A SAINT TO EMULATE
Margaret M. Breiling
St. Maria Goretti
"By the loving providence of God, we have assisted this evening at the supreme exaltation of a humble daughter of the people, in a ceremony whose solemnity and dignity are unique in the history of the Church.
For tonight's canonization has been held in this vast and inviting place of mystery, made for the occasion into a sacred temple whose vault is the open heaven that proclaims the glories of Almighty Goda choice for which you first expressed the desire before We had decided to make the disposition.
The concourse of the faithful coming here for the occasion, exceeds anything that has ever been witnessed at any other occasion. You have been lured here, we might almost say, by the entrancing beauty and intoxicating fragrance of this lily mantled with crimson whom we, only a moment ago, had the intense pleasure of inscribing in the roll of the saints; the sweet little martyr of purity, Maria Goretti."
Assunta Goretti, Maria's mother, must have had many thoughts and mixed emotions as she listened to His Holiness, Pope Pius XII deliver this homily. More than 250,000 people had gathered in the piazza, St. Peter's Square on the evening, June 24, 1950 to participate in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, to pray, and to honor Assuntas canonized daughter. Any mother would be transported back in time, the early days of marriage, young children, family, familiar surroundings...
...To the never-ending winter of 1897. The blustery Alpine cold whipped down along Italy's eastern edge. Italy's backbone, the Apennine Mountains, deflect all the warmth from the Mediterranean and the African Continent. Luigi Goretti, Assunta's hard working farmer husband, was discouraged. The pure mountain air, steep paths and craggy landscape were appealing. Even the beauty of the Adriatic could be seen from the church tower in their little village of Corinaldo. But it was not enticing now. Enduring the long winters of heavy snows and bitter cold wind while gathering precious fuel was no way to live. Luigi was a man of action. God helps those who help themselves. He wanted more for his family than the meager existence the mountains provided. Assunta felt a knot of fear and panic at the thought of leaving her ancestral home. But Luigi, in his youthful travels as a soldier, had seen what lay beyond the mountains. There was the milder Mediterranean climate, fertile plains, and a chance for a man to make a living for his family, rather than the constant battle against nature.
Luigi and Assunta packed what little they had, along with their four children, Angelo, nine, Maria, six, Marino, four and new born Allesandro. Across the Apennines they traveled, two hundred miles in two weeks, due westward on steep, treacherous mountain paths until at last the Roman Campagna spread before them.
Into the city they headed, overwhelmed by the size, the multitudes of people and a strange, noisy life. They found comfort inside the city's numerous churches, praying, lighting candles, imploring the saints for guidance that they would find fruit and not folly in their adventure.
By chance they learned of rich farm lands owned by Count Mazzoleni south west of the city near the coastal town of Nettuno. They were told to stop and inquire at Ferriere. The land could be rented reasonably, or perhaps worked on a profit-sharing basis. The family was eager to settle. The boys were becoming restless. Only Maria remained sweet and uncomplaining as the city pavement fell away to a landscape of vineyards, and fields of wheat and corn. But as they continued, the Mediterranean coastal plain was very different. The "fertile" farmland had to be wrestled away from marshes and swamps. The air was hot and always heavy and damp from the sea.
It was mid afternoon when they entered the village of Ferriere on the edge of the Pontine Marshes. Not a soul was on the street to greet them; no church, no shops.
The heat of the day was intense, the children thirsty and tired after the day's journey.
Luigi swallowed his disappointment as he knocked on a door. Looking around him he felt unwelcome, as if all the sidewalks had been pulled up and locked away.
Finally after several attempts to arouse someone, Luigi heard the slow shuffling of feet. An elderly woman unbolted the door and directed him in the direction of the Count's "estate": the "old cheese factory" at the end of town.
The Goretti's found the oblong two story building perched on a small rise surrounded by flat, swampy, treeless land. The outbuildings consisted of a shed, stable and hen house, abandoned, empty of all life. With minimal fuss and bother, the Goretti's became sharecroppers for Count Mazzoleni.
Assunta quickly took over the cares of the house and made it home for her family.
Luigi began to work immediately to make a success of his endeavor. His first project was to drain the neglected land. All summer he continued with tireless effort and by fall had tilled enough land to plant eight acres of wheat and barley. But the summer of backbreaking work, the change in climate and the proximity of the malarial-infested Pontine had put Luigi in grave danger. At first, he ignored a slight chill and fever. With so much to be done how could he rest? There was work at the quarry to patch the roadway, hedges to trim, firewood to secure, buildings and roofs to repair, lofts to clean, and task after task after task. A troublesome cough followed him day and night, but he never stopped.
Harvest time came and Count Mazzoleni came to inspect the yield. He found Goretti's grain half cut, limp in the fields. The Count angrily stormed into the house.
Luigi lay ill, prostrate with fever. He could only admit that he could not bring in the harvest by himself. Without waiting for further explanation, the Count said he would send Giovanni Serenelli and his son to complete the work for a share of the crop.
