The Patron Saint of teenage girls

May 02 2003 | by

THE RELIGIOUS celebrations for the centenary of the death of Saint Maria Goretti are coming to an end. This young Christian martyr, who at eleven years of age preferred death rather than offend God, continues to fascinate people in the twenty-first century. This year there has been an incredible number of visitors to the Shrine of Our Lady of Grace, in Nettuno, in the province of Rome, where the saint's body is found. 'Normally about a million people a year come to our shrine,' the rector explained to us, 'but this year there have been even more. The number of young people has increased too.'

The rector of the Shrine of St. Maria Goretti in Corinaldo, in the province of Ancona, the town where the saint was born, has noticed the same phenomenon.

Instinctive spirituality

This young girl's impoverished existence, goodness and the significance of her heroic gesture have been much discussed, as has the decision of the Church to declare her a saint.

Maria Goretti was exactly eleven years and ten months old when she was killed. She could neither read nor write, but she was rich in the instinctive and deep spirituality which is always found in the souls of the innocent. When a young man who was a family friend made advances towards her, she had the courage to face death rather than go against her principles. The drama unfolded on the afternoon of 5 July 1902, in the little village of Ferriere di Conca, 11 km from Nettuno in Lazio. She was stabbed 14 times.

Dozens of books and thousands of articles have been written about her. There is also a well-known film about her life called Heaven over the Marshes. In 1953, even Palmiro Togliatti, leader of the Italian Communist Party, became fascinated by this young girl, and didn't hesitate to propose her as a model for the Young Italian Communist Federation.

Humble background

Marietta, as she was called by her family, was born in Corinaldo, in the Marche region of Italy, on 16 October 1890. She was the third of seven brothers and sisters. Her parents, Luigi and Assunta, both illiterate, earned their living by working in the fields during the day. But it became more and more difficult to find work in their region so in 1896, they decided to move to Ferriere in the Pontine Marshes, near Nettuno. Malaria was prevalent in this unhealthy area. The Goretti family chose to take the risk for a few years. This move, however, proved fatal for the head of the family. At the beginning of 1900, at the age of 41, Luigi lost his life to malaria.

The responsibility for the family fell onto his widow's shoulders. Assunta was still a young woman, but sacrifice and hard work had hardened her, yet she had a big heart and a strong faith. She was helped by her eldest son, Angelo, who was 13 years old when his father died, and by Maria who was 10. They lived in a large country house which they shared with another family of farm labourers, the widower Giovanni Serenelli and his two sons Gaspare and Alessandro. The families practically lived together; lunch, dinner and their washing was all shared. Their bedrooms were next to one another.

Alessandro was 20 years old and an introverted and reserved boy. When he wasn't working in the fields, he used to lock himself in his room and read pornograhic magazines whose photos he stuck on his bedroom wall. Luigi Goretti didn't think very highly of this young man, and when he was struck with malaria, he said to his wife, 'If I die, try to return to our home town.' But this wasn't possible.

Fit, healthy, and full of energy, Maria was a well-developed girl for her age. She was not very tall but attractive. She worked like an adult in the fields and never complained. At home she looked after all the domestic chores and her youngest sister Teresa who was not yet 3 years old.

Eye witness account

In November 1971, I had the opportunity to meet Teresa Goretti, then 73 years old and a nun in the Order of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary. It was an extraordinary meeting. 'I am the only eye witness to my sister's martyrdom' she told me. 'When the assassin attacked my sister with the knife, I was a few metres away. I don't have a very clear recollection, but the image of my sister covered in blood has remained fixed in my mind.'

While Sr. Teresa Goretti has few personal recollections of that dramatic day, she was the only person in whom her mother later confided. Assunta withdrew into herself after the tragedy and stopped speaking to anyone. She only opened up with Teresa to whom she was very attached. 'Perhaps because I was so like Maria,' Sister Teresa told me. Ã’Even physically I looked like her. Everyone used to say we were identical, like twins.'

Sr. Teresa had thus heard the terrible tale many times as her mother often told it to her. She heard details which only her mother could know. I asked her to tell me all she could remember, and she did so with a touching simplicity. Here is the account of that conversation which I taped and then faithfully transcribed.

