St. Maria Goretti’s major relics came to my parish once. The church and its property was swarming with pilgrims, and I had the privilege of being near her coffin for a couple hours as I helped move the enormous lines along. Some, myself included mistook the little girl in the glass coffin to be her body, Incorrupt, but it was actually a wax statue made to look like her, her actual relics being in a silver box inside the wax reliquary’s chest.
The evening of or before (can’t remember which), there was a priest in charge of this little stateside pilgrimage who told her entire story in a homily, even showing us what was used to kill her. It wasn’t a knife, more like a tool with a sharp point, though not sharp enough to easily stab someone with; this says much for the amount of violence that drove the tool through her body and into her spine twice. Somehow, learning that it wasn’t a knife made me feel worse about it; maybe it’s because so many things were used to hurt me in the past that had a practical, even good, original purpose that my abusers used as weapons.
Another topic he touched on was forgiveness, and how many victims/survivors of sexual abuse find it easier to forgive their abusers when they encounter St. Maria’s relics. I think I blanked that part out for the most part, a tendency I’m noticing I do in defense against the very twisted (and frankly deadly) version of forgiveness my parents taught me. Yesterday, I told my doctor about it, who assured me that it’ll be easier for me to believe in with time as his repetition is absorbed into my memory even as I blanked out. This is helped, I think, because a small part of me is willing to listen and understand.
I guess what that priest said was true, then; it’s largely because of St. Maria and her story that there is a part of me that does want to forgive.
Maria Goretti was a little 12-year-old when she died yesterday 114 years ago, when she resisted a rape attempt by a 19-year-old boy named Alessandro Serenelli.
She was stabbed 14 times with that sharpened tool, though her stabbings didn’t happen all at once; after Alessandro first stabbed her some times when it became clear to him that Maria wasn’t going to let him rape her, he ran up his room upstairs, as his father and he were living in the same roof as the Goretti’s, as both families were quite poor. Maria was rendered unconscious from that first attack, but eventually came to. She started to call for help, and Alessandro realized that she wasn’t as dead as he wanted. He rushed back down with his makeshift weapon, and left the last stabs in Maria’s little body.
In criminal psychology, it’s understood that the act of stabbing is sometimes used as symbolism for the act of rape, especially when done by otherwise impotent attackers. Given that this was not the first time Alessandro tried to rape Maria, he was obviously just full of rage and lust, and another kind of impotence found when an abuser realizes that his/her abuse isn’t getting what he/she wants. He finally expressed all those pent up feelings in that last act of hatred, evident by the force of the stabbing.
Prior to reading My Peace I Give You, and hearing that homily, I never really knew what kind of person Alessandro was except that he was a “typical” rapist, not unlike my uncle; very aggressive and forceful. The parallels run deeper as I consider that as Alessandro grew up very poor with an alcoholic father, turning to an addiction to pornography to cope with this lack of love and paternal guidance; my uncle also grew up poor with alcoholic parents, obviously also turning to porn and pedophilia. It gets worse as Alessandro’s father, when Maria’s father, Luigi, died from illness, demanded Maria’s mother, Assunta, pay off a fabricated debt, even propositioning her to be a live-in mistress to him as an alternative (to which she refused); needless to say, this was a horrible example for his son to follow.
Maria’s upbringing, in contrast, was a very humble and faithful family united by love. She was brought up at church and at home to understand the truth of her dignity and that she was beloved by the Author of Love. She didn’t feel any need to find a substitute for love, because she was surrounded by it. When her father died, Maria took up many household roles as her mother had to work in the fields, taking care of her siblings. While doing this, she also kept up her catechism, and eventually had Holy Communion for the first time shortly before she died (the age for communicants being a little older than nowadays). Maria understood very well what it meant to receive Communion as receiving the Body of Christ, and it’s part of this understanding that made her resist so strongly against Alessandro’s grooming and violent advances.
She had that courage and conviction, as St. Jeanne d’Arc did, as Jesus did when He forced out the peddlers from the temple, flipping their tables and even chasing them with a makeshift whip. However, also like them, was also very scared; she was a little girl after all, living with this much older boy, a young man, who aggressively pursued her. When he would try to groom her with sexual comments and then try to molest and rape her, she would swing at him with her broom, dig at his face with her fingernails, and shout at him to not do it.
However, it’s what she shouted that paints a very different picture on her desperate attempts to defend herself: “No! E peccato! Dio non lo vuole! No! It is a sin! God forbids it! You will go to hell!”
These words…for a victim/survivor sounds so foreign. How could she know at her age what Alessandro was trying to do? How did she know it was wrong? My best guess is that she learned it from living on a farm; life and death are often learned from caring for farm animals, though she also comes from a big family. It doesn’t explain, though, how she knew that if he were to rape her, the sin and the shame of that sin would not be hers. Shame is something just about all of us suffer from, since that very first sin in the Garden; Adam and Eve made clothes to cover themselves out of shame. This little girl, though, who couldn’t read or write, knew that it was Alessandro she was ultimately protecting in resisting his abuse.
