Rethinking St. Maria Goretti

COMMENTARY: Her resistance was not just about her being violated; by her own words, she showed an awareness of and spiritual concern for her attacker’s spiritual welfare.

A painting of St. Maria Goretti hangs in the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in Krynica, Poland.
A painting of St. Maria Goretti hangs in the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in Krynica, Poland. (photo: Adam Jan Figel / Shutterstock)

Maria Goretti, whose feast we celebrate July 6, was canonized in 1950. The canonization produced a lot of firsts, including being moved outdoors, into St. Peter’s Square, because St. Peter’s Basilica could not fit the masses of people — primarily young people — who came to take part. Maria Goretti (1890-1902) was an Italian peasant girl who died at age 11 of stab wounds inflicted by a 20-year-old farm laborer, Alessandro Serenelli, when she refused his sexual advances. Before she died, she publicly forgave him. Another canonization first: Her mother and her killer were both present. Maria Goretti was a very contemporary saint. The speed of her canonization was, in its day, extraordinary: Daughters who attended it brought mothers who could have been Maria Goretti’s contemporaries. 

Pope Pius XII praised her as a “virgin-martyr,” “who did not hesitate to struggle and to suffer, to shed her life’s blood and to die with heroic courage in order to keep herself pure and to preserve the lily-white flowers of her virginity.” 

In the century and a quarter since Maria Goretti died and almost 75 years since her canonization, a lot has changed: some for the good, some less so. As we mark her feast, we might want to rethink some things about her life.

Pope Pius XII concentrated on her virginity. She died not just defending her purity, but also pushing back against her attacker because, as she said to him, what he wanted to do was a “mortal sin.”

“What” is a big word. 

Some feminists want to reframe Maria’s life from the focus on virginity to Maria as crime victim. They say that 11-year-olds, especially of that time, were not focused on sex so that what happened was a question of child sexual abuse, not one of chastity. They argue that rape is not a crime of sex but of force and violence. They claim that, in holding up Goretti as an example of giving up her life rather than her purity, the wrong message is sent to victims who do not resist to the point of death. Alessandro Serenelli did try to rape her: I don’t know if the legal category existed in Italy, but in the Anglo-American world, what he wanted to do would have been statutory rape. Rape is a sexual crime of violence, but that violence and crime is sexual. Perhaps 11-year-olds in early 20th-century rural Italy were more innocent, but while cultural mores may have been less permissive, one suspects a rural farm girl had some inkling of what sex involved, which is why she resisted her attacker. 

But her resistance was not just about her being violated; by her own words, she showed an awareness of and spiritual concern for her attacker’s spiritual welfare. Finally, what other women should do when faced with sexual attack is neither prejudged by Maria’s actions nor calls into question the heroism of her choice.

The Church has canonized many martyrs, including 20th-century ones, in defensum castitatis. Twelve years after Maria, 16-year-old Karolina Kózka and her father were seized and taken from their rural Polish village by a Russian soldier demanding the father lead them to where Austrian soldiers might be hiding. Reaching nearby woods, the soldier drove the father off and pushed Karolina into them. It took 16 days to find her partially nude body with a sword gash across her neck and the injuries to her bare feet as she tried to escape. She was canonized 35 years ago in 1987.

Forty-two years after Maria, 16-year-old Anna Kolesárová was shot by a Soviet soldier “liberating” her village of its goods and her virginity. When he ordered her to submit and she wouldn’t, the soldier shot her in her own house in front of her father. Her last words were “Jesus, Mary, Joseph!”

On June 12, Sister Paschalis and nine other Elizabethan Sisters were beatified in Poland “in defense of chastity.” The sisters were murdered at various times in 1945 by other Soviet “liberators” for attempting to protect their own chastity or that of others in their care. Among the items presented during the offertory procession of the Mass was a chalice from their chapel in Nysa, which soldiers had first used to drink and then used like a can for target-shooting practice. It bears traces of bullets.

Like Maria Goretti, these women all died from violence — sexual violence — and it was that aspect of the wrong being done to them they found particularly repugnant.Except for the sisters, all these other girls were minors, Maria Goretti being the youngest. Sexual abuse and violence toward minors is particularly malignant. Unfortunately, the Church has tolerated it grossly. The one act that brought down one of America’s most senior Churchmen, ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, was his sexual abuse of a minor. We can recoil at Soviet soldiers profaning a chalice. But we should also recoil at sexual abuse after Christmas midnight Mass in the sacristy of New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. 

Maria, Karolina and Anna all valued their virginity. How often is virginity disvalued, not just in our grooming culture, but by young women themselves? Don Williams, in a satirical-but-sad way, nailed that phenomenon in a line in an old country song: “I don’t think virginity is as common as it used to be.” 

One reason Goretti’s canonization moved outdoors was due to the throngs of Italian girls who came to it and declared, in a loud voice, that they took Maria for a patron. Would that happen today? If not, shouldn’t we ask, “Why not?” One hundred twenty years later, we can expand the aperture by which we look at Maria and other young women in defensum castitatis

Maria is a patron of virgins … and crime victims, especially youth victims, and the sexually abused. 

And she — together with Karolina and Anna — still have something to say to Catholic girls today.