Defying the efforts of emperors, kings, popes and engineers to eliminate them, the fetid, malodorous Pontine Marshes — disease-ridden, brackish waters 10-16 miles wide — for 23 centuries lay southeast of Rome. Benito Mussolini not only made the trains run on time, in 1928 he finally succeeded in draining the Pontine Marshes. Reclaiming the land, “Il Duce” built low-cost housing and settled families there. The Lazio region is now a thriving community, producing crops in abundance.
Twenty-six years before, farmers and hired hands sweltered and sweated working acreage adjoining the marshes. On a muggy, hot July 5, 1902, 20-year-old Alessandro Serenelli excuses himself to return to the home he shares with his father, Giovanni. Both are foulmouthed louts. Giovanni loves his grappa to take his mind off work; Alessandro enjoys garishly- colored photos of scantily- clad women. Paradoxically, they board with a loving, pious family, the Gorettis.
The young man brushes past his drunken father asleep on the back stoop.
Longing for “the Hidden Jesus”
In 1900, Luigi and Assunta Goretti traveled from northern Italy with their six children to Le Ferriere di Conca, a village in Lazio, hoping to find a farm for their own. Luigi’s efforts come to naught. He accepted an offer to sharecrop for Count Mazzolini, a nobleman attempting to reclaim his decaying estate from the encroaching Pontine swamp.
An old cheese factory became the Goretti home. The family takes in the Serenellis as lodgers. A year passes. Malaria kills Luigi. Assunta assumes his place in the fields alongside her sons.
The pretty 10 year-old, Maria, takes over the housecleaning, cooks meals, and minds the toddler. Every few days she trudges to the town of Nettuno, two miles away, with baskets of eggs for sale. Adults are charmed by her winning smile and cheerful demeanor.
Visiting a neighbor in Ferriere, Maria tells of her longing for “the hidden Jesus” in the Blessed Sacrament. Since Maria can’t read, her young friend offers to teach her the catechism. Maria learns basic Catholic teaching so swiftly she’s able to receive First Holy Communion on June 16, 1901 at the age of 10, a year earlier than was customary.
“No! It’s a sin!”
A year later, Alessandro has entered the house. Maria is sewing; her little brother and a neighbor baby sleep nearby. Bluntly, the young man tells Maria what he wants. She refuses. It’s not the first time. She remained silent when the young man threatened to kill her and her mother.
Alessandro is past talking. Maria runs to the kitchen. Trying to drag her out he kicks shut the backdoor. She fights him. “No! It’s a sin!” she yells. “God does not want it. You’ll go to hell!” Alessandro notices a butcher knife.
He stabs the girl eight times and runs upstairs to his room. Maria drags herself across the floor, manages to open the backdoor and screams for help. Alessandro hears her and returns. Another six times he stabs her then flees the house.
The babies are crying.
Their cries waken Giovanni. Knowing nothing of the assault, he finds Maria in a pool of blood. Assunta hastens in from the field. Maria tells her about Alessandro. Count Mazzolini has a horse-drawn ambulance convey her to the hospital in Nettuno. Even cradled in her mother’s arms, each jounce along the dirt road brings a new pain.
A crowd gathers. The parish priest hears Maria’s confession. Throughout the night doctors work on her injuries. Fearing she’ll not waken, Maria’s given no anesthetic. Fever wracks her body but she’s allowed no water since her lungs and abdomen are punctured. Come morning, the priest returns. He asks the girl if she forgives Alessandro.
“Through love of Jesus, I forgive him with all my heart!” Maria cries. Upon seeing the Sacred Host, her Holy Viaticum, Maria exclaims, “It’s Jesus! I shall soon see him in heaven!” She dies offering her Calvary, 24 hours of unmitigated agony, for her murderer and all other sinners.
A number of miracles are reported having occurred at Maria’s grave. She is beatified in 1947.
At his trial, the sullen Alessandro defiantly claims the girl wanted sex with him but changed her mind. No one believes him. A minor, Alessandro escapes life imprisonment. He is sentenced to 30 years behind bars.
Six years pass and Alessandro stubbornly maintains his story about Maria until, in a dream, he sees her bathed in celestial light handing him a bouquet of 14 lilies — one for each of the wounds she received. Soon after, Bishop Blandini of Nettuno visits the prison. Alessandro learns how Maria forgave him as she died. Overcome, the young man drops his swagger, falls to his knees, makes his confession, and publicly repudiates his allegations of Maria’s complicity. A profoundly changed Alessandro becomes a model prisoner and is released three years early.
First thing, Alessandro goes to Assunta Goretti. They had been corresponding. Now, in person, he begs the mother’s forgiveness.
“Maria forgave you from her deathbed,” Assunta replies. “How can I do less?”
Martyr for Purity
On June 24, 1950, a ceremony takes place that is unique in church annals. For the first time, the papal throne is placed on the porch of St. Peter’s Basilica so a holy one may be announced in the great piazza.
Some 250,000 believers witness Pope Pius XII raise to the altar the girl from the Pontine Marshes. He solemnly proclaims her St. Maria Goretti: martyr for purity; patroness of rape victims; intercessor for the poverty-stricken; the model for youth.
In a special box seat, accompanied by her four surviving children and their families, Assunta Goretti takes it all in. Dressed in somber black, she is the first mother ever to witness her child so honored by the Church of Rome. July 6, the day of her death, is declared Maria’s feast day throughout the Universal Church.
At the time, Maria is the youngest person ever canonized. Hanging above the pope, from the balcony in the basilica’s façade, a tapestry banner bearing her likeness wafts gently in the warm breeze.
Alessandro Serenelli did not attend. Working as a gardener and, later, as a receptionist at a Capuchin monastery, he became a lay brother in the Third Order of St. Francis. By all accounts, he lead an exemplary life. A month shy of his 88th birthday in 1970, Alessandro died, praying for all young people to live for Jesus and resist the blandishments of evil.
In a fascinating turn of events, an effort to open the cause for Alessandro’s canonization has begun, of all places, at the Church of Our Lady of Peace in Nettuno, Italy where St. Maria’s body is enshrined. Changes of heart were known to occur when persecutors became converts in the church’s early centuries. Nonetheless, it would still be a unique event if the pope were to canonize the murderer of a canonized saint.
A disconnect with faith?
A girl resists a sexual encounter and is murdered. Her murderer spends his life in humility atoning for his sin. How foreign this story sounds to our ears a century later.
Holy Mother Church’s teaching on sexual purity remains the same. Her belief in the reality of the eucharistic Jesus is unchanged; yet both are taking quite a beating in the present culture of death.
For two entire generations, Catholics have been mucking through Pontine Marshes of immorality and widespread mockery of Christian values affecting Western Civilization. Worse, Catholics in America have become lukewarm, indifferent to statistics regarding casual sex and abortion on demand. Nor are they scandalized by the many legislators assenting to and vigorously defending immoral laws while loudly asserting their Catholicism. What kind of disconnect is going on here?
Let us pray that, through the intercession of St. Maria Goretti, modern society will gain a new appreciation for the virtues of purity, chastity and modesty. And let us also pray for the grace to forgive those who have wounded us as readily as she did.
(Sean M. Wright is part of the RCIA team of Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in Santa Clarita, CA. An Emmy-nominated television writer, he is also a Master Catechist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He replies to comments sent him at Locksley69@aol.com.)