MARIA GORETTI (1890-1902)
St. Maria Goretti was the third of seven children born to poor peasant parents in Italy in 1890.Her father died of malaria when she was only seven years of age. They then had to move to a different area in the country and share a house with another family. While the mother and the older children worked in the fields, Maria Goretti looked after the home and her baby sister. She had no opportunity of going to school. A young man of eighteen from the other family tried to seduce her on a number of occasions but she always resisted.
Finally when she was still three months short of her twelfth birthday, and when there was no adult in the vicinity, he again attacked her. As he tried to rape her she screamed and shouted that she would never give in to him. She said, “No, it is a sin, God does not want it”. He then took a long knife and stabbed her 14 times before running away. Maria Goretti was rushed to hospital but died the following day. Before she died she forgave her attacker saying she wanted to have him in heaven with her.
Her attacker was sent to gaol for 27 years. Soon after going there, the saint appeared to him in a dream and again forgave him. He underwent a deep conversion and after his release he became a Capuchin lay brother. He asked for her mother’s forgiveness which she willingly gave saying, “If my daughter can forgive him who am I to refuse forgiveness?” He prayed to Maria every day. He was present along with the Saint’s mother and her brothers and sisters, at the canonisation ceremony conducted by Pope Pius X11 in Rome on 24th June 1950.
A Role Model for Youth
This popular saint was really only a child when she offered her life as a martyr for chastity. She is a model for all young people. At her canonisation the Pope said that there are many people who want to live chaste and pure lives like Maria Goretti. He spoke of “an immense multitude on whom the supernatural fragrance of Christian purity, exercises an irresistible and reassuring fascination”. Despite the sexual revolution of the sixties and the continuing breakdown in sexual morality, many young people especially those influenced by the World Youth Day celebrations, are searching for genuine love and are prepared to make sacrifices for it.
According to St. John Paul 11, “young people are always searching for the beauty in love. They want their love to be beautiful. If they give in to weakness … in the depths of their hearts they still desire a beautiful and pure love …Ultimately they know only God can give them this love. As a result they are willing to follow Christ without caring about the sacrifices this may entail” (“Crossing the Threshold of Hope” P.123). This was the love which enabled St. Maria Goretti to make the choice to defend her virginity. In the words of Pope Pius X11, “Sustained by divine grace and the response of the firm resolution of her will, she laid down her life and preserved her glorious virginity”.
The victims of rape and sexual assault can approach this young saint with great confidence as a true friend, who fully understands their suffering and humiliation. They can rest assured that through her powerful intercession, they will be greatly helped on their slow and painful journey to recovery and healing.
Rape and Sexual Abuse
Rape and sexual abuse seem to be on the increase around the world and particularly here in South Africa. A newspaper report a couple of years ago about rape in Diepsloot Township is very disturbing. It quotes one of the residents who was involved in helping rape victims as saying, “Rape is a normal part of life … most rapists don’t think they are doing anything wrong, they think it is their right to rape”. (Mail and Guardian, 2-8 Oct. 2017). This appalling attitude is confirmed by research, which also shows that one in every three young South Africans is sexually abused (Optimus Studies, Cape Town University).
The widespread breakdown in sexual morality and the family fuels this kind of barbaric behaviour. The modern secularist worldview sees no need for God or religion or moral norms to guide people’s lives. It promotes a kind of secular morality which sees the human body as a thing or object, which people can use or misuse as they wish. Sexuality in particular is a free-for-all area where people can do as they please.
This godless vision of sexuality is very widely and aggressively promoted in today’s world, with little or no respect for people’s deeply held religious and cultural values. Many of the textbooks used in schools for sex education, have the effect of encouraging children to become sexually active, by teaching them about the use of condoms and contraceptives and their right to abortion. Children as young as ten or eleven years of age are being exposed to pornography. It should surprise nobody that the rates of rape and sexual abuse keep on increasing.
Important Role of Parents
The parents of St. Maria Goretti were ordinary, simple, poor, decent people with very little if any formal education. But they did have the greatest treasure of all, the beautiful gift of faith which they passed on to their children. The young saint grew up in that faith, knowing that she must always do what pleases God and avoid what was evil and sinful. When the great challenge came she was prepared to die for the faith.
At the canonisation Pope Pius X11 made a strong appeal to parents to pass on the faith to their children. He said, “Let fathers and mothers learn that they should bring up the children given them by God, in a truly holy and steadfast manner and bring them up in the tenets of the Catholic faith; so that when their virtue is endangered they may, by the grace of God, emerge from the struggle unconquered, pure and unsullied”.
That appeal to parents made nearly seventy years ago is even more relevant at the present time, because of the ever increasing challenges to the faith in the modern world. Parents have to become more convinced of their role not only as natural parents but also as spiritual parents. This means that they have the obligation and privilege of passing on the faith to their children especially by their example, like the parents of St. Maria Goretti. St. John Paul 11 often spoke of the family as the domestic church, where parents should talk to their children about God and his great love for them, pray with them, and teach them about love and about what is right and wrong. Religious symbols by creating a Christian atmosphere in the home, are a big help in passing on the faith to children.
Formation in the Virtue of Chastity
The example of St. Maria Goretti, the widespread breakdown in sexual morality and family, with the high rates of rape and sexual abuse of young people, all point to the urgent need for better formation in the virtue of chastity. A couple of hundred years ago the Irish politician, Edmund Burke, made the often quoted statement, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”. In this whole area of morality there is a great need for good people to act. They have to be really good people themselves who truly know, believe and practice what is morally right and good. They need to be actively involved especially in their own families in living and promoting the virtue of chastity.
People can get a lot of help from the Catechism. It has a section entitled “The Vocation of Chastity” (2337-2359). It says “Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being” (23337). This integration involves the proper understanding of sexuality. Its fundamental meaning and purpose is to bring new life into the world through the union of man and woman, in collaboration with God who creates the human soul. The love meaning of the marital act strengthens the bond of union between the husband and wife, to help them and their children on the road to holiness of life. The Catechism stresses the need for discipline and self-mastery for the practice of chastity both in the married and single states.
As well as the Catechism, the church also has a great treasure in St. John Paul 11“s “The Theology of the Body” for promoting the virtue of chastity. It is the fruit of many years of pastoral experience with young people, and of deep study and reflection on the whole area of human love. Over the past twenty years this attractive and challenging teaching has been popularized especially by lay people such as Christopher West, Jason Evert, Mary Healy and Dominic Baster. It is gradually finding its way into more and more homes and parishes around the world.