In many of his addresses, Pope John Paul II has noted that the 20th century has been perhaps the bloodiest and most murderous century in the history of mankind, giving the Church the most martyrs in her 2,000-year history. It should be a matter of profound reflection that the 20th century may be said to have begun with the martyrdom in 1902 of a young girl, Maria Goretti - not yet 12 years of age - who did not hesitate to give her life for the virtues of virginity and chastity so cherished by the Catholic Church.
In a beautiful homily commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of St. Maria Goretti, Pope John Paul II quoted St. Paul:
"God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God" (1 Cor. 1:27-29).
The Successor of Peter continued:
Yes, God chose her. Yes, God has clothed her with honor. He chose and clothed her with honor a simple little country girl who was born poor. He clothed her with honor by the power of His Spirit. "The natural person does not accept what pertains to the spirit of God, he does not accept because "he cannot understand it"; rather, "to him it is foolishness" (1 Cor. 2:14).
The life and example of this young virgin-martyr can teach us much concerning the truth that every young person can attain a high degree of holiness, as we have seen with two more recent blesseds, Jacinta and Francisco Marto, to whom Our Lady of Fatima appeared in 1917. They were but nine and ten years old. St. Dominic Savio, who was the student of St. John Bosco, was only 15. St. Dominic Savio's motto "death rather than sin!" was to be actually realized in the bloody martyrdom of St. Maria Goretti, who suffered 14 stab wounds from her 19-year-old attacker, Alessandro Serenelli, inflamed with lust. Her reply to previous overtures to commit sins of impurity had always been "No!" A young peasant girl who could not read or write, Maria remained fully conscious of the instructions she had received for her First Communion:
"When we commit sin, we renew the Passion of Christ."
During the evening of that First Communion, when a special family celebration was held, her mother Assunta had told her, "My darling, today Jesus has claimed you as His. Never offend Him, ever." On that fatal day, July 5, 1902, when confronted by Alessandro, the young girl had repeatedly cried out to her assailant, "No! E peccato! Dio non lo vuole!" "No! It is a sin! God forbids it! You will go to hell!" On her deathbed a day later, in her agony, she forgave her murderer. In answer to the priest who asked her: "Maria, Jesus died while forgiving the penitent thief at His side. Do you forgive with all your heart your attacker and murderer?" "Yes! Yes!" she replied, "For the love of Jesus, I forgive him, and I want him to be with me one day in heaven!"
The conversion of the morose, hardened, and embittered Alessandro a few years later was to prove one of the young saint's greatest miracles. Alessandro's own account reveals how on October 10, 1910, as he lay on his prison bunk, Maria Goretti appeared to him in a dream, dressed in dazzling light and handing him white lilies which turned into flames in his arms. His striking conversion was accompanied by an admission of guilt and of his victim's innocence and virtue. A once unrepented murderer would now accept his continued imprisonment lasting 18 more years as the occasion for expiating his crime. He would be often heard saying, "I hope for salvation, since I have a saint in heaven praying for me."
Our age needs heroic role models for youth who are caught in a destructive "culture war" in which no values are considered worthy of belief or commitment. Catholics have been warned about the powerful intellectual currents threatening all Christian values involving the dignity of the human person, and especially the dignity of women. The Roman Pontiffs from St. Pius X at the turn of the century to Pope John Paul II have repeatedly insisted on the need to uphold the dignity of the human person in the face of attacks against Christian sexual morality. Patrick Mitchell, addressing the ideological tampering with gender that has become endemic in our time, has written:
In the last century, the western world has turned a corner and entered an era appropriately called "post-Christian." Whole nations have abandoned the Christian faith in favor of no religion at all. Where faith has survived, it has been pruned of its inconvenient aspects. This is most true of Christian teaching on the sexes. The Christian mystery of the man and the woman, handed down from the apostles and preserved entire by the saints of every age, has become a scandal to modern man, a stumbling block that causes the weak in faith to falter. Just as the divinity of the crucified Christ was too much for the ancient Greeks to believe, so the humanity of the fallen Eve is too much for many modern men and women to accept. Centuries of Christian teaching on the relationship between the sexes have been abandoned and forgotten.
The harmful effects of "women's liberation" and now "children's liberation" from family and Church have yet to be grasped. Radical feminist ideology with its revolutionary notions of sexual equality and freedom directly conflicts with Christian teaching and even distorts our understanding of God. Such ideology is not that of the saints and blesseds of the Church, who understood the necessity of chastity for self-mastery and self-discipline. The virtue of chastity lived in every state of life (single, married, priesthood, and consecrated religious) enables the person to live by the Holy Spirit. Our Lord Jesus Christ loved the virtue of holy purity, and the saints safeguarded this virtue in order to be pleasing to God.
St. Maria Goretti knew the importance of chastity for union with God and its necessity for the wholesomeness of both personal and social life. She knew instinctively as a child of God what St. Paul taught: "For this is the will of God, your sanctification... that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like heathen who do not know God" (1 Thess. 4:3-5). She had grasped in the depth of her soul the lessons of the Catechism as taught by her parents and her village priest – that Christians belong to God totally, body and soul, flesh and bones, with all their senses and faculties. She knew that she was "God's temple" and that sins of impurity defiled that temple and endangered one's salvation. She was aware of the beauty of sacramental marriage (she doubtless expected to marry some day and have a family), but she also knew priests and women religious who had freely chosen celibacy and virginity for the sake of the kingdom of God.
In every age, the saints of God have proven that they were God's servants by their lives of faith and purity of soul. In St. Maria Goretti, youth have a heavenly patroness who, in Pope John Paul II's words, is "a model of Christian life," "a model of authentic holiness," and "the Agnes of the 20th century." Not yet 12 years of age, she was a countercultural sign to a world in the process of rejecting God and genuine love. She continues to radiate the light of Christ amidst the decadence and impurities of the modem world, remaining an inspiration to both parents and youth to live the Christian life and, if necessary, to suffer martyrdom in defense of Catholic morality.
Reprinted from CUF's Publication "LAY WITNESS", issue of July/August 2002
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