Luigi fought back bitter disappointment. Now he must share half his harvest and expect Assunta to care for two more people. How could he ask his lovely Assunta to do more? Already she was overburdened with his illness, the children, a new baby, and the cares of the farm. As Luigi and Assunta prayed together before retiring, Luigi knew he must tell Assunta, but first he must sleep.
Early the next morning, the Serenelli's arrived. Giovanni was a man about sixty and his youngest son, Alexander, was a strong and well-built young man of eighteen.
Giovanni hailed from Assunta's own country and spoke lovingly of the people and places that were dear to her heart. He also had a well-practiced and touching litany of his own miseries: his wife's death in the asylum and a son's confinement there, his other children following their own lives back home. He was now left with his youngest, destitute and alone, but willing to work with Luigifor half of the profits and a communal life with the Goretti's.
As the Serenelli's diligently began to work to get the harvest under control, a bit of joy returned to the Goretti household. Assunta prepared her best meals. The children were happily amused with Alexander's prowess at catching birds and making reed whistles. But as autumn's labors turned to the rainy, idle days of winter, the Serenelli's dispositions soured.
Giovanni had taken a liking to the strong, local wines and became irritable and overbearing. Alexander began to act vile, hostile and sullen, the result of years of maternal neglect and a youthful, depraved apprenticeship among the stevedores. He now shunned the children and spent his time locked in his room brooding over seamy magazines. Assunta discovered his hoard of pornographic books as she cleaned his room one day. She worried about Alexander's influence on her oldest son, Angelo, but unwilling to start a quarrel, she swallowed her first impulse to burn every piece of trash she found. Their home did not need more trouble. Luigi regretted their move from the mountains and especially repented of taking these two strangers into his home.
The malaria was doing its subtle job through the winter. As spring beckoned with endless work, Luigi attempted to meet its rigors uncomplainingly. He came in from the fields pallid and exhausted. Each night the children knelt about the bed in prayer; Luigi looked at his beautiful little Maria, with her limpid eyes and rosy cheeks. Why had he not noticed her maturity and grace? Silently she prayed and wept for her family. As April 1902 ended, so did Luigi's earthly life. As he lay surrounded by family and neighbors, he whispered haltingly to Assunta: "Go back to Corinaldo..."
Giovanni Serenelli became master of the farm. He was harsh and ruthless. He allowed Assunta and the children to stay and work for him. She desperately longed to go back to home and family, back to the fresh mountain life. She could not fulfill Luigi's dying wish now. A woman traveling over two hundred miles alone with seven young children and no money was unthinkable. Giovanni insisted Maria, now twelve, assume all the household duties while Assunta worked in the fields.
Her father's illness and death, the Serenelli's sinister cruelty, the never-ending labors of the farm had made Maria far too serious for her age. Her devotion to Jesus and her obedience to her mother was extraordinary. Even the other village children noticed her piety as she walked to town to sell eggs. It was with admiration and a touch of envy that they referred to Maria as "The Little Old Lady."
It was now July 1902. Only a few months before, Maria, though illiterate, had completed her Catechism instructions in order to receive her First Holy Communion.
How she had longed to take Jesus into her heart often! Once a week on Sunday just did not seem like enough. Maria managed the rigors of life because she had her Jesus for strength. This serious little girl had matured spiritually beyond her years, too.
Assunta noticed her young daughter's character changing. There was no childish playfulness left in Maria. The cares of the world clouded her eyes with sadness. Her night prayers become longer. She examined her conscience repeatedly for occasions of sin, her small body trembled with fear and bitter sobs. Alexander Serenelli had been stalking her for months now, prowling about with evil in his heart, threatening to kill her if she told a soul. She did not take Assunta into her confidence for fear of burdening her mother with more cares and creating more trouble with the Serenelli's.
The intense summer sun burned down on the farm yard. Assunta watched her children playfully helping with the threshing. She gazed upon them with intense love. They were her last joy left in this life. Maria was up on the porch outside of the kitchen, fingers flying with needle and thread, baby Theresa asleep at her feet.
Maria was lost in thought, too. She was rejoicing in eager anticipation of going to Mass. Tomorrow was Sunday and the Feast of the Precious Blood of Jesus. How she longed to share herself with Him in Confession and Communion. Then suddenly, Maria was startled by the sound of footsteps behind her. It was Alexander. He demanded she come into the kitchen. She froze in terror. Maria's silence further inflamed his foul passions. He grabbed her arm, dragged her into the kitchen, pressed a dagger to her throat and bolted the door. She fought him fiercely and screamed, "No! No Alexander! It is a sin. God forbids it. You will go to hell, Alexander. You will go to hell if you do it!" All went unseen and unheard.
Maria awoke with the sun streaming through the kitchen window. She heard the children playing and the monotonous sound of the threshing. The baby Theresa was crying at the edge of the porch. Maria attempted to lift herself to the open kitchen door. Her call for help was more a submission to the searing pain. A napping Giovanni heard the infant crying, and in an instant of exasperation for what he thought was Maria's neglect, headed up the stairs. His shout brought Assunta and the neighbors running, hearts pounding. They found Maria, tortured with pain, badly bruised and lying in a pool of blood. Assunta, recovering from shock questioned her sweet Maria, who answered, "It was Alexander, Mama... Because he wanted me to commit an awful sin and I would not."
