“In a time that has increasingly stressed education as an indispensable need, she knew neither how to read nor how to write; but she knew better than others how to live and how to die.” —Marie Cecilia Buehrle.
Her life reads like a script for one of those gritty black and white peasant pictures — on the surface. An eleven year old Italian child, knowing nothing but hard labor, born of illiterate farm stock, herself unable to read or write, brutally stabbed to death resisting rape, her reputation attacked by her attacker — what could there be about her then to illumine our lives now?
October 16, 1890 — July 2, 1902
She was born October 16, 1890, in Corinaldo, a little town in Ancona, a province of Northern Italy on the Adriatic, the third of seven children of Assunta and Luigi Goretti. When Maria was six, her father, realizing he could not support his growing family on the barren countryside, took them south, toward Rome, believing that in the rich warm farmlands of the Mediterranean he would find a more prosperous living. It took them weeks, by ox cart, and they found on arrival the rich farm lands, but in low-lying malaria country.
Luigi became a share-cropper of Count Mazzoleni at Ferriere and lived with his family in the cascina antica , the old cheese factory, an oblong building set on a rise of ground in a swampy farm. Since his portion of land had been neglected, Luigi spent himself digging ditches, preparing the land for sowing, repairing the roofs, cleaning lofts, and finally sowing eight acres in barley and wheat. By harvest time he had worn himself out and should have hired help, but he knew that if he could bring in his crop alone he could better provide for his family. However, malaria was taking its toll and Count Mazzoleni brought two men to help him: Giovanni Serenelli and his 18 year old son, Alessandro.
The Serenellis were from Ancona, and using their common background as a wedge, Giovanni insisted that he and his son move into the home of the Gorettis. He played on their sympathy, telling how his wife had died in an insane asylum and one son was still there. He wanted a home for himself and young Alessandro. They were penniless.
Giovanni, under the play for sympathy, was shrewd. He told Luigi that the Count had proposed sharing work and profits on a fifty-fifty basis, and refused to discuss details. He and his son moved into the Goretti home, making extra work for Assunta and Maria, who fed them, washed and mended their clothes, kept their rooms.
Fortunately, a good harvest was gathered and, during the weeks of the heavy work, all went well. But with winter the men were confined indoors and Giovanni spent his money on wine and became irritable and overbearing. His son Alessandro turned to lurid magazines and decorated the walls of his room with pornography. Assunta was shocked when she saw them, but knowing complaints would make their lives more difficult, she kept the knowledge even from her husband. Luigi began to suspect Giovanni of selling grain from their common store and tried to separate the lots of the two families, but Giovanni and his son opposed him. Already weakened by the malaria that would sap his life, Luigi Goretti could not stand up to them. And life in the cascina antica deteriorated.
By the end of April, 1900, Luigi was in the throes of the four terrors of the marches: malaria, typhus, meningitis and pneumonia. He died May 6th, the feast of the Beloved Apostle before the Latin Gate, his last words were for Assunta: “Go back to Corinaldo. Take the children and go — Assunta mia .”
It was not possible. Giovanni was now in control, Assunta was penniless. He gave her an ultimatum: unless she took Luigi’s place in the fields and Maria took her place in the household, he would turn them out. With no place to go, no money, Assunta, responsible for six children, the eldest thirteen year old Angelo, could only submit to Serenelli’s unreasonable demands. And this man, in complete charge of all their lives, increased his tyranny, keeping the key to the cupboard so that there was never enough for the Gorettis to eat. Maria, now a child of ten was doing the work of a grown woman, suffering hunger and mortification daily, for Giovanni continually found fault with everything she did. She suffered in silence, knowing complaints would only enrage Giovanni and increase her mother’s difficulties.
Although the first harvest after Luigi’s death had been good, when Assunta paid the landlord and Serenelli demanded his share, she was fifteen lire in debt! All her work and Angelo’s and Maria’s, and she could not feed her children!
