Maria Goretti and the Grace of God

The only known photograph of Saint Maria Goretti, taken in 1902, just before her martyrdom. (wikipedia commons)

It was a day much like today, a hot, humid and sweltering July 6th in the year of our Lord 1902, in a small farming town in the fetid area outside of Rome, when a young girl – she had not yet attained full womanhood – of not-yet twelve years old was viciously stabbed fourteen times with an awl by an eighteen year old Alessandro Serenelli, enraged by frustrated lust, because she refused to submit to his sexual advances.

Maria’s family had fallen into poverty, made even worse when her father died of malaria. Maria, only nine but already wise beyond her years, would support her bereaved mother, saying often ‘Mother, be brave, God will help us.’ They ended up having to share a house, in the impoverished ancient village of Le Ferriere, with the Serenellis, and the teenaged Alessandro had made advances to Maria before, which she rebuffed. In the end, she said she would rather die than give in, for it would be a ‘mortal sin’, which would place Alessandro in proximate danger of hell, which isn’t talked about much nowadays.

Scripture in Psalm 91 speaks of the ‘noonday devil’, which in the tradition has come to signify the lust that arises in the heat of the day, often as a man takes his siesta. It is connected with sloth or acedia, a spiritual sadness that seeks solace in sensual pleasure, against which the early Fathers of the Church warned.  We see its tragic consequences in the story of King David in the Office of Readings in the past few days, as the bored king  -who should have been with his men off at war – listlessly wandering around the roof of his palace, when, ‘late one afternoon’, he voyeured the disrobed Bathsheeba bathing on the rooftop next door. We all know the adultery, murder and mayhem which followed.

Our world has accepted lust as normal – witness the debauchery of ‘Gay Pride’, drag queens and any university campus, or even, now high school or elementary school. We do not not even use the term anymore.  In fact, it seems any deviancy is fine so long as you have ‘adult consent’, but one need not ponder long to realize that ‘adult’ and ‘consent’ are rather vague terms, being defined ever lower, and lower…

Alessandro Serenelli was addicted to pornography, in the form it existed in early 20th century Italy, with photographs and drawings and his own interior imaginings – one can only wonder at what ‘smart’ phones have done to this entrenched vice.

The world has, of course, normalized pornography, with the feting of Hugh Hefner, his ‘Playboy’ mansion filled with beautiful sad and tragic women who know not their fate.  His deviant lifestyle is raconteured in rock songs and films, as something both alluring and humorous. Every guy ‘does  it’, so why not just accept it, bring it mainstream, make a profit, enshrine it as a profession.

But pornography, along with the lust it breeds and fosters, is always deleterious and harmful, a plague upon the soul and upon society. True enough, not everyone delving into porn becomes a would-be rapist, in the same way that not every smoker develops stage IV lung cancer. But smoking is always unhealthy.

The effects of porn and lust at a deep spiritual and psychological level open one to demonic influence. If chastity is defined as the “successful integration of sexuality within the person” (CCC, par. 2337), lust, its opposite, is the dis-integration of the person, to the point where he will even commit murder to get what he wants.  Besides deep hunger, nothing so motivates a man, and it is especially men, like the sexual drive.  And when it becomes detached from reason and virtue, the whole person unravels – and they will do evil things to get what they, or their passions, want.

Maria had been beloved in the small village – her industriousness, good humour, piety, radiant goodness, her beauty, spiritual and physical – endeared her to all who met her. We may suppose that God desired that she be in heaven sooner than one might expect, as happens with so many who go to heaven straight as an arrow, unlike the rest of us meandering souls.

Hence, the townsfolk, when Maria’s bleeding body was discovered, gathered to lynch Alessandro, and hang his body from the nearest lamppost, but the police intervened. Maria took 24 long hours to die, after an unsuccessful surgery, without anasthesia, which she bore patiently, to the amazement of the doctors and nurses, who were surprised she was even still alive, with puncture wounds in her throat, heart, diaphragm…She forgave her murderer before she passed into eternity, asking that he be in heaven with her.

Almost right away, there were miracles, which continued through the years. One of her brothers in the trenches of the First World War heard a voice that he should not follow the command to charge the Germans – he didn’t, and every member of his troop was killed. He went on to live to a ripe old age, with a large family.

But Maria also kept good on her promise to her would-be rapist and murderer.

Alessandro was sentenced to 30 years in prison, commuted from a possible life sentence, or even capital punishment, the leniency due to the difficult circumstances of his upbringing and the pleas of his mother. For years, he remained uncommunicative and unrepentant, until a providential meeting with his bishop and, more so, as he recounted, Maria herself appeared to him in a dream, giving him lilies, a sign of purity, which ‘burned in his hands’.

He slowly and gradually began to see the evil of what he had done, and at the end of his sentence, he went first to Maria’s mother Assunta to beg her forgiveness, which she granted. They went to Mass and received Communion together the next day. Alessandro joined the Capuchin Franciscans as a lay-brother, and spent the rest of his life in humble work, prayer and repentance. He was present with Maria’s family at her canonization in 1950 by Pius XII, where the crowds were such – half a million present – that the even spilled all through the piazza and into the streets of Rome. Alessandro, after a life of prayer and penance, died peacefully in 1970 at the age of 87. None of us is beyond the grace and mercy of God. As today’s Psalm (144/145) says,

The Lord is kind and full of compassion,
  slow to anger, abounding in love.
How good is the Lord to all,
  compassionate to all his creatures.

Pope Pius framed Maria’s witness this way in his homily:

From Maria’s story carefree children and young people with their zest for life can learn not to be led astray by attractive pleasures which are not only ephemeral and empty but also sinful. Instead they can fix their sights on achieving Christian moral perfection, however difficult and hazardous that course may prove. With determination and God’s help all of us can attain that goal by persistent effort and prayer.
  Not all of us are expected to die a martyr’s death, but we are all called to the pursuit of Christian virtue. This demands strength of character though it may not match that of this innocent girl. Still, a constant, persistent and relentless effort is asked of us right up to the moment of our death. This may be conceived as a slow steady martyrdom which Christ urged upon us when he said: The kingdom of heaven is set upon and laid waste by violent forces.

As a priest friend of mine mentioned, it is providential that the Pope put forward Maria Goretti as a ‘martyr for chastity’ at the very dawn of the sexual revolution, when all hell would quite literally break loose, a hell in which we are still living. The ironic thing is that the misuse of sex destroys the very pleasure, even the desire, for sex, as the disastrous effects of our modern ‘hook-up’ culture attests.

As we see in Alessandro, there is always time to repent while we live in this mortal coil. We should pray to Saint Maria that our culture may escape from the snares of the ‘noonday devil’, and recapture the joy of chastity and friendship, which is the only way to true sexual intimacy in the covenant of matrimony.  Anything else is a lie, which too many of us learn, if we learn at all, like Alessandro, the hard way.

Saint Maria Goretti, ora pro nobis!