'Mother told me that 5 July 1902 was a very hot day in Nettuno. There was a lot of work on the farm. Nothing happened until midday. Alesssandro seemed more irritated than usual though. As soon as lunch was over, he said to Maria, 'On my bed, in my bedroom, there is a shirt which needs to be mended.' 'Alright,' replied my sister. Then, mother, Alessandro and the others prepared to return to work. Maria then went over to our mother and nearly in tears said, 'Mummy, don't leave me on my own.' Mother thought it was merely a whim on her part and told her off. 'Look after Teresa and let her sleep on the stair landing so that she can get some fresh air' she told her and then she left.'

Incapable of reason

'Mother and Alessandro were working in a farmyard nearby on that day. At about 3 p.m. Alessandro said to her, 'I have to return home for a minute.' 'O.K.' replied mother, and she continued working by herself. Maria was sitting on the stair landing, next to me, and she was repairing Alessandro's shirt. The young man arrived and went into his bedroom. He got changed into clean clothes and peered round his bedroom door and said to Maria: 'Come in.' 'No,' replied my sister, 'if you need something, you come here.' Alessandro lost his mind. He grabbed my sister and dragged her into his bedroom. He had been sharpening a knife for three days, and he seized it and threatened Maria with it. My sister would not submit and fought him with all her strength, repeating: 'Don't do it, Alessandro, it's a sin, you'll go to hell.' Alessandro was incapable of reason, and he repeatedly stabbed my sister. Maria had the strength to drag herself out of the bedroom and cry for help. When I saw her covered in blood, I got scared and began to cry loudly. My mother in the farmyard said to my brother Mariano 'Go and see why little Teresa is crying.' My crying was also heard by other people who lived on the same dairy farm. They ran to help and found Maria in a pool of blood.'

'The police and a doctor were called. My sister was taken to hospital in Nettuno by horse and carriage as there weren't any ambulances in those days. Maria was operated on in hospital, but to no avail. The murderer had struck her 14 times on her chest and stomach leaving her with fatal wounds. There was no hope for Maria.'

'However, my sister lived for another 24 hours, with our mother constantly by her side. She was fully conscious and suffered immensely, but never once complained. Only then did our mother learn that Alessandro had been pursuing Maria for some time and that he had made advances twice previously. 'Why didn't you tell me?' my mother asked Maria. 'Because Alessandro threatened to kill me and you too,' she replied.'

Divine forgiveness

'The priest, before giving her Communion said to her: 'Maria, I have to ask you something: are you prepared to forgive Alessandro?' 'Yes, I forgive him,' she replied. The priest repeated the question two more times and Maria continued to reply that she forgave him. The third time she added, 'Alessandro needs to ask the Lord for forgiveness, or else he'll go to hell.''

'Mother was a heroic woman' continued Sr. Teresa, having wiped the tears that ran down her lined face. 'That young man had killed her daughter, yet she forgave him straight away. Two days after the crime, mother was questioned by a judge who at a certain point asked her, 'Assunta, would you be prepared to forgive your daughter's killer?' 'I already have' answered my mother. 'But how?' replied the judge. 'If I were in your position, I would never forgive him.' 'The Lord forgave His persecutors and recommends we do the same,' replied my mother. 'Alessandro is one of God's children too.''

'Alessandro Serenelli was sentenced to 30 years in prison. He didn't get life imprisonment because he was underage. In prison, he converted. He had a vision of my sister who invited him to repent and to pray for the salvation of his soul. His sentence was reduced by three years for good behaviour. When he was released in 1929, he wrote to the parish priest of Corinaldo, where my mother was then living, asking if he could return to the town and ask for her forgiveness. The parish priest told my mother about Alessandro's wish and she replied, 'Of course he can. I forgave him years ago.' Alessandro arrived in Corinaldo on Christmas Eve and knocked on my mother's door. My mother answered, and when she saw him she felt bewildered for a minute, and then she managed to control herself. 'Assunta, do you recognise me?' Alessandro asked. 'I do, you're Alessandro,' she replied. 'Do you forgive me?' he asked. 'My daughter forgave you and so did I,' she murmured.'

