Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Moral Theology of St. Maria Goretti

 As a homeschooling Mom and a theology student, I am learning new theology lessons all the time. What is amazing to me is that it is through examining the lives of the saints that I have learned the most profound lessons in theology. In their witness we see the truths of God and the doctrines of the church come to life in vivid detail. When my children begin to view their catechism lessons as “boring”, all I need to do is pull out a video or story of a saint and immediately I have a rapt audience, eager to soak in all that the saints have to teach us. Pope Benedict XVI, in his book Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, describes the saints as "the true interpreters of Holy Scripture. The meaning of a given passage of the Bible becomes most intelligible in those human beings who have been totally transfixed by it and have lived it out."(p78)  

Each individual saint offers a unique lesson on the universal and unchanging truths of our faith. Their individuality provides a targeted and pointed look at specific virtues and areas of church teaching. St. Peter Claver’s life highlights the evils of slavery and the dignity of the human person. In the life of Blessed Mother Teresa we see a powerful witness to Jesus’ teaching on service to the poor. Through her diary, St. Faustina provides us with a beautiful account of the mercy of the Lord, particularly in how it is manifest in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

St. Maria Goretti, one of the youngest saints the church has ever canonized, is no exception. I count this young girl among my closest heavenly friends - she is my "go-to" intercessor and her short earthly life is an unending source of inspiration to me. While taking a Moral Theology course, I have also come to discover that this eleven year old, illiterate, Italian peasant girl - martyr is also an astute moral theologian. Let me explain:

Pope John Paul II in his encyclical on moral theology entitled Veritatis Splendor says:

"Martyrdom...bears splendid witness both to the holiness of God's law and to the inviolability of the personal dignity of man, created in God's image and likeness. This dignity may never be disparaged or called into question, even with good intentions, whatever the difficulties involved." (#92)

Young Maria Goretti understood these words deep within her soul. Her entire short life bore witness to her uncompromising love of all of God's laws. In the midst of the harshness of a life of poverty, heavy labor and struggle her joyful obedience to the great commandment of love of God and love of neighbor shone forth as a light to all those around her. She never gave into to bitterness or despair, despite a myriad of temptations to do so. Instead she served the Lord, her family and community faithfully. It was this lifetime of love of God and steadfast fidelity to his laws that set the stage for her martyrdom. 

When faced with the choice of submitting to Alessandro Serenelli's sexual advances or losing her life, Maria Goretti chose to continue to trust the wisdom and inviolability of God's law. She adamantly refused to give into his desires and pleaded with him to stop for the sake of his own soul. Maria did not give up her life out of a rigid, legalistic following of the moral law. Instead she gave up her life out of love: love for the Lord and his laws, love and understanding of her own dignity, and love for her attacker's soul. In the midst of the intense suffering she endured from the stab wounds she received, she continued to place obedience to God's law above all other impulses. She heroically forgave her attacker from her heart, and urged her mother to do the same.

In the moment of her attack and in the subsequent day of pain and suffering that she endured before her death, St. Maria Goretti exemplified the words of St. Paul:

"For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen; for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal. For we know that if our earthly dwelling, a tent, should be destroyed, we have a building from God, a dwelling not made with hands, eternal in heaven." (2Cor 4:17-18-2Cor 5: 1)

St. Maria Goretti's lived - out moral theology bore fruit long after her death and continues to do so today. Alessandro Serenelli, after seeing a vision of Maria while serving a prison sentence for her murder, repented of his sin, became a model prisoner and after his release from prison lived a life devoted to prayer in a Capuchin monastery. St. Maria Goretti is a witness to young people of the dignity of their purity and virginity in a world which dismisses any sort of sexual morality as meaningless and outdated. Finally, she is an advocate and friend to all who have been the victim of sexual abuse, speaking the truth of their inviolable dignity before God, a dignity which no abuse can change. In the trenches of a deeply difficult life and brutal death, through the grace of God, she achieved the heights of holiness.

St. Maria Goretti, pray for us. 

To learn more about this beautiful saint, I highly recommend the following resources:

Maria Goretti is a moving portrait of Maria's difficult, yet joyful life and depicts the heroic virtue and faith she displayed long before her martyrdom. The scenes which show her tragic final encounter with Alessandro Serenelli are tastefully done, without losing any of their gravity. I would highly recommend it as a teaching tool on purity for teenage boys and girls and the message of holiness amidst the struggles and hardships of life which the Goretti family faced makes it a compelling story for adults as well.

The book St. Maria Goretti: In Garments All Red provides a comprehensive overview of this young saint's short life, and includes the full texts of Pope Pius XII's addresses at her Beatification and Canonization.  The book also contains pictures and a novena to St. Maria Goretti. It is the book to read if you want to learn more about St. Maria Goretti.


  1. G.K. Chesterton "There are many ways to fall but only one way to stand."

  2. Some criticize St. Goretti's canonization as shaming assaulted people who acquiesce under duress or fail to find the opportunity to die as they resist. Such criticism alleges that St. Goretti's "advocacy" for victims transpires only with concomitant shaming of survivors, and so to venerate St. Goretti is not pastoral. How do you respond to this criticism?

    1. NiqDan135 - I think a way to respond this criticism is to look at St. Goretti's canonization as a powerful affirmation of the essential grace and dignity that every assaulted person has, regardless of the outcome of their particular circumstances.

      I encourage you to look at St. Augustine's reflection on this matter in City of God. There, he made a stand against the Roman practice whereby a Roman woman who was raped would kill herself to "preserve her honour". He affirmed that the woman's essential dignity and worth was not contingent on what her assailant had done to her. By killing herself, she was paying the price for a crime she did not commit.

      Regardless of the outcome then, people who are assaulted have worth! That does not change if she or he gives in to a rape out of fear, or is killed resisting that rape. All people, women and men, girls and boys, are Children of God and are not made to be used and assaulted in such a despicable manner.