St. Maria Goretti: A model of piety and fortitude during hardships

Painting of Saint Maria Goretti. Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in Poland. Shutterstock

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Deprivation. Isolation. Frustration. Loss of family. The selfish preying upon the needy and weak. Confinement made dangerous by violent company. At best, limited access to the sacraments. A total lack of access at worst.

This sounds like a description of life under COVID-19. Lives have been lost. Measures to limit the spread have caused economic hardship. Purveyors of immorality are trying to hook new users through unfettered access to pornography. Domestic abuse victims are sealed up with their abusers, while access to help has been severely compromised. Racial turmoil has roiled to the surface. With our churches once again open, immunocompromised Catholics must choose between the sacraments and protecting their lives long enough for a vaccine, herd immunity or some other miracle.

Whether we complain or embrace these difficulties, one courageous 11-year-old girl can probably relate more than most to life in 2020: St. Goretti, whose feast is celebrated July 6. Both she and her murderer shared harsh life circumstances. In the contrast between their choices, God shines a light on how we can let extraordinary hardship bring out our worst or our best.

Desires of the heart

St. Maria Goretti is best known as a saint of purity. She died in 1902 of stab wounds inflicted upon her by her would-be rapist. She fought him off not for the sake of her own soul but for his. She rebuked him with the words, “It is a sin! You will go to hell!” After her death, she appeared to her murderer in a dream. He converted on the spot and lived a life of virtue from that point forward. We hear often about her murderer’s desires, but when we take a closer look at the longings of Maria’s heart in the face of her hardships, we see how God can strengthen us through our unfulfilled longings.

Maria was born in abject poverty. She lost her father to disease. Starvation and homelessness were always just a breath away for the Goretti family. When Maria desperately wished to receive her first holy Communion, her mother despaired: Where would she learn her catechism, much less get the required white dress?

Rather than complain about her difficulties, Maria found a way. She traded chores for catechism lessons with literate neighbors. However, in the year between her first Eucharist and her murder, her remote location and an unavailability of confessors and Masses prevented her from receiving Eucharist again more than five times. Maria could have grumbled about not having things her way. Instead, she simply found life in her desire to receive Jesus.

Meanwhile, her murderer, Alessandro Serenelli, had been feeding his mind on pornography and spite. Lusting after Maria, he devised a way to use their isolation to his sick advantage. We can imagine that Alessandro’s bitterness only grew once his own father fell ill, weakened with the same malaria that had killed Maria’s father.

Alessandro complained, was isolated, and served himself. Maria sought the good in her bad circumstances. Resentful of the difficulties of his poverty-stricken life, Alessandro chose death. Maria, living through similar hardships, chose life for herself and even begged eternal life for her murderer.

Alessandro went to prison. God used Maria to reach him even there. When Alessandro dreamed of his victim offering him forgiveness, he woke a changed man. He described his conversion by saying, “As of that day, I no longer feel horrified by my life.”

Opening up

However you are feeling its effects, you are likely experiencing some pains resulting from the impact of COVID-19 on your life and relationships. You may be feeling angry about how access to the sacraments has not been handled the way you would have preferred. You may be feeling threatened by the myriad ways people around you have been living under shelter-in-place orders. You may have experienced loss of income or worse — the loss of family, friends, even the life of a loved one. You may believe you are unsafe and may not know where to turn. Justice may objectively be failing you. Whatever your interior experience of today’s exterior factors, you have the same choice offered to Maria Goretti and Alessandro Serenelli: life or death.

May the faith, hope and love of St. Maria Goretti — and, eventually, of Alessandro Serenelli — provide us an example of how God can purify our thwarted desires so that we set our eyes not on our present deprivations but on the all-comforting love God longs to share with us.

Erin McCole Cupp is the author of “The Broken Grown-up’s Guide to Joyful Family Life,” which is to be released by OSV in 2021. She writes from Pennsylvania.

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