Contemplata aliis Tradere

A meagre contribution to the mission and work of the Order of Preachers: my reflections, thoughts, ideas and the occasional rant on matters mainly theological, philosophical and ecclesiastical, drawn primarily from my reading and experience of life and the world. Striving to be always Catholic, firmly Christian and essentially Dominican, flavoured with dashes of Von Balthasar.

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A son of the English Province of the Order of Friars Preachers (Dominicans); born in Malaysia but have lived in the USA, Singapore, the UK & the Philippines for varying durations. A pilgrim and way-farer, a searcher for Truth on the journey of Life... "Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, There’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!" - Hilaire Belloc

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Re-thinking St Maria Goretti

Exactly one year ago, I taught my students in the Philippines about St Maria Goretti, whose feast day falls on this day. There was a module in their text book which I used and adapted and it seemed she was a good role model for these 12-year-old children, who were after all, near her age. Like my students she too was poor and came from a fairly large family. However, I was somewhat disconcerted by the way she was held up as a martyr for purity and a model of teenage chastity. Although I tried my best to explain the importance of chastity and purity of heart in the Christian life, I did not think St Maria Goretti's heroic death best exemplified these virtues.

Now, some of her ardent admirers may well castigate me for this, so allow me to explain! Here was a young girl, born in 1890, who in 1902 was sexually attacked by another teenage boy, the 19-year-old Alessandro. He was her neighbour. He came into her house one day as she was working alone and he attempted to rape her. When she resisted, he stabbed her 14 times and fled. What is noteworthy is that she told him, "No, no, you must not! You will go to hell!" This saintly girl's concerns was for the soul of her attacker! St Maria Goretti died in hospital of her wounds 24 hours later. Her agonizinng death was full of Christian charity and love of Christ crucified and before she expired, she forgave Alessandro, saying, "Yes, for the love of Jesus, I forgive him... and want him to be in paradise with me...". After her death, Alessandro was sentenced to 30 years imprisonment and in 1910, he had a dream about Maria Goretti, surrounded by lilies of pure white. He repented and converted to the Faith, eventually becoming a Capuchin friar! Subsequently with Alessandro's evidence, St Maria Goretti was canonized in 1947, with her own mother, Assunta, present at the ceremony. She was regarded as a martyr for purity.

Looking at the details of her life and passion, it is clear that St Maria's chief concern was for the salvation of her attacker. One can say she died defending her chastity but more than that, I believe she died defending her very human dignity and integrity. Any woman who is sexually assaulted or about to be raped would do that. In this way, I don't think St Maria Goretti was exceptional. Although she was not actually raped, she did die in the course of preventing the attack. Therefore, she shares in the victimhood of all rape victims and she is in solidarity with their suffering. What is truly exceptional about her is the way she responded to the attack - with love and concern for her attacker and killer. In this way, she mirrors the love of the crucified Lord. Her slow and painful death also mirrors the Lord's and ultimately, her forgiveness towards Alessandro unites her with the passion of Christ. As such she dies a true witness, martyr, to the love of Christ. The very way she died and forgave is a witness to the Gospel of love. For all these reasons, she is a great saint. To reduce her witness to one of purity actually diminishes her martyrdom.

For in my understanding, one who dies for purity or chastity has to be actually tempted in some way to engage in sexual activity. To suggest anything like that of St Maria Goretti is repellant. One can think of St Cecilia who was married but did not engage in intercourse because she gave herself in purity to Christ. Or St Joseph who was the "spouse most chaste", living in continence throughout his married life to the Most Pure Virgin Mother. Or even St Thomas Aquinas or St Francis of Assisi who were both tempted sexually and did not succumb to carnal lusts. All such saints are wonderful examples of chastity and purity. But how can St Maria Goretti fall into the same category? For this 11-year-old girl there was no hint of sexual tempation or desire, no lust to be overcome. Instead she was being attacked, her dignity and personhood was being threatened and she realised this would lead Alessandro into mortal sin. Hence, her immediate cries that he desist for fear of hell.

I believe that we would do St Maria Goretti a great justice and let her virtues shine ever brighter if we hold her out as a model of Christ-like love and forgiveness, heroic bravery and concern for her neighbour's salvation even in the face of being bodily attacked and harmed and a witness to the dignity and integrity of the human person. She stands as a saint to give hope and voice to all victims of rape and sexual assault and abuse; she stands in solidarity with them and exemplifies the saintly witness of forgiveness, which is so difficult in our sad days of sexual abuse. Only by the grace of Christ did she, and can those of us in similar circumstances forgive those who violate us. I thank God for St Maria Goretti's brave, challenging and shining martyrdom and implore her intercession for all victims, their attackers and the wounded Church.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


That's a simple but powerful insight.

1:48 pm  
Blogger mamagiglio said...


9:37 pm  
Blogger Jeff said...

But she was defending her purity--not the same as chastity. Purity and virginity are worth preserving and defending apart from chastity and that's something modern culture does not understand.

The modern asks, Why die defending this? If I am taken against my will, there is no sin in it. St. Maria says it's worth dying for anyway.

7:24 am  
Blogger Br Lawrence, O.P. said...

Jeff, I think what you call 'purity', I call integrity and the dignity of the human person. I do think this is worth defending and I believe most women would rather die than to be violated. If you prefer, they would die to defend their purity rather than give in. Although, there are more complicated issues involved. A mother of a young child for example, I imagine, would sooner give in than be killed.

The hagiography of St Maria Goretti and others can sometimes be unhelpful in blurring the very real and human choices they made and I only hope to have highlighted just how contemporaneous and 'relevant' (and I hesitate to use that word!) her situation is to many people today - men and women.

I believe that the notion of sin vis-a-vis St Maria Goretti's decision is complicated. You seem to say that she chose to rebuff Alessandro and thus die because her purity was tantamount even though no sin was involved because she was under duress. I agree but why consider the sin aspect at all? The simple fact is that she did not wish to be raped.

The very idea that her chastity (and by extension, her purity) was under threat is repulsive to her virgin innocence. In order to have committed any sin against purity and/or chastity, there must be volition and clearly in this case there was none, nor was there likely to have been even if she were not under duress.

As such, I prefer to say she defended her personhood and integrity. Moreover, I wish to emphasise and stress that what was truly heroic about St Maria Goretti was her manner of death and her constant concern for her attacker's salvation. As she said: "No, no,it is a sin... YOU will go to hell." This girl did not ask if she was in danger of sin (as she wasn't) nor did she fear her chastity being taken (she never expressed herself as such); she feared for Alessandro's salvation! Surely this mirrors our Lord's "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do"?

By so perfectly echoing and following in Christ's passion, she is a martyr worthy of our altars and emulation.

8:47 am  
Blogger Br Lawrence, O.P. said...

To the above I wish to clarify and add: I meant to say, "She did not fear her virginity being taken..."

Why? Because she loved so much as to think first of the salvation and eternal good of another, even her attacker. This is truly difficult for the modern mind (and I think any human of any age) to understand without the grace and love of God.

Secondly: If we compare her story to that of the virgin martyrs (eg St Cecilia, Agnes et al.) the difference is clear. In those cases, the issue (even for married women) was to keep their virginity intact for Christ's sake. There is no clear indication of this here, apart from what we choose to extrapolate from it. I think a simple identification of St Maria Goretti with them actually lessen the impact of her unique sanctity and example.


8:53 am  

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