'Alessandro stayed in Corinaldo for one week. On Christmas day, he went to Mass with my mother, and they took Communion side by side. My mother was a saint. The heroic way in which she forgave my sister's murderer made a great impression on me.'

The cause for the beatification of Maria Goretti began in 1935. On 27 April 1947, Pius XII declared her blessed, and she was canonised on 24 June 1950.

The Pope's devotion

Sr. Teresa showed me a photo of her mother, saying: 'It was taken on 24 June 1950, the exact day on which my sister was proclaimed a saint. A huge crowd arrived at St. Peter's, such as had never been seen before. It was an unforgettable occasion. Mother was in a wheelchair as she'd broken a leg. Everyone wanted to see her. The next day we visited the Pope. Pius XII wanted to speak to mother face to face. A cardinal accompanied the wheelchair to the door of the Pope's study, but Pius XII himself wanted to be the one to push the wheelchair next to his desk. The meeting lasted 55 minutes.''

'When mother left, she was moved but at peace. My sister Ersilia who was with her kept crying. Mother scolded her off, 'Don't cry!' she said. 'I didn't cry in front of the Pope. He was more emotional than I was. If I'd started crying, then he would have burst into tears too!''

'Pius XII was extremely devoted to my sister Maria. Just like Paul VI, who, while Secretary of State, used to go often to pray at my sister's tomb; he returned there as Pope too. In September 1969 in Nettuno, the newly restored chapel was inaugurated. Paul VI, who was on holiday in nearby Castelgandolfo, wanted to be present at the ceremony. After the holy Mass, he descended into the crypt and remained there for a while to pray. When he had finished, the parish priest introduced me to him saying 'This is Maria Goretti's sister.' The Pope shook my hand and blessing me he said, 'Now let's pray together.' He knelt down once again next to the casket, and both of us recited the 'Our Father' aloud.

Saint Maria Goretti's intervention

Many people visit the Shrines in Nettuno or Corinaldo as a testimony to the graces they have received thanks to St. Maria Goretti's intercession. One of the latest healings took place five years ago and was experienced by Maria Zammit, an English woman who is now 71 years old. From the age of 30, she suffered so badly from osteoarthritis that she was no longer able to stand up or walk. In October 1997, she was accompanied on pilgrimage to Nettuno and was healed. Her healing has been confirmed by scientific tests and a thorough medical report. Since that moment of grace, Maria Zammit has returned to Nettuno for a few days every year to thank the saint.

'Before 9 October 1997,' explains Maria Zammit 'my life was a calvary. I was immobile and spent whole days in bed. The relentless pain got worse and worse. My doctors had told me that there was no cure and that I would be stationary for the rest of my life.'

'I have always been very devoted to St. Maria Goretti,'she explained to us, 'and it was my wish to go on pilgrimage to places where she had lived, not to ask for grace or a healing, but just for devotion. With the help of friends and relatives, my dream came true. It was a dreadful trip. Every movement provoked terrible spasms in my legs which were as hard as rock. I tried to support myself on crutches, but I was only able to move around in a wheel chair with the help of my husband.'

'I visited Maria Goretti's tomb in the Shrine of Our Lady of Grace, and then was accompanied to Ferrieri di Conca, to the house where the young girl was attacked, which has since been turned into a chapel.'

'While I was sitting in this place, praying for my grandchildren, I felt inside of me, in a strange but distinct way, Maria Goretti's voice asking me why I didn't pray to be healed. I replied that I had never done so before, that I didn't know how to, and I asked her to pray for me and for healing. A few seconds later, I felt a shudder run through my back and legs, like a strong electric shock which almost knocked me off my seat.'

'Instinctively, I looked at my crutches which were in front of me, ready to get them if necessary. But while I was looking at them, a voice said, 'You don't need them anymore'. I felt myself being pushed into standing up, and without thinking about it, I did it. Incredibly, I realised that I could stand up on my own, which I hadn't managed to do in 30 years. My heart filled with joy, and I began to cry and shout out, 'I'm cured! I'm cured!' People gathered around, and they all were crying and moved. I walked to the altar without any pain whatsoever. I knelt down, kissed the ground and then left the chapel. I started running, entered a field and continued running without stopping. I felt so light, as if I were walking on clouds, rejuvenated, like a young girl.'

Updated on October 06 2016