Maria Goretti (1890-1902) was an Italian girl who died after being sexually attacked at the age of 11. In 1950 she was canonised by Pope Pius XII.
The third of six children of a peasant farmer, Maria was born on October 16 at Corinaldo, some 35 miles inland from Ancona on the Adriatic coast. Life was always a struggle, especially after her father had been reduced to working as a casual labourer.
In 1899 he died of malaria, and the family moved to the village of Le Ferrière, about 18 miles south of Rome. Throughout all their tribulations the Gorettis remained strongly attached to the Faith; and Maria received her first Communion in January 1901.
From infancy the children all helped with the household tasks. Maria looked after the house and her younger siblings when her mother went out to work. The Goretti shared living quarters with another family, the Serenelli, whose son, Alessandro, a farmhand aged 20 in 1902, took an unhealthy interest in Maria. At first he merely pestered her. Then, in the afternoon of July 5, 1902, he turned violent and tried to rape her.
Maria fought him off desperately. “No,” she cried, “it is a sin. God does not want it.” When she insisted that she would die rather than submit, Alessandro seized an awl and stabbed her 14 times.
He then ran off, leaving the grievously injured Maria to be discovered by his father and her mother. Doctors at the nearest hospital did their best, but within a day Maria was dead.
Although in great pain during those last hours, her innate goodness shone through, as she worried about where her mother would stay the night, and declared that she forgave her murderer and hoped to see him in heaven.
Alessandro Serenelli was sentenced to 30 years hard labour, and for some years seemed to be viciously unrepentant.
Then, around 1908, he experienced a vision of Maria in which she handed him 14 lilies, thought to be representative of the number of wounds she had suffered.
From that day onwards Alessandro proved a model prisoner. Released in 1927, he found a place as a gardener and lay-brother in a Capuchin monastery. He made his peace with Maria’s mother, and in 1950 attended Maria’s canonisation in the company of her family.
“Always esteem and love purity and virginity,” Pope Pius proclaimed in his address. “Do not be afraid to reject the world’s idols by showing that you belong to a chaste and poor Christ.”
Alessandro Serenelli reinforced this message before he died in 1970, issuing a statement in which he attributed his youthful crime in part to the evil influence of the Press, which had offered titillation in place of true morality.