Maria Goretti was an eleven-year-old girl who was stalked, assaulted, and murdered by the twenty-year-old son of the family her own family lived with. I think of Maria Goretti when reading the news about (ex-)Cardinal McCarrick, and the abused seminarians he left behind him. The price for serving Christ as a priest, in McCarrick’s world, was either being betrayed or betraying others, being preyed upon or turning a blind eye.
Perhaps it is significant that Maria is not only a child, but a girl; one level removed from a boy, two levels removed from an adult male victim. Men are victims of sexual assault, too, but in terms of saints, it’s the Marias who do the lifting for both genders. There’s only one male child martyred for his virginity that I know of—Pelagius of Córdoba, a boy hostage of remarkable beauty who refused a caliph’s advances and was thus killed.*
Would abused seminarians and boys even pray to Maria? She is one face of a particular kind of suffering; theirs, actually, whatever the differences between them. Do they even know she is for them? Or would they think: But I wasn’t a girl; but I didn’t die.
Maria Goretti was an eleven-year-old girl who was stalked, assaulted, and murdered by the twenty-year-old son of the family her own family lived with. This makes her, as Brian McNeil astutely points out in his essay for New Blackfriars, “Maria Goretti—A Saint For Today?,” less a woman resisting than a child abused. She is, he goes on, somebody whose life was overwhelmed by pain, whose pain is remembered by us, whose pain stands in for the pain of many; somebody from whom a victim of rape would feel solidarity, not reproach; one of the
names that emerge for a brief historical moment from the illimitable sea of human misery and remind us of all those others whose names are now forgotten....
Perhaps [her veneration] can also remind us of the profound theological truth that no one is forgotten before God, and that all suffering—even the meaningless pain and involuntary death of the victims—is given a place in a hidden manner in the unfathomable divine mystery of cross and resurrection.
Not a willing martyr for purity; rather, somebody who didn’t want to die; somebody who exercised no choice, only her own ability to refuse to pretend that this was anything but a rape, who insisted to the end that she was a human being, beloved of God, and that the man attacking her was, too.
Perhaps this is what is ultimately unsettling about the Maria Goretti painted by Pius XII, intact except for having been stabbed fourteen times, the one to whom one prayer goes: “Teach me by your example to instill into others a real respect for modesty and purity.” The trouble is that she didn’t choose to die. Someone chose to kill her. No respect was instilled in him, until it was much too late for her. She was not a second Perpetua, coolly guiding the sword to her own neck.
Maria Goretti was an eleven-year-old girl who was stalked, assaulted, and murdered by the twenty-year-old son of the family her own family lived with. One of the last poems of Francis Webb, an Australian poet, was dedicated to her. In it, a feverish Maria slowly dies:
…you know you often asked me
Why I was in tears at Mass before the Communion:
I seemed to see Him there, heaving up to Golgotha,
and rising and falling.…
Three times He fell: the last note of the Angelus
Falls with Him—I am falling with Him
—Must I fall with Him into chloroform?
Take up your cross.
But she must fall; so she does. The plaintive force of this question is perhaps what draws me to her peculiarly horrible, yet commonplace story: abuse, rape, death. Must she? It would seem so.
Maria submitted to her abuse—up to a point—in part because her family’s shelter hung in the balance. To the extent that those around her turned a blind eye this, too, was the reason. Better not to know than to know, even if not knowing involves knowing precisely what you don’t know; McNeil quotes one pious biography to this effect:
“Alessandro said to the girl, ‘Marietta, look! There is a shirt on my bed that needs mending!’ When she did not reply, her mother assumed that she had not understood him. She said, ‘Marietta, did you hear what Alessandro said to you? He has a shirt that needs mending.’ Marietta pretended not to have heard Alessandro’s words, because she sensed what it was he really wanted. She replied, ‘But how can I tidy up the kitchen and mend the shirt? And I have to hold little Teresa on one arm too.’ Her Mamma lost her temper and threw one of her slippers at Marietta, hitting her on the head. Then she said, ‘Very well, Mamma, then I will just stay here alone.’ Her mother’s conscience reproached her for this until the day of her death.”
Unlike the young man who killed Maria Goretti, McCarrick held not only material help in his hands (no small thing) but supernatural as well. One of the men to come forward, James, was baptized by McCarrick—McCarrick’s first baptism, in fact. His uncle, a close friend of McCarrick’s, “advised him to take the secret to his grave”:
“He had chosen me to be his special boy,” James said in the phone interview, with his lawyer, Patrick Noaker, listening. “If I go back to my family, they tell me that it’s good for you to be with him. And if you go to try to tell somebody, they say ‘I think you are mistaken.’ So what you do is you clam up, and you stay inside your own little shoe box, and you don’t come out for 40 years.”
“Lord, to whom shall we go?” Peter asks Christ, when Christ asks him if he would like to leave. “You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” These days, however, your representatives seem to be bent on holding you hostage, Lord. Rather a dangerous thing for such a representative to do, not only to your flock, but to himself. Even if he’s a cardinal.
Maria Goretti was an eleven-year-old girl who was stalked, assaulted, and murdered by the twenty-year-old son of the family her own family lived with. The man who stabbed her fourteen times when she resisted him went to prison, had a vision of his victim, and was converted. He lived to be eighty-seven. Another poem: “But after years of regret / Maria has forgiven you; as we do also.”
In 2015, her body came to the United States. A woman named Cathy Costello went to pray to her because her own son had stabbed her husband to death: