Meeting Maria

I’ve been at St. Maria Goretti in Lynnfield for almost six years. Whenever I have to tell someone where I work, invariably they ask how to spell “Goretti.” Now I just say, “One R and two T’s.” I imagine that people from St. Athanasius and Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha have it even worse.

I knew the story of St. Maria pretty well, at least I thought so. Of course, when I started as part of the parish staff, I did some extra reading. Maria was from a very poor family. Resisting a sexual assault, she died a “martyr of purity.” At 11 years old, Maria was the youngest canonized saint. At some point after her death, she appeared in a vision and forgave the neighbor who took her life. Maria’s mother -- and her murderer -- attended her canonization Mass together.

Maria’s life story presents challenges to anyone who seeks to tell it. The basic facts of her very short life are difficult to hear. Her virtue is indisputably heroic. But I’m not sure many mothers would hope that their daughters would emulate it. There’s always an argument for glossing over the poverty of Maria’s life, and mitigating the violence of the attack that took it. And frankly, while Maria was a child, her story is far too raw -- far too provocative -- for children.

This year is our parish’s 50th Jubilee. While our church has commissioned an icon, planned a breakfast, a barbeque, and a special Mass and dinner dance, I’ve been racking my brains to find some way of telling Maria’s story in a meaningful, but palatable, way. Maria Goretti is, after all, our patroness -- declared a saint in 1950, only 10 years before the parish was founded.

An unexpected opportunity arose with the archdiocesan Lenten initiative, The Light Is On For You. The ideas came over the course of a few weeks. Why not provide a Holy Hour in conjunction with offering the Sacrament of Reconciliation? Why not expose the Eucharist, play quiet music, and give people a chance to pray? Why not explore the link between forgiveness and healing? And why not reflect on the life and faith witness of St. Maria Goretti?

Rather than offering a program or presentation of some kind, we decided to provide written material that people could use to help them reflect and pray; one side of one sheet per week for six Wednesdays. I realized that perhaps the best way to tell Maria’s story was through the voices of those who were part of it. I chose a theme, a Scripture, a prayer, and a painting for each of the six people from whom we would “hear.” Then, I sat down to write one reflection at a time in the voices of Maria’s father, her pastor, her assailant, her mother, her doctor, and herself.

As I researched how Maria died more extensively, I was overwhelmed by the unmistakable hand of God in every detail. A few months before her death, Maria Goretti received her First Holy Communion. The homily at that Mass encouraged the children to value “purity at all costs.” How could the priest who preached ever have imagined the power his words would have in the life of that one little girl? Alessandro, Maria’s assailant, stabbed her 14 times -- once for each of the Stations of the Cross. When she appeared to him after eight years in prison, Maria gave him 14 white lilies, and told him that she had forgiven him. When Maria received Eucharist for the last time, her pastor asked if she would forgive her attacker. Without hesitation, she said “Yes. I want him to be in heaven with me someday.” How like the words of Jesus from the Cross, “Father, forgive them.” Even more, Maria’s words echoed what Jesus spoke to one of the criminals crucified with Him, “Today, you shall be with me in paradise.” Appropriately, Maria died on the Feast of the Most Precious Blood. That evening, just hours after her passing, these words from Scripture were prayed at vespers: “Who is this that comes...this beautiful one... Why is your apparel red, and your garments like theirs that tread in the wine press?” (Is 63:1-2)

Writing Maria’s story in the voices of those who were part of it was a more powerful experience than I anticipated. It was as if I could really hear the people in her life speaking, telling what they had seen, thought, and felt. When I found photographs of them on the internet, they all became startlingly real. So did the extraordinary power of God’s mercy.

The witness of Maria Goretti’s short life has reminded me that healing and mercy are one. We cannot be healed apart from granting and seeking forgiveness. We cannot forgive or receive forgiveness without experiencing healing at some level. Maria Goretti was not healed from the wounds she suffered in this life. But the value she placed on holiness, and her desire to see her attacker spend eternity in heaven rather than in hell, points to the kind of love that heals every ill and can forgive any sin. That kind of Love is found in God alone. That Love is the light that is always on for every one us, not just on the Wednesdays in Lent, but every day of our lives. It is the light that shines perpetually on all the saints. St. Maria Goretti, pray for us.

Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a wife and mother of eight children, and a disciple of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. She is an author, speaker, musician and serves as Faith Formation Coordinator at St. Maria Goretti Parish in Lynnfield.