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The Patron Saint of Little Girls

There is a saint assigned to each of the 365 days a year throughout the Catholic dioceses of the world including the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. Depending on what day of the week the feast day falls, it may not be recognized in any given year. An example of this involves Good Friday, last celebrated on April 18, 2014. This holy day falls on a different date each year, and rather than focus on the saint of the day, the attention is entirely on the Passion of Jesus Christ. (St Apollonius, a teacher and martyr is among those honored on April 18 in most years.)

Except in some circumstances regarding specific holy days, the Sunday liturgy is celebrated in place of any saint’s feast day. Such is the case this year on July 6, when the Church recognizes the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, rather than the feast day of St Maria Goretti. Because of her connection to the modern Church and to abused young people, mostly girls, the tragic story of this lovely girl breathes to be told.

In 1995, singer Collin Raye released I Think About You, written by Don Schlitz and Steve Seskin. The ‘you’ he is thinking about could be his little girl…or someone else’s. He recalls that every time he sees a billboard sign with a woman selling liquor (or herself) or every time he sees an actress playing Lolita to some old man’s dream, that woman is someone’s little girl. Jesus was very clear about what happens to those who lead children to sin: it would be better that he/she have a millstone around their neck and be drowned in the sea. (Matthew 18:6) Maria was a tragic victim, but in her story, one will also find great faith and forgiveness.

Maria Goretti was the third of seven children born to a poor Italian tenant farming family. Around the beginning of the Twentieth Century, they were forced to set up the home/work at Anzio, a place that, in 1944, would become the staging ground for the invasion of Europe against the Nazis and their Italian allies.

The Goretti family was sharing a residence with another when Maria’s father passed from this life. As her mother and siblings took over the work in the field, the nine year old girl assumed the duties of the household, while keeping up her faith and her prayers. Marie physically and mentally matured over the next two years. One contemporary described her as a large girl when she celebrated her First Communion at 11. She could cook and sew, and served the needs of both families. Eighteen year old Alessandro Serenelli, son of her father’s partner watched the girl over those months with lascivious intent.

One day, it was reported that she was sitting on a porch step repairing a shirt of Alessandro’s, when he approached the house. The two were alone, and he saw his opportunity. The young man forced the girl inside and attempted to rape her. He first threatened her with death, but she did not back down. All accounts say that Maria told her attacker, “No! It is a sin. God does not want it.” He became frightened and attempted to silence her, which resulted in her being stabbed a number of times.

Alessandro ran away, but the girl did not die immediately. She was discovered by her mother and Alessandro’s father and taken to a hospital. Extensive surgery was performed, but the doctors were unable to repair vital organs that had been severed. On July 6, 1902, Maria Goretti died after forgiving her attacker and telling bystanders that she hoped to see him again in heaven. She was just three months short of her twelfth birthday.

Alessandro confirmed the story at his trial and also at the inquiry for Maria’s cause for canonization in later years. He said that he had attempted to seduce the girl before, but she refused, and never reported him because she didn’t want to see trouble befall his family. He added that the foul deed was never completed and Maria died still a virgin. Then Alessandro was sentenced to thirty years in jail. For the next eight years he remained unrepentant.

Religious came to visit Alessandro in his cell. On one such occasion, he revealed to a bishop that he had seen a vision of Maria. She came to him with lilies that burned his skin, and repeated her forgiveness of his grave sin. The young man became devoutly religious himself, including his victim in his daily prayers. After twenty-seven years in prison, he was released and went right away to Maria’s mother to beg for forgiveness, which the righteous woman surely gave.

On June 24, 1950, Maria Goretti was canonized a saint. Her mother, her four living siblings, and he murderer were in attendance. Such an audience is unique in the annals of canonization. Along with her assailant, evidence had been given by her three living brothers, who testified to Maria’s miraculous intervention in their lives. Pope Pius XII called her the St Agnes of the twentieth century, referring to the fourth century martyr, who was known as the patron saint of girls. Maria would also be the patron of rape victims. In all, her canonization was attending by around half a million, many of whom were youth. Alessandro Serenelli maintained his new found life and became a lay brother with the Franciscan Capuchins, where he remained until his peaceful death in 1970.

Perhaps it was hearing Collin Raye decrying the commercial abuse of young girls, or maybe it was from being a Catholic school student in the mid-1950s, when her story was most widespread. The fate of Maria Goretti rings true and heartbreaking to this father of a little girl. Whether it’s at the Mexican border or in the streets of our big cities, whether by forced poverty, hardship, or abuse, those who put children in harms way will be called on by God to answer for their deeds. Jesus said so.

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