This cancels out the common controversy about St. Maria, that’s she’s only a saint because Alessandro wasn’t successful in raping her (though he did abuse her with his words, and most likely traumatized her with his assaults at her body). Her words teaches the world that the shame belongs with the abuser, never the victim. This secure knowledge of this reality might be what made Maria say wholeheartedly, even as she lay dying from her wounds that prevented her from having any water though she was so thirsty, or from having any aesthetic during surgery though it must’ve been excruciating…”For the love of Jesus, I forgive him, and I want him to be with me one day in heaven.”
Before she died with those words on her lips, she did give her report to the police to ensure justice is done, and Alessandro was arrested. He was a very violent and unrepentant prisoner for the first part of his sentence. For years, he blamed Maria as my abusers did, believing that if she just let him rape her, he wouldn’t have had to kill her. Horrible, isn’t it? And yet this angry, depraved criminal will eventually grow to be a model prisoner, a third order religious, and humbly seek the forgiveness of Maria’s mother, Assunta, who in turn forgave him and took him in as her own son where Maria and her other 4 children were taken from her.
All because Maria forgave.
See, Alessandro had a dream, probably still blaming Maria even as he drifted off, where Maria appeared with 14 lilies in her arms. She handed him the flowers one by one, and each became a flame. I don’t know that there were any words exchanged during this vision, but it communicated loudly to Alessandro that she forgave him of his burning sins, each lily representing the fatal wounds he stabbed into her.
When Alessandro woke, he was a changed person. He wrote a full confession of his crime, naming himself as the guilty one. He started to pray for salvation for the sake of “the saint praying for [him] in heaven.” He wrote, “Maria Goretti, now a saint, was my good angel whom God placed in my path to save me. Her words both of rebuke and forgiveness are still imprinted in my heart.”
On my part…when the police and others I’d shared my abuse with would mention the word “jail”, I’d ask either aloud or in my thoughts, “Will that help them?” A friend was lamenting yesterday how there aren’t many curative things out there for abusers, like therapy (though there are prison ministries, I know). It Wasn’t Your Fault talks about this too, as Engel counseled abusers as well as victims, noting the effectiveness of compassion had on the abusers, opening their hearts first to their own pain which opens them to seeing/admitting the wrong they’d done.
On one hand, I do want justice to be done, more so for other victims of abuse who are constantly denied justice; truly, when any one of us is deprived of healing, understanding, and/or justice, all of us are. On the other hand… I wonder if this will make them better or worse. Will my uncle have a change of heart like Alessandro? Will my mother? My father?
My parents, though my doctor gave them a list of requirements penned by me that will allow a relationship between me and them to exist (a main one being getting help for their own abuse as well as admitting that they abused me, their other children, and each other) seems to be more content with acting as the heartbroken parents whose beloved yet rebellious/corrupted baby girl ran away. My uncle similarly would most likely blame me for “making him” rape and sell me, as he blamed the children for “making him look” when he was caught viewing child pornography at the school he was working.
It’s their decision to do the right thing, and I can’t make it for them, as much as I feel like I have to from my grooming. They say people who prey on children are trying to steal their innocence to replace their own lost innocence, put the shame on someone else. Maybe this can be said for all forms of child abuse. However, they don’t take the innocence and dignity they crave so much as they destroy it, or rather destroy our sense of it.
It’s heartbreaking…and horrible. How miserable does someone have to be to make such a decision?
St. Maria teaches us that we can actually retain (or in many of our cases, regain) our sense of innocence and integrity because it never left us. Her anchor that kept her grounded in that belief was her understanding of how God loves us, body and soul, sinner and saint. It’s a much harder struggle to forgive ourselves for being abused than the already harder struggle to forgive our abusers, but St. Maria shows us that both are not only possible, they’re something this world could benefit from:
Maybe there’d be less desire in the world to abuse things like sex and alcohol. Maybe victims of abuse will no longer carry that shame, and the world would be less inclined to shame and silence us. I’m still not completely sure how forgiveness accomplishes that in spite of what I read, but the results are undeniable. As an article concerning St. Maria said, “Forgiveness empowers the victim.”
When St. Maria was visiting my parish, I took a little candle-holder, and had it touched to her coffin, making it a third-class relic. Sometimes, I’d light a candle when I was feeling confused or scared, or just need the light. I wish I had a better habit of doing so; maybe I wouldn’t act out of shame as often as I do. Yesterday was a reminder. Today’s a new day. My allergies prevent me from getting lilies to remember her, but I do have this little candle to remember my encounter with this little saint.
Hers, as a patroness to victims of childhood sexual abuse, is a strong little light in my heart.
St. Maria Goretti, pray for us.