What does holiness cost? Many times it is our own life. In our effort to flee from sin, perhaps no doors would be opened before us. Is it an excuse to compromise with sin citing ‘compelling circumstances’? As for a Christian, there is only one option and it is standing against sin. Jesus taught us that if one’s hand or foot causes him to stumble, it is better for him to cut it off and throw it away so as to enter life though maimed or lame. Simple reason also tells us that entering eternal life maimed or lame is better than going into the lake of fire with all our organs intact. If your eyes tempt you to sin, Jesus has only one remedy to prescribe. Tear it out and throw it away! Our Lord was more concerned about eternal life. In fact he did not care about anything else during his public ministry.
Renouncing what we value the most is another name for martyrdom. This is what Paul the Apostle means when he calls on the believers ‘ to present their bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is their spiritual worship’ (Rom 12:1). Today we are thinking about somebody who truly worshipped the God by offering her body as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to Him. The martyrdom of Maria Goretti who valued holiness above everything else should provoke our Christian faith.
Maria had to suffer a cruel death at the hands of Alessandro, her neighbor. It was in 1902, some fifteen years before Our Lady appeared at Fatima and lamented about those innumerable souls going to hell because of the sins of the flesh, that this eleven year old girl had the guts to forfeit her life in this world so as to get it back in eternity. Even in the moments just before her death, Maria’s concern was about the fate of Alessandro. She was determined that she should enter the gates of paradise undefiled. She was equally determined that her abuser too should be there in heaven with her. This zeal for the salvation of a sinner who brought her untold hardships is what makes the life of Maria different. It is not out of place to infer that Our Lady had the wish of Maria in her mind while appearing at Fatima, where she stressed on the importance of keeping the virtue of chastity.
Maria was born into a peasant family as the third among six children on 16 October 1890. At that time their family was living in Corinaldo, a small village in the Ancona province of Italy. Her father succumbed to malaria when she was nine. Even while going through difficult times, her family never compromised on faith. Whenever time permitted, Maria used to visit the church of Our Lady of Grace situated in a neighboring village. Maria could not afford to spare the little amount required to offer a Holy Mass for her departed father. Instead, she made it a habit to offer a rosary every day for the repose of his soul.
Her mother Assunta took over the family business of sharecropping which yielded just what was required to make both ends meet. They were cultivating the land of a local landlord and their partner in farming was Giovanni Serenelli, who was clever enough to take the lion’s share of what their combined efforts fetched. His son, Alessandro was no better. His mind was tuned to evil and at every possible instance he used to approach Maria inviting her to sin. Brought up as a devout cathoic, Maria would tremble at this. She never submitted herself to anything bad, and enjoying the fruits of sin was unthinkable for her . Though worried about the frequent advances of Alessandro, she was more concerned about her family. Because of this reason, she did not tell anything about Alessandro to her mother.
On the fateful day of 5 July 1902, Maria was sitting in front of her little house and mending old clothes. Her siblings and mother were away working in the field. Her younger sister was sleeping inside. Alessandro was waiting for such an opportune moment. He approached Maria and forcibly took her to the bedroom. He wanted her to submit to his sinful wishes. Maria resisted all his attempts telling that it would be a sin and warned that he would go to hell. Alessandro persisted in his demand and threatened Maria with all his force. But Maria seemed unruffled. She would die a virgin rather than defiling her soul with the stain of a mortal sin. Enraged, Alessandro drew a knife and brutally stabbed the little girl eleven times. When she tried to run towards the door in an attempt to escape, Alessandro stabbed her three more times.
It was the beginning of horrendous pain and suffering for Maria that lasted another twenty hours. With fourteen deep wounds that lacerated her lungs, heart, intestine and other vital organs, Maria entered her ‘way of the cross’. When she was rushed to the hospital, doctors suggested an emergency surgery as a last resort to save her life. Little Maria had to undergo it without anesthesia. It added to her pain and suffering.
Midway through the procedure, the surgeon lost hope and with a deep sigh, he asked Maria; “Once you are in heaven, will you pray for me?” Maria replied with all her innocence; “But who is going to heaven first?” The surgeon replied with a sad look; “It is you, Maria.” She promised that she will pray for the surgeon from heaven. Moments before her death she was confronted with the most difficult question of her life. “Will you forgive Alessandro?” Maria did not hesitate even for a moment to reply. “For the love of Jesus, I forgive Alessandro. And I want him to be with me in heaven.”
