)

Maria Goretti was born on Oct. 16, 1890. She was also born into poverty. At that time her peasant parents were like so many others then living in remote parts of Italy. Hard work in even harsher conditions allowed them to feed themselves and those they loved, but little else.

The Gorettis loved all their seven children — these were their most precious possessions. In Maria’s case, by all accounts, she was easy to love, a sweet-natured child.

The family moved, and then moved again, this time in 1899, to the Pontine Marshes. Economic necessity dictated each move; it was never their choice, but then these were people of a class with few choices. The new home the family established there was to be shared with others — another poor farmer and his adolescent son, Alessandro.

Life continued to be hard; work equally so. The family barely survived. Then tragedy struck: Maria’s father died. There was no time for mourning — not publicly, anyway. Maria’s mother took up the role of the family’s provider and went to work as her husband had done before. Maria was now also handed a role, that of carer for the younger children. She did not complain, even if she was barely 10 years old. Perhaps, it was not so surprising after all for this little girl to have undertaken such an adult role. Her childhood was to be unlike many others. It was pointed out later that in her 11 short years, she had never owned any form of doll as a toy.

She had little by way of education. Poverty was to be her teacher. At that time, her social class had at least some of the fundamentals — reading, writing, basic arithmetic; she did not even have these. It was to be of little consequence though except that is in one regard: Holy Communion. Until she could demonstrate an understanding of the sacrament and its theology, even if in its most basic form, she would not be allowed to receive. The resolve she was to show in overcoming this is touching.

This 11-year-old child convinced her mother of her ability to both complete her many chores and also to go to the priest in a nearby village for instruction, walking there and back alone. Soon she achieved her goal. The local parish priest commented later on how well Maria had learned her lessons and how deeply she understood what was being entered into.

She was to receive Holy Communion only a handful of times during her life. Yet her ardor for the Blessed Sacrament was fervent, her preparation meticulous, her conduct impeccable both before and after.

She was older than the other children who were also present to make their First Holy Communion at the church. She was dressed differently too. Whereas the others were resplendent in their white dresses, Maria’s mother could not afford such luxury. Instead, the child was to wear jewelry previously given by her father to her mother on their wedding day. For the first and last time in her life, the child wore jewels as she processed into the church where she would receive an altogether richer prize than even that which she wore. On that day, May 29, 1902, and unknown to anyone then watching, another “jewel” was being raised above her head, one with which she was soon to be crowned. The “jewel” in question was a mystical one, however — the crown of martyrdom.

In an altogether different sense, there was another who watched her every move. Who would try to be alone with her; who would say strange things to her; who would invite actions that even in her innocence she knew to be wrong. But still, he persisted; still, she resisted. No one knew of her anguish. No one knew of his devilish intent. It was only a matter of time, he reckoned, and awaiting his opportunity, sat alone in his room, reading things and looking at images that further poured oil on the infernal fires already raging inside his fevered mind. Alessandro was right — it was only a matter of time, and it came in the middle of a hot July day in 1902.

Alone with no one around, he threatened her with a knife. She showed no signs of yielding to his demands. He stabbed her repeatedly. He left her to bleed on the kitchen floor. She cried out and was found by her mother. Neighbors were called and she was taken to a local hospital. She died slowly and painfully of her wounds. As she did so, she identified her killer, and forgave him. A priest gave her the Last Rites. Police arrested Alessandro. He denied everything. Soon after, he was tried and imprisoned, the charge of murder being proven.

That should have been the end of the matter. The victim laid to rest; the killer found, tried and jailed. Nevertheless, that was not to be the case. In fact, what happened next was even more curious still, as now the principal players were to be reunited once more, and in a most unlikely manner.

On Christmas Eve, 1937, a presbytery door was knocked. The widow housekeeper, as she was by then, as usual went to open it. On that cold December night, she found herself looking into the eyes of the man who had killed her daughter. Those eyes reawakened memories of the wounds inflicted on that now distant summer day — wounds she had carried with her for almost 36 years. Now he was standing in front of her against the backdrop of one of the darkest nights of the year, but also one of the holiest. He asked to speak to her. Reluctantly, she bade him enter.

The story he told was extraordinary. Sent to prison, he showed no remorse. For years he would have nothing to do with anyone, preferring to remain in his prison cell, filling his mind with the same poison that had prompted his evil actions in the first place. Both warden and chaplain despaired. There appeared no hope for a soul such as Alessandro, existing now as he did in his own private hell. From a very different place, however, there was one who had never stopped praying for him.

One night, bathed in light, she appeared to him. It was his victim, before his eyes once more. She was dressed in white and in her hands held lilies. She offered one of the flowers to him.

This was the vision he recounted to the prison warden, who was as surprised at the change in this prisoner in front of him as much as in what he said. Now, Alessandro confessed all, and he begged forgiveness for his crime. In a short time, he became a model prisoner — obedient, helpful, hard-working. Just like some years previously a child had been with her mother on the Pontine Marshes. And like his victim — or was it through her gift — he returned to the practice of his faith. More than that, he became devout. Unconvinced, those in charge watched for this new man to falter, to return to his former self. He never did. In fact, despite being in prison he was freer now than he had ever been.

That night, as Midnight Mass commenced at the shrine of the slain child martyr, knelt side by side were her mother and her murderer. Both had carried the Cross, if in very different ways. Both had known suffering, and both had had their lives changed forever through knowing Maria Goretti. Both now watched at the altar as the candles were lit in remembrance of the Child, and of the Light that had come into the world … a Light the darkness could not overpower.