In the centenary year of the death of Maria Goretti we reprint with some minor adaptations an article written shortly after her canonisation in 1950. The lessons for 21st century Catholics are as valid today as they were then.
When writing an article on this child-saint, immense discretion is required if it is not to emerge either as a chocolate-box picture or an arid essay on “chastity as a positive heroic virtue”.
The simple facts of the saint’s life are easily related in a few words: Maria was bora on 16th October, 1890, the third child of seven, to poor peasants living in the neighbourhood of Corinaldo in the Province of Ancona. Owing to extreme poverty, the family migrated and finally landed up in a village called Ferriere di Conca, which is seven and a half miles from Nettuno, which itself is not far from Anzio.
In order to make both ends meet, Luigi, Maria’s father, entered into partnership and shared a house with a man called Serenelli. Serenelli had two sons, the younger of whom, Alessandro by name, plays a very important part in the story. Maria was aged eight and a half when the family settled in Ferriere; and she would appear to have been an unusually serious-minded and pious child from the start.
In addition to her unusual piety which had almost an adult quality – she would trudge for miles on foot for the privilege of hearing Mass and exhibit none of the usual signs of distraction – she had all the domestic virtues to a remarkable extent: she was generous and uncomplaining; she cheerfully undertook more than her fair share of the household chores, and acted as an additional mother to her younger brothers and sisters.
Maria Goretti’s radiant purity impressed all with whom she came in contact from the start; and it was this very quality that struck her subsequent murderer most of all. The nature and quality of purity will call for some analysis later. It should be stressed here, perhaps, that Maria Goretti was an outstandingly beautiful child, judged even by the standards of Italy, the country of beautiful children.
Alessandro Serenelli was by then a young man of twenty, passionate, selfish and undisciplined. There is no reason to suppose that he was the monster of depravity that some pious commentators would like to make out, for any hot-blooded man is in certain circumstances potentially a sex-murderer. Moreover, in the case with a certain kind of temperament, purity and innocence serve to stimulate rather than inhibit sexual desire.
It would seem that for some time prior to the final tragedy he had sought to attract Maria, but had succeeded only in arousing her alarm and disgust.
About a month before the murder, he attempted a serious sexual assault, but Maria managed to escape. However, he told her that he would certainly kill her if she breathed a word of this to her mother or to any one else; and Maria, who, although innocent, was by no means ignorant of the ways of the world in which she lived, knew that he was quite capable of carrying out his threat.
The crisis came on 5th July, 1902, the vigil of the feast of the Precious Blood. Owing to an unusual and unavoidable concatenation of circumstances, partly planned by Alessandro himself, who had provided himself with a dagger, the two found themselves alone in the house. Alessandro made it quite clear what he desired of her and threatened her with death if she refused to yield. Even at that moment, thinking more of Alessandro’s moral welfare than of her own danger, she tried to resist, saying, “No, no, no, God does not wish it. If you do that you’ll commit a sin, you’ll go to hell.” He thrust a handkerchief into her mouth to prevent her calling for help, pinioned her, and threatened her with his dagger. A mere nod indicating assent would have saved her life; material sin would have been committed, but there could be no moral theologian who would say that formal sin were involved so far as she was concerned.
The infuriated Alessandro struck with his dagger no less than fourteen times back and front. He left her a bleeding heap on the floor with her entrails protruding from one of the abdominal wounds.
The drive in the horse-drawn ambulance over the seven and a half miles of bad road to Nettuno must have been an agonising experience. The operation lasted for two hours or more, but all that the surgeons could do was to extend her life for another twenty hours. In that brief period, she became a Child of Mary, received the Last Sacrament and specifically forgave her murderer. When she died in the afternoon of 6th July 1902, she was ten days short of eleven years and nine months.
Maria Goretti was beatified in 1927 and canonised on 24th June 1950 amid scenes of unparalleled enthusiasm.
Alessandro narrowly escaped being lynched. He was tried in Rome, found guilty, and sentenced to thirty years’ penal servitude with hard labour.
It would seem that his attitude to his crime and punishment was one of cynical indifference for a number of years, but that by 1910 he had repented. The last three years of his sentence were remitted and he had the good sense and the good taste not to be present at the young Saint’s canonisation.
This is scarcely a story which is likely to appeal much to the non-Catholic world of the 21st century: Victorian melodrama, not even Greek tragedy! The villain repents after a dream of white lilies and the like, he is forgiven by the family of the murdered child, who is herself officially canonised with more than the usual splendour associated with such ceremonial! All this occurring in an age in which “a fate worse than death” has become a stale music-hall joke.
It is not enough to say that Maria Goretti acted almost reflexly in a state of acute panic since this is not borne out by the facts. It will be remembered that Alessandro made sexual advances to Maria on two previous occasions and the third time gave her plenty of time to choose between death and rape. Moreover, even one’s last reflective conduct at any given moment depends upon dispositions that have been laid down in the past; in other words, “virtue” is much more a matter of habit than an isolated instance. Human learning, in other words, customarily occurs in a social context. For this reason the impact of learning upon human sexuality is best understood within the frame of reference provided by the societies of which the individual is a member. Maria Goretti’s “frame of reference” was a Christian one; and within it she learned that “impurity” leads to the death of the soul. That is still the official Catholic teaching, although for non-Catholics it has come to mean less and less in this present age.
Similarly, modesty is a quality which depends on a passionately intense desire for personal integrity – integrity of body, mind and spirit. It is in the sexual situation that the right (and duty) to preserve the integrity of one’s own body is most apparent. Incidentally, bodily integrity can be also violated by gluttony and other bodily excesses and, interestingly enough, the acceptance of low sexual standards represents a kind of emotional greediness. People like Maria Goretti have an ever-present realisation that lightly to surrender one’s bodily integrity even to the most compelling needs of the moment upsets the whole rhythm of the universe. It is important to emphasise that Catholics, who are often ignorantly supposed to despise the body and its pleasures, in fact value these things so highly that the idea of the preservation of bodily integrity gives them their ultimate significance and excellence. The average non-Catholic who accommodates himself to lax sexual morals fondly believes that he has emancipated himself from out of date superstitions and archaic tabus whereas a practising Catholic who behaves in the same way at least realises that he is allying himself with the forces of vulgarity and disintegration.
Perhaps that is the chief reason why the canonisation of Maria Goretti at the height of the splendours of the Holy Year in 1950 strikes one as being particularly significant and timely. It came as a clarion call of protest against the hopeless dreariness of base personal standards. The decency, dignity and essential maturity of this child’s behaviour should appeal to all of us, simple or lettered, who feel that the times are indeed out of joint and who fear the future. Moreover, it is very fitting that a Church that claims to be universal should set its most impressive machinery in motion to honour an obscure child of the people. It is almost miraculous, or rather evidence of the continued guidance by the Holy Ghost of the See of Rome which never puts a foot down wrong in these matters that this Lyceum melodrama of Maria Goretti is now enabled to be played to crowded houses for all time until it is seen in its true proportions as an important Act in the drama of Life Eternal itself