For two years this continued, a time of utter misery, of unceasing labor and deprivation. Assunta was driven like a slave under Giovanni, and he continually found fault with Maria. Neither could speak out, for to oppose Giovanni was to make him worse. So they endured, for each other.
Then in June, 1902, Alessandro changed toward Maria. He became increasingly aware of her loveliness and, his mind inflamed with the pornography with which he had surrounded himself, he began first to flatter her and then urge her to give in to him. Sensing rather than understanding his meaning, at the beginning, she repulsed him and he threatened her with death if she told Assunta. Although she was alert to avoid being alone with him and ignored his open taunting, she lived with increasing terror of the hour when he would find her alone and helpless.
It came quickly. Alessandro planned it well. Her mother in the fields…his father asleep in the shade beside the house. Maria, trapped alone in the kitchen, struggled to avoid sin; finally, forced to choose between death and sin, she chose death, and it was a terrible death. Alessandro ripped her body fourteen times with a sharp blade and left her bleeding and unconscious.
While no effort could have saved her, the long delays in getting help increased her suffering. It was over an hour before she was discovered by Giovanni. At his calling Assunta rushed in from the field. Then a neighbor was sent to Nettuno for a doctor. The doctor asked for an ambulance, which arrived at six o’clock — Maria had been bleeding since two o’clock. Then seven miles over rough road in the horse-drawn vehicle, every jolt ripping her body with fresh pain. She endured this, as she endured all things, without complaints. Then the surgeons were afraid to give her an anesthetic, and, for the second time that day, knives cut into her body. The next day she died.
That is the brief story of her life, on the natural plane. What the scientists would call the facts.
“Marriage…nothing less than cooperation with the Creator in populating Heaven.” —B. G. Sandburst
But the facts , of course, do not explain her sainthood. She is in a special way a child of the church and a Child of Mary in the Age of Mary. She belongs to the Age of LaSalette, Lourdes, and Fatima and, like the children of those Apparitions, she is the voice of Mary recalling the church to Prayer and Penance and Heroic Virtue. In addition, it was her special vocation to live the uncompromising absolute: to choose to die rather than to sin, and to become the shining lovely saint of Purity. Everything in her life prepared her to be the special instrument of the Holy Virgin.
She was born in October, the month of the Rosary, Assunta and Luigi had been certain that the Virgin would send them a little girl, and they named her for the Madonna, consecrated her to the Madonna, and Assunta asked that she be baptized the day after her birth: so that at the earliest possible moment she might be free of Original Sin. Luigi agreed. To them, Original Sin was a fact.
Also, to Assunta and Luigi marriage was, in fact , a Sacrament and a Vocation — a calling to sanctity. Theirs was a profound love, “at first sight and last,” which deepened through respect, admiration and sacrifice. Their children, the fruit of their love, raised in the circle of their love, responded with love and obedience. And their spiritual life was daily enriched when each evening Luigi led them in saying the Rosary. The Rosary of Holy Mary, which kept the facts of Christ’s life daily before them close to God and His Mother.
Assunta was Maria’s teacher. She could neither read nor write, but she understood her religion and she taught Maria what she knew; to love God, to die rather than offend Him. In her summation: “I taught her the fear of God and God did the rest.”
So Maria’s sainthood had its beginnings in the love of her parents, the sanctity of their marriage, and the knowledge of her religion.
“The greatest grace a man can have under Heaven is to know how to live well with those among whom he dwells.” —Blessed Giles of Assisi
But no matter how well one is taught, no matter what Graces are offered, the life of virtue must be lived , emotional responses must be trained, challenges must be met daily, and after Luigi’s death Maria’s life was a strong preparing for her sainthood, which she accepted and embraced.
It was not just the uncomplaining acceptance of long hours of hard labor daily and of the substitution of the Serenellis’ snarling domination for the loving concern of Luigi for his wife and children, that helped her prepare, but her additional, unasked sacrifices: giving her own portions of food to her mother and brothers and sisters, trying to keep the children joyful at all times, relieving her mother of every possible chore she could, teaching the children the Bible stories Assunta had taught her, that they might grow in love and understanding of Jesus — on these Maria’s sanctity fed.