It was getting late and angels were waiting impatiently for her sacrifice to be completed. On 6 July 1902, she left for her heavenly abode looking at an image of the Blessed Virgin and holding a crucifix tightly in her hands. She was only eleven years and eight months, but the way she faced death serenely was beyond what we expect from a girl of that age.
Maria continued to pray for the conversion of Alessandro, this time from heaven. But it did not yield any immediate results. That man was stubborn as usual, and he did not show even a remote sense of remorse for the heinous crime he committed. He was sentenced to a prison term of thirty years. In the eleventh year of his imprisonment, he had a strange dream. He was standing in a beautiful garden of lilies. There, a girl was plucking flowers. Alessandro immediately recognised the girl. It was Maria whom his knife pierced fourteen times. She gave him a bunch of lilies and encouraged him to accept it. When the flowers touched his hands, he felt as if a burning flame was placed on his hand. Alesandro woke up as a new man. His conversion was complete.
Alessandro was released after 28 years in prison. His first visit was to Assunta, Maria’s mother. He asked pardon from her, unsure of how she would respond. But she was the mother of Maria, who with all her heart forgave the person who abused and stabbed her brutally. Assunta forgave Alessandro telling how she could deny pardon to him when her daughter had no problem in forgiving him. For the next four decades, Alessandro lived a life of penance working as a gardener in a Capuchin Friars House as a lay member.
Forty eight years into the heroic act of sacrificing her life for defending the virtue of chastity, Pope Pius XII elevated Maria Goretti to the league of saints. Her canonization was on the twenty fourth of June 1950 and she was the youngest person in the history of the Church to be declared a saint. Her canonization ceremony was noteworthy for many reasons. Though frail and weak, Maria’s mother Assunta was present there, becoming the first mother to have witnessed the canonization of her daughter. As for the crowd that assembled at Rome to witness the ceremony, conservative estimates put the figure somewhere around half a million, a record in the history of the Catholic Church. Alessandro was part of the crowd and was watching the proceedings from a distance. Considering the large number of people eager to have a glimpse of the proceedings, the ceremony originally fixed at St Peter’s Basilica had to be moved to the more spacious St Peter’s Square.
It has been a century and two decades since Maria Goretti laid down her life to procure a rewarding life after death. Her life should inspire us and ignite in our hearts an ardent desire to keep our bodies pure. We are living in an age where sins against sixth and ninth commandments have multiplied in number and gravity. Impurity has swallowed our generation like a flood. Chastity is something that many in the world mock. In a society, where any kind of abomination is considered acceptable, the relevance of this little girl and the way in which she obeyed the Word, least fearing a brutal death, need not be emphasised more.
‘For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from fornication; that each one of you know how to control your own body in holiness and honor, not with lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one wrong or exploit a brother or sister in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, just as we have already told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness (1 Thess 4:3-7)
Maria Goretti knew that holiness was essential to enter the kingdom of heaven. Perhaps this is one thing that is missing in our generation. The media and entertainment industry have sown the seeds of impurity among our children making the lives of many, a repository of abominable things. Let us bring all such lives before the infinite mercy of God and pray for the intercession of Maria Goretti. May Jesus Christ, who was mocked, scourged and crucified so that we may inherit eternal life, cleanse all those who are entangled in the web of impurity.
Eleven years and eight months is but a small period of time. Most of us who read this will be above this age. For us, this is a time to introspect what we achieved by living longer. After all, we are going to be judged not by the years we lived on earth, but by the deeds that marked our life. Maria Goretti has given us a superb example to affirm that age is not a bar to please God. Let us pray:
‘O Saint Maria Goretti who did not hesitate even at the age of eleven to shed your blood and sacrifice life itself to defend your virginal purity, look graciously on the unhappy human race which has strayed away from the path of eternal salvation.
Teach us all, and especially our youth, with what courage and promptitude we should flee for the love of Jesus anything that could offend Him or stain our souls with sin.
Obtain for us from our Lord victory in temptation, comfort in sorrows, and the grace to live our life in holiness. May we one day enjoy with thee the imperishable glory of Heaven. Amen.’