July 6: Saint Maria Goretti, Virgin and Martyr

Optional Memorial; Liturgical Color: Red
Patron Saint of rape victims and teenage girls


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The family of today’s saint was so poor that they farmed other people’s fields. They lost their own land and became migrant laborers who ate what they grew and harvested, their rough fingers rarely touching a coin or printed money. It was a hardship for the parents to house, feed, clothe, and educate their seven children. And then things got bad. The father died of malaria. The family was now forced to share a modest home with another family, and the mother had to work the fields alongside her children day in and day out. In the midst of all this cruel hardship, tragedy struck.

Maria typically stayed home to cook, clean, sew, and care for her baby sister. It was while she was alone with the baby at home one day, mending a shirt of Alessandro’s, the teenage boy of the family that shared the house, that Maria was attacked. Alessandro had returned—and he wasn’t looking for his shirt. It was not the first time he had imposed himself on eleven-year-old Maria. And it was not the first time she had refused. She tried to stop him again. She screamed that it was a mortal sin. She yelled that he would go to hell. Alessandro didn’t care. She ran for the door, but it was too late. He stabbed her multiple times in the throat, heart, and lungs.

Little Maria was brought to the hospital where doctors tried in vain to save her life. Before dying, she revealed to her mother, and to the police, for the first time, that Alessandro had tried to rape her twice before. Since he had threatened her with death if she told anyone, she had kept silent. Before succumbing to her wounds, Maria forgave her attacker and said she wanted Alessandro to one day be with her in paradise. Maria’s last twenty-four hours were dramatic. She explicitly chose death rather than to allow another’s mortal sin. She suffered sexual violence like so many female martyrs of the early Church. And on her deathbed, with her body weakening, she forgave her murderer. This was all extraordinary. This was the stuff of saints.

Maria Goretti was canonized in 1950 by Pope Pius XII in St. Peter’s Square in Rome. The huge number of the faithful made it impossible to say the Mass inside St. Peter’s Basilica. Maria’s mother and siblings were at the canonization, as was Alessandro. After initially refusing to communicate with anyone about the murder, he opened up to a local bishop who took the time to visit him in jail. Alessandro told the bishop he had a dream in which Maria presented him with lilies, symbols of purity. But the lovely flowers scorched his hands as soon as he touched them. He later asked Maria’s mother, Assunta, forgiveness for his crime. Like her daughter, she forgave him. Alessandro served twenty-seven years of his thirty-year sentence. After being released, he became a lay Franciscan and served as a gardener in a monastery until his death.

Saint Maria showed uncommon maturity for her age. Her poor, rugged life in the fields, and her father’s early death, made life itself serious very early on. Starving people are not frivolous. Death, suffering, poverty, migration, and loss figured prominently in her life before she ever even attended school. She knew no comfort apart from the closeness of family life and the security of faith. When she chose to give up her life rather than participate in another’s sin, she was not saying goodbye to a beautiful house, creature comforts, or earthly possessions. She had the clothes on her back and sanctifying grace in her soul. Nothing else. That grace was the secret possession she would not trade for life itself. She kept a tight grip on her soul, and God rewarded her tenacity by granting her life in heaven with Him forever.

Saint Maria Goretti, mature beyond your years, inspire all young people to value purity and chastity as God-given gifts. Help them to follow your example in valuing virtue over vice, love of God over love of man, and a rich future in heaven over a poor future on earth. Amen.

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