But she desired more. In June, 1900, although she was only ten, and twelve was the accepted age for First Holy Communion, Maria desired to receive her Lord, and began a preparation that lasted eleven months. Since she could neither read nor write she could not learn the Catechism, then a requisite. But she found a well-to-do woman who needed a girl for housework and she made a bargain: she would do the housework mornings if the woman would teach her the catechism. It meant getting up at 3 o’clock in the morning to do her own housework, then walking seven miles to work and study at Nettuno, and walking back seven miles in time to finish the chores at home. She did this every day for six weeks, then was able to join the First communion Class at Our Lady of Grace in Nettuno. During this time of study, she intensified her piety and recollection, her obedience to her mother, her care of her brothers and sisters, her nightly examination of conscience.
And on the beautiful Feast of Corpus Christi, 1902, Maria received her First Holy communion.
The priest spoke to the children on Purity, on avoiding sin, and added: “A Catholic will always rather die than sin against God.” When, after Mass, he gave each child a little Rosary and asked what they had desired of Jesus at Holy communion, the others asked for good homes, good husbands, but Maria startled the priest when she replied: “I asked to receive Jesus again.” So he gave her permission to receive the following three Sundays and on the Feast of the Precious Blood. This was before
St. Pius X encouraged Catholics to receive Holy communion frequently and the laity received only three or four times a year!
So the priest who told her to die rather than sin, and then granted her request to receive again and again, was one of the instruments of Holy Mother Church to strengthen her for martyrdom.
And it came fast, only days after Corpus Christi. Maria was stabbed on the afternoon of the Vigil of the Precious Blood and died on the Feast Day.
Although she was dying a martyr for Purity, the church, in the person of the same priest who gave her First Holy communion (and was privileged to give her Last), asked of her a second martyrdom: Charity. It was after the hospital chaplain had hung a Medal of the child of Mary with its blue ribbon around her neck (the symbol of her consecration to the Virgin by her parents at birth) and the priest saw the sudden strength it gave her, that he reminded her of Christ’s forgiving the penitent thief with the generous promise: “This day thou shalt be with Me in paradise” and he asked: “Mariettina, do you forgive your murderer with all your heart?” She replied instantly that she did, and she added: “And I want him to be with me in paradise.”
“…to the radiant and serene dawn where she is…” —Alessandro
Probably only a saint of Purity and Charity and only a saint who was still a child could have prayed from the heart that Alessandro be with her in Heaven. For his life was the antithesis of her. As Maria was educated by her mother and taught to avoid sin, Alessandro was educated by his father, initiated by him into tavern obscenities and pornography. While Maria’s eyes fell daily on a crucifix and a picture of the Madonna, Alessandro’s fell on the explicit and ugly sex pictures that lined the walls of his room.
Yet, in this strange drama of the 20th Century child saint, Alessandro plays finally the penitent. He suffered and did penance for sixty-seven years after he murdered Maria Goretti.
At first, on trial for his life, he tried to save himself by accusing her of having willingly succumbed to him many times and that this last time, after having teased him to madness, she had refused him. To save his life, he would destroy her character — but the medical evidence was against him. He pleaded temporary insanity. The court knew he was lying, but because of his youth and the insanity in his family, instead of death his sentence was thirty years in prison, the first three in solitary confinement.
He endured the solitary, where guards came three times a day to make certain none of the prisoners had committed suicide. Of the others in solitary those three years, three killed themselves and six went mad. Yet Alessandro survived.
During this time he blamed Maria for this misfortune and when priests tried to get him to retract the lies he had told about her he responded with lies more vulgar, more vicious, more obscene. It was important to have a retraction from him because the number of miracles that had come from Maria’s intercession from the time of her burial had caused the Passionists to try to promote her case in Rome, and they were handicapped by the sensationalism of the trial. Maria’s name had been in every tabloid paper in Italy and Europe, for realizing that her Purity and martyrdom had a strong influence for good, the anticlerical forces joined the Serenellis to blacken her name and try to destroy her influence.