Maria was laid tenderly on a bed while a neighbor summoned the ambulance.
Assunta tried to soothe her daughter's agony as the ambulance wagon bumped along on that torturous trip to the hospital in Nettuno. The doctors attempted to repair the extensive damage, but could give Assunta no encouragement. Maria unconsciously cried as she resisted Alexander's demands over and over. When she opened her eyes, they were transfixed upon the Statue of Our Lady placed at the foot of her bed. Awake she seemed to remember nothing of the previous day's horrors and wished only to know of the well being of her family. The parish priest came in to offer her Viaticum, but first she took time to reflect on the good Father's reminder that Jesus had pardoned those who had crucified Him. As she gazed at the crucifix on the far wall, she said without anger or resentment, "I, too, pardon him. I, too, wish that he could come some day and join me in heaven." Assunta's tears flowed hot and heavy as she gave her sweet Maria her last mortal mother's kiss. As the bells throughout the city were proclaiming the vespers hour, Jesus came to gather sweet Maria into His eternal protection, her reward for strength and virtue beyond her tender years.
Back to the Present
"...Why does this story move you even to tears? Why has Maria Goretti so quickly conquered your hearts, and taken first place in your affections?
Assunta listened as the Holy Father's words continued, "The reason is because there is still in this world, apparently sunk and immersed in the worship of pleasure, not only a meager little band of chosen souls who thirst for heaven and its pure airbut a crowd, nay, an immense multitude on whom the supernatural fragrance of Christian purity exercise an irresistible and reassuring fascination." Assunta must have found great joy in knowing that her sweet, little Maria could be a guiding force of goodness in the souls of youth. But on that July day, so many years ago...
Assunta Goretti, now eighty-two years old listened with two of her children at her side as the Holy Father concluded.
"During the past fifty years, coupled with what was often a weak reaction on the part of decent people, there has been a conspiracy of evil practices, propagating themselves in books and illustrations, in theaters and radio programs, in styles and clubs and on the beaches, trying to work their way into the hearts of the family and society, and doing their worst damage among the youth, even among those of the tenderest years in whom the possession of virtue is a natural inheritance.
"Dearly beloved youth, young men and women, who are the special object of the love of Jesus and of us, tell me, are you resolved to resist firmly, with the help of divine grace, against every attempt made to violate your chastity?
"You fathers and mothers, tell mein the presence of this vast multitude, and before the image of this young virgin who by her inviolate candor has stolen you hearts...in the presence of her mother who educated her to martyrdom and who, as much as she felt the bitterness of the outrage, is now moved with emotion as she invokes her tell me, are you ready to assume the solemn duty laid upon you to watch, as far as in you lies, over your sons and daughters, to preserve and defend them against so many dangers that surround them, and to keep them always far away from places where they might learn the practices of impiety and of moral perversion?
"Finally, all of you who are intently listening to our words, know that above the unhealthy marshes and filth of the world, stretches an immense heaven of beauty. It is the heaven which fascinated little Maria; the heaven to which she longed to ascend by the only road that leads there, which is, religion, the love of Christ, and the heroic observance of his Commandments.
"We greet you, O beautiful and lovable saint! Martyr on earth and angel in heaven, look down from your glory on this people, which loves you, which venerates, glorifies and exalts you. On your forehead you bear the full brilliant and victorious name of Christ. In your virginal countenance may be read the strength of your love and the constancy of your fidelity to your Divine Spouse. As his bride espoused in blood, you have traced in yourself His own image. To you, therefore, powerful intercessor with the Lamb of God, we entrust these our sons and daughters who are present here, and those countless others who are united with us in spirit. For while they admire our heroism, they are even more desirous of imitating your strength of faith and your inviolate purity of conduct. Fathers and mothers have recourse to you, asking you to help them in their task of education. In you, through our hand, the children and the young people will find a safe refuge, trusting that they shall be protected from every contamination, and be able to walk the highways of life with that serenity of spirit and deep joy which is the heritage of those who are pure of heart. Amen." (Homily of Pope Pius XII, June 24, 1950)
Assunta Goretti, unable to bear the weight of her daughter's murder alone, soon returned to her family in Corinaldo with her six remaining children.
Alexander Serenelli was quickly apprehended, tried and convicted of murder. He was sentenced to thirty years solitary confinement. His sour and uncooperative character changed approximately eight years after his incarceration. He claimed, under oath, that he had a dream of Maria gathering lilies. As she handed them to him, the lilies took on a heavenly radiance and he felt the peace of forgiveness. He became an exemplary prisoner and was freed from prison three years early. Maria and her mother had forgiven Alexander; however the community could not and he spent the rest of his days, an outcast, a gardener at local monasteries. He died at the age of 87, May 6, 1969 in a Capuchin Monastery.
Margie Breiling and her husband Hal home-school their three children in New Baltimore, MI.
Reprinted with permission from <Catholic Family's Magnificat>, October 1994-January 1995.