St. Maria Goretti was born in Ancona, Italy in 1890. She was the eldest daughter of a peasant family and was known for her cheerful and devout nature. When she was just ten years old, her father died. Two years later, a young neighbour, Alessandro Serenelli, became obsessed with Maria and started constantly pestering her. One day he tried to rape her. When she fought him off he stabbed her several times. She was taken to the hospital, but she died the next day, after forgiving him.
Her murderer was sentenced to life imprisonment. While in prison atoning for his crime, Alessandro had a vivid dream, so vivid, he said, that he “could not distinguish it from reality”. In his dream, his prison cell turned into a lush garden and Maria came to him bathed in light. She gave him 14 lilies (symbolic of the 14 stab wounds he dealt her years before). After he took the lilies in his hands, they turned into “flaming lights”. At this point in the dream, Maria told him that someday his soul would join hers in heaven.
After eight years he underwent a religious conversion and repented of his crime. When he was released from prison 27 years later he was a changed man. He visited Maria's mother begging forgiveness, which she readily granted.
On Christmas Day 1937 Allessandro received Holy Communion side by side with Maria's mother. In 1950 Maria was canonised as a martyr for the Christian life. Alessandro became a lay brother in a monastery, eventually dying peacefully in 1970. He is often cited as an example by those campaigning against the death penalty. Maria was beatified in 1947 and canonized in 1950. Her mother attended both ceremonies with Allessandro Serenelli, the man who killed her. Her remains rest beneath the altar in the crypt of the Basilica at Nettuno, about 60 kms south of Rome.
Reflection on the life of St. Maria Goretti
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). Yes, God chose her. Yes, God has clothed her with honour. He chose and clothed her with honour, a simple little country girl who was born poor. He clothed her with honour 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 cannont understand it"; rather, "to him it is foolishness" (1 Cor. 2:14). On the contrary, Maria Goretti understood. She was able to "accept what pertains to the Spirit of God." She did not flee from the Spirit’s voice, from the voice of her conscience. She did not give in. She rather chose death. Through the gift of fortitude, the Holy Spirit helped her to ‘judge’–and to choose with her young spirit. She chose death when there was no other way to defend her purity and integrity.