Last fall, in the wake of sexual-assault allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, women around the world—and some men—took to social media to share their own such stories. The #MeToo movement emerged, shedding light on an often hidden social plague.
But this phenomenon of disrespect for women’s sexual boundaries is not new; nor did it only begin with the sexual revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. In fact, the turn-of-the-century saint whose feast we celebrate today was herself a victim of sexual harassment and assault.
Maria Goretti was born on October 16, 1890, the third child of a large Italian peasant family. The family lived in desperate poverty, made worse when Maria’s father died of malaria when she was nine. As the eldest daughter, Maria was set in charge of her youngest siblings while her mother and other siblings worked in the fields.
The family then became acquainted with the Serenellis, a father and son with whom they shared a rented house. The son, twenty-year-old Alessandro, was by his own account caught up in the thought of wicked pleasures. More than once, for at least a year, he tried to coerce young Maria into sexual acts, which she refused. Upon his threats of harm, though, she did not report his harassment. Finally, on the afternoon of July 5, 1902, Alessandro threatened Maria with a weapon. She fought him, and in retaliation he choked her and stabbed her fourteen times. He ran off, leaving Maria bleeding to death on the floor and her baby sister crying nearby.
When Maria was found by her mother and Alessandro’s father, she was taken to the hospital for treatment. According to the reports, she endured horrific surgery and didn’t receive adequate anesthesia from the pharmacist, who is said to have asked her to remember him in paradise even before the young girl fully understood she was going to die. Maria asked about her mother’s welfare, and was given a picture of the Virgin Mary and a crucifix to hold. She died about twenty-four hours after the initial attack.
There are the stories that Maria forgave Alessandro on her deathbed and stated that she wanted him to join her in heaven. Some sources state that these statements were made upon prodding by her priest. If so, that doesn’t mean Maria didn’t actually forgive Alessandro or that her words were false. But perhaps she might not have spontaneously thought on her deathbed to forgive Alessandro.
We mainly remember St. Maria Goretti by how she died, not by how she lived. Unlike most saints, whose entire life stories we often know in detail, not much attention is focused on how Maria lived but on those few minutes when she fought her attacker for her life. Whether the focus is on her defending her chastity, or whether the focus is on her screaming to Alessandro that he would go to hell if he persisted, the focus is on that final, heroic struggle.
I think if we want see St. Maria as she lived—freed at last from the burdens of poverty, adult responsibility at a young age, and the fear of assault and sin—we have to look at an episode that took place after her earthly life was over. It’s perhaps the one episode in the known history of Maria’s life when we see her fully human, fully alive. Perhaps it may offer some hope for peace and reconciliation for modern survivors of sexual harassment and assault.
Alessandro, as he testified later, was unrepentant for his actions for several years during his imprisonment. Then one night he had a vision. Reports generally agree that this is what happened:
While in prison for his crime, Alessandro had a vision of Maria. He saw a garden where a young girl, dressed in white, gathered lilies. She smiled, came near him, and encouraged him to accept an armful of the lilies. As he took them, each lily transformed into a still white flame. Maria then disappeared. This vision of Maria led to Alessandro’s conversion, and he later testified at her cause for beatification.
There are several noteworthy details from Maria’s posthumous supernatural encounter with her killer:
- Maria was clothed in white and appeared in a garden tending flowers that traditionally symbolize innocence and sexual purity.
- Maria smiled at Alessandro, greeting him as one might an old friend. She no longer feared him.
- Maria approached Alessandro of her own volition and offered him a chance for reconciliation with her and to be restored to his own original innocence and sexual purity.
- This vision was a free gift to Alessandro, not the result of pious prodding from others.
Alessandro accepted the grace offered him through this vision and reformed his life. After his release from prison, he begged forgiveness from Maria’s mother (which was granted). He retired to a Franciscan friary and spent the remainder of his life in service as a gardener and porter. The Franciscans ultimately allowed Alessandro to become a lay brother.
Nonetheless, even if Alessandro had rejected this grace, the vision alone shows us the real Maria. We can see in it the not-quite twelve-year-old child, the girl who finally lived fully in life beyond death—no longer a victim but entirely free to be the saint the Church recognized she was when she was canonized in 1950.
St. Maria Goretti, pray for us.