María and Alessandro

A.D. 1902

Maria Goretti was born in 1890 at Corinaldo, a village some 30 miles from Ancona, the daughter of a farm-laborer, Luigi Goretti, and his wife Assunta Carlini. They had five other children, and in 1896 the family moved to Colle Gianturco, near Galiano, and later to Ferriere di Conca, not far from Nettuno in the Roman Campagna. Almost at once after settling down there, Luigi Goretti was stricken with malaria and died. His widow had to take up his work as best she could, but it was a hard struggle, and every small coin and bit of food had to be looked at twice. Of all the children none was more cheerful and encouraging to her mother than Maria, commonly called Marietta.

On a hot afternoon in July 1902 Maria was sitting at the top of the stairs in the cottage, mending a shirt. She was not yet quite 12 years old, and it must be remembered that in Italy girls mature earlier than in more northern countries. Presently a cart stopped outside, and a neighbor, a young man of 18 named Alessandro, ran up the stairs. He beckoned Maria into an adjoining bedroom; but this sort of thing had happened before, and she refused to go. Alessandro seized hold of her, pulled her in, and shut the door.

Maria struggled and tried to call for help, but she was being half-strangled and could only protest hoarsely, gasping that she would be killed rather than submit. Whereupon Alessandro half pulled her dress from her body and began striking at her blindly with a long dagger. She sank to the floor, crying out that she was being killed: Alessandro plunged the dagger into her back, and ran away.

An ambulance fetched Maria to the hospital, where it was seen at once that she could not possibly live. Her last hours were most touching--her concern for where her mother was going to sleep, her forgiveness of her murderer (and she now disclosed that she had long been going in fear of him, but did not like to say anything lest she cause trouble with his family), her childlike welcoming of holy Communion (viaticum). Some 24 hours after the assault, Maria Goretti died. Her mother, the parish priest of Nettuno, a Spanish noblewoman and two nuns, had watched by her bed all night.

Alessandro was sentenced to 30 years' penal servitude. For long he was surly, brutal and unrepentant. Then one night he had a dream or vision in which Maria Goretti appeared gathering flowers and offering them to him. From then on he was a changed man, and so exemplary a prisoner that at the end of 27 years he was released. His first act when free was to visit Maria's mother to beg her forgiveness.

Meanwhile the memory of the victim had become more and more revered. The sweetness and strength of her life before her untimely end was recalled, people prayed for her intercession in Heaven, answers, even miracles, were attributed to that intercession, and in response to a widespread wish the cause of her beatification was introduced. On April 27, 1947, Maria Goretti was declared blessed by Pope Pius XII. When he afterwards appeared on the balcony of St. Peter's he was accompanied by Maria's mother, Assunta Goretti, then 82 years old, together with two of Maria's sisters and a brother. Pilgrims came from all over Italy and the pope addressed them, presenting Blessed Maria as a new St. Agnes and calling down woe on the corrupters of chastity in press and theater and cinema and fashion-studio: "In our day," he said, "women have been thrown even into military service--with grave consequences." Three years later the same pope canonized Maria Goretti, in the piazza of St. Peters', before the biggest crowd ever assembled for a canonization. Her murderer was still alive.

Maria Goretti was killed in defense of a Christian virtue, and so was every bit as much a martyr as if she had died for the Christian faith. And it was Cardinal Salotti's opinion that, "even had she not been a martyr, she would still have been a saint, so holy was her everyday life."

The case of Maria Goretti seems to be unique among the lives of saints: at the time of the beatification her short and moving story was noticed in the newspaper press of the world, from the London Times downwards.