She is a patron saint of purity, and she draws millions today in a time of great impurity. In a deeply cynical age, many of her most ardent devotees around the world are young people.
Now, her relics — encased in the same glass coffin where her mother last laid eyes on her — are being venerated by capacity crowds around America. (For those in Chicago, they will be at St John Cantius Church where a Solemn Pontifical Mass in Latin will be celebrated by Bishop Joseph Perry on October 12.)
But who was Maria Goretti, the Church's youngest canonized saint?
She was the daughter of a desperately poor, sharecropping Italian family.
In 1897 Maria Goretti's father moved his young family across Italy, away from their roots in Ancona to tiny Le Ferriere di Conca, about 40 miles south of Rome. He hoped to escape the grinding poverty that was gripping their native area by working on a nobleman's farm there. But three years later, Luigi Goretti died of malaria. Now his family was alone in a strange place, without a husband and father to provide for and protect them.
In this time of trial and suffering, nine year old Maria bravely shouldered the responsibility of raising her five siblings while her mother, Assunta, worked in the fields. She had to also cook and clean for their two next door neighbors–Giovanni Serenelli and his son, Alessandro.
Soon, Maria became the target of the big 20-year-old Alessandro.
Alessandro himself had been born into a family well acquainted with poverty and hardship. Shortly after he was born, his own mother attempted to drown him. Several months later, while in a mental asylum, she died. His brother would also be subsequently interned in an asylum, where he also died.
Alessandro’s father, Giovanni, was an alcoholic who moved his family multiple times trying to earn a living as a manual laborer. Unfortunately, his alcoholism prevented his holding down a job for very long. While working as a sharecropper near Ancona, he'd met Luigi Goretti and they'd decided to attempt to work as a team. It was Count Mazzoleni, a wealthy nobleman who owned much land around Le Ferriere, who'd agreed to hire them both as sharecroppers. He provided a building to house the Gorettis on one side and the two Serenellis on the other, the two living quarters being separated by a common kitchen.
But when Luigi Goretti died, Giovanni Serenelli sank deeper into alcoholism. His son Alessandro, in turn, became increasingly reclusive and withdrawn.
Sexual abuse and murder
At first Alessandro would make lewd jokes and gestures towards Maria, whispering rude, embarrassing things. When she was only eleven, he began making direct sexual advances, demanding her virginity and threatening her with violence.
Maria knew he was capable of this and so was careful never to be alone with him. But Alessandro eventually devised a plan to force her into submission: he would approach the house in the middle of the day–when Maria would be alone and everyone else would be at work in the fields–and rape her.
When Maria found herself trapped in the house alone with Alessandro, she resisted him with all her strength. Enraged, he made good on his threats and brutally stabbed Maria repeatedly with a metal file, delivering 14 puncture wounds. Maria died the next day from an agonizing infection of these wounds.
Her last words were, “I forgive Alessandro Serenelli … and I want him with me in heaven forever.” The small 11 year old girl was buried in the cemetery at Nessuno on July 8, 1902.
Her murderer in prison
Alessandro was sentenced to 30 years in prison. At his trial, he blamed Maria for her own death claiming that he was defending himself from a sexual attack that she herself instigated. In prison he was locked in isolation as his anger would lead to outbursts of physical violence against other inmates.
What happened next is where the miracles begin. Six years into his prison sentence Alessandro reported that Maria Goretti appeared to him, in a garden picking 14 white lilies — a classical symbol of purity, also symbolizing her wounds — and handing them to him, one by one. This gesture of forgiveness, this act of love, filled Alessandro with contrition for his crime.
Alessandro finished the rest of his sentence in tranquility. In fact, his behavior became so docile, and the transformation of his person was so dramatic, that he was released three years early.
Shortly after Alessandro's release he sought and received the forgiveness of Maria’s mother. In fact, Assunta actually adopted him into her own family. He eventually joined the Capuchin Franciscans and, as a lay brother, worked as a gardener, porter, and general laborer. He died in the peace of Christ, with the love and admiration of those that knew him, at the Cappuchin convent at Macerata, Italy, on May 6, 1970.
But before his death Alessandro Serenelli wrote an open letter to the world.
Maria becomes a Saint
Maria's story galvanized Catholics. She was canonized on June 24, 1950 by Pope Pius XII in St. Peter’s Square, with her mother, Assunta in attendance.
Having died at the age of 11, she is the youngest canonized saint in the Catholic Church’s long and storied history. The attendance at her canonization exceeded one half million people, the largest of any canonization up to that time. It was a crowd so large that for the first time in its history, St. Peter’s Basilica—the largest church in the world—could not be used for a canonization Mass, because it was too small to hold the faithful who desired to witness the event. Thus, St. Maria’s canonization was moved to St. Peter’s Square — the first open air canonization in history.
Seeing Maria's relics
Today, Maria Goretti is known as a wonder-worker. She has intervened with the Lord to produce many miracles, and this October countless thousands are lining up in America's churches and prisons to view her relics.
But what are relics and why do Catholics revere them? Many people misunderstand this ancient practice of the Church, which derives from the time of the Roman martyrs. (For more information on relics click here.)
Everywhere her relics have traveled in the USA, she has received treatment fitting any dignitary.
“A 26 police car motorcade escorted the body of St. Maria Goretti into Manhattan,” said Fr. Carlos Martins, the director of the national tour of St. Maria Goretti's relics. “St. Maria received every VIP treatment in a coordinated effect between the New York State Police, the New York Highway Patrol, and the New York Police Department. In a truly historic moment the world famous 5th Avenue, one of the most busy and prominent streets in New York, was closed so that St. Maria could make a grand entrance. In life St. Maria was known as nothing but a peasant girl. Now, she is treated as royalty.”
U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security has assigned six federal agents to safeguard her major relics in the USA, while a Chicago Police escort will accompany the remains as they travel to St. John Cantius Church. There will also be a special Chicago Police honor guard during her stay.
“God never disappoints,” said Father Martins about the expositions, “He always ‘shows up' at an exposition. There are healings at each one. Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, have been reported to me. Spectacular ones. Attendees have reported cancer, heart disease, tumors, osteoporosis, physical deformities, etc., disappear immediately and completely.”
Though a great number of miracles have been physical, he admits that the most spectacular is the healing of faith where a new and deeper relationship with God and His saints are formed in the faithful.
St. Maria Goretti's first visit in the US was to Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in New York, where the inmates had the opportunity to venerate the relics of the “Little Saint of Mercy”—seeking the forgiveness that this 11 year old girl witnessed as she forgave her murderer with her last breath.
For Catholics who visit Maria's relics on this tour, the Vatican has granted a plenary indulgence under the usual conditions.