Then, in 1908, six years after her death, Maria came to Alessandro in a dream or a vision, so real, it was for him reality. His prison cell was transformed into a beautiful garden filled with fragrant flowers and surprising masses of lilies. A figure in white was gathering the lilies. She turned to him and he cried out: “Maria! Oh, Mariettina!” and she came to him, carrying an armful of white lilies, which she handed to him, one by one, each representing a wound he had inflicted don her. And she repeated her dying wish that one day his soul would reach her in Heaven.
From that time Alessandro was a model prisoner, who served twenty-seven of this thirty years. He retracted his story of the killing, swore that Maria was not only entirely innocent and died protecting her Virtue, but that during the attack she was concerned with the soul of her attacker. It was his testimony that cleared the way for her beatification , for only he was witness to her innocence.
When he was released from prison in 1929, he tried to work, but no matter how hard he labored or how conscientiously, as soon as his story was known he had to move on. Feeling against the assassin of the saint ran high, and it was to protect his life that Pope Pius XI forbade him to come within fifty mile of Rome. Eventually he found peace as a gardener in a Capuchin monastery and as a lay brother of the Secular Third Order. His favorite flower was the lily.
But Alessandro could not be entirely at peace until he had seen Assunta. He knew she had forgiven him, but he wanted to hear it from her and to ask her forgiveness. So on a Christmas Eve he went to the rectory of Our Lady of Sorrows in Corinaldo, where she was the housekeeper. Not only did she forgive him, but she took him to her home, with her daughter Ersilia, where he was made welcome, and where it was easy for him to speak of his prison life and his vision of Maria. At Christmas Mass he and Assunta knelt side by side to receive Holy Communion — the mother of the saint, the penitent of the saint.
For if Maria’s sanctity was the fruit of Holy Mother church, equally was the repentance of Alessandro. When Maria came to him in the vision it was not to save him, but to show him that the Gate of Heaven was open and that beyond it she waited. It was for him to come to her, and he did. He could not restore the life he had taken, but he could make reparation. He publicly retracted all he had publicly said against her. He restored her reputation. He laid the foundation for her canonization, her earthly glory. Now the Church could hold up to its youth the example of Saint Maria Goretti, and many have been, and, pray God, will be, attracted by her Purity and strengthened by her prayers.
For Alessandro those long years of repentance passed slowly and, at the end, painfully. But from the time of his reparation he did not doubt that his soul would be saved by his repentance, because he had a saint in Heaven praying for him. And certainly something of her loveliness and Grace entered into his life, for there is a lifetime of penance between the Alessandro who killed her and the Alessandro who said: “Each night I pray, awaiting the promise the little girl made on her deathbed to receive me in paradise, that soon I will leave this mortal flesh and rise to the radiant and serene dawn where she is — in the Kingdom of God.”
“Each generation is taught by an earlier generation…if we are skeptical we shall teach only skepticism to our pupils, if fools only folly, if vulgar only vulgarity, if saints sanctity, if heroes heroism…Nothing which was not in the teachers can flow from them into the pupils.” —C. S. Lewis
Because the church first taught her, Assunta could in turn teach Maria how to live and how to die. And she did. And her reward: to be the first mother ever to be present at the canonization of her child! a just reward.
Reading and writing are fine, if properly used. Alessandro could read, but what he read prepared him to murder a child. Assunta and Maria could not read, but they understood the laws of God and the laws of His church and obeyed them. In this they were educated, in this they were civilized — Alessandro was not.
In 1950, at her canonization, Pope Pius XII spoke of the “conspiracy of evil practices” then damaging youth and urged the young to turn to Maria for help and inspiration. And he also urged all parents to turn to the mother “who educated her to martyrdom.”
So Assunta and Maria, unlettered peasants, have become models for the only education that matters: how to live and how to die.