Why Saint Maria Goretti is a Great Saint for Boys–Updated

Well, it’s finally happened–I had to tell my children what rape is. It seems like just last year, they were learning where babies came from, and  now, the three older ones at least had heard the word “rape” in conversation, and at least one of them had a theory on what it meant. His theory was wrong.

I have learned there is even a playground game called “Flee the Rapist” which, I suppose we can be grateful the children see rape as socially stigmatic, but I can only imagine what it does to the psyche of the poor kid who has to be “it.”

In any case, I had to do a little damage control in order to reinforce the concept that rape is a violent crime, a deadly sin, is never a topic for jokes, and makes an absolutely inappropriate game.

Let me be clear: the children were innocent. They had no idea what they were playing. It took only one child–and I don’t know if it was my own, or a playmate at school or what–to have overheard a conversation that was not meant for children. Or, to be perfectly honest, any Catholic child could have learned the word in The Lives of the Saints, which is why I think it’s prudent to preview even the seemingly most benign books on saints’ lives.

Today is the feast day of Saint Maria Goretti. Her biography from today’s Magnificat readings:

“Saint Maria Goretti was born of a poor family at Corinaldi, Italy, in 1890. Near Nettuno she spent a difficult childhood assiting her mother in domestic duties. She was of a pious nature and often at prayer. In 1902 she was stabbed to death, preferring to die rather than be raped.”

Saint Maria Goretti fought off her attacker, a nineteen-year-old farm hand named Alessandro Serenelli who lived in the same building. She warned him that what he wanted to do was a mortal sin and would send him to hell, nevertheless, he stabbed her 14 times. As the story goes, Saint Maria Goretti forgave Alessandro before dying less than 24 hours after her attack.  Alessandro went to jail, and in time, he repented, eventually becoming a lay Franciscan.

The church has always honored virgin martyrs, not so much because of their “virginity”  (in fact physical virginity is not a requirement of virgin martyrdom), but because of their radical faith in Christ and their embrace of virtue.

The church doesn’t signify which saints are “for girls” and which are “for boys”–all the saints have something to offer all the faithful. But as parents, it’s tempting to think of the saints as action heros for our kids to emulate instead of batman for instance, or Barbie. So we put the pretty girl virgins in front of our girls, and keep Pier Frasatti for the boys.

It’s also popular to declare Saint Maria Goretti a patron specifically for “young ladies seeking chastity.” She is the patron of many such societies at Catholic high schools and colleges. This is good, as long as we’re clear that Saint Maria Goretti is not a saint solely because she chose to die rather than experience sexual violation.

Most victims of rape are unable to exercise any preferences during their attack. To my mind, the great heroism of Saint Maria Goretti is that she was able to not only fight off her attacker, but that she was able to forgive him before she died.

Here’s where Saint Maria Goretti’s example comes in handy for the boys.

1. First of all, I think we need to make it clear that martyrdom is not something people get to choose. Saint Maria Goretti didn’t actually “choose” to die. She was violently attacked, she defended herself, and in the end, the stab wounds won. It was her piety paired with her victimhood that made her a martyr, and we honor her in heaven because she is like Christ–innocent victim whose actions said “Father, if it be your will, let this cup pass from me, yet not my will, but thy will be done.”

Yes, eternal life and sainthood is a happy ending, but we declare martyrdom precisely because dying for one’s faith is a tragedy. It’s not supposed to happen. And the fact that she died in the defense of her chastity is an even greater tragedy. This is something no woman is supposed to have to do. It’s also something no man or child is supposed to have to do.

So let’s look with horror at the great violation that was done to her. The church is not playing around here. The bright flower of Saint Maria Goretti’s chastity is just one part of the story. The bigger part is that she was an innocent victim and believer who died forgiving the sins of her persecutor.


2. I don’t know when parents begin to tell our children about the darker aspects of the Fall of Adam and Eve. We can begin at an early age to guide them in the right ordering of their sexuality into their person, but at some point, and I would say most parents know best when this point is, sexual sin makes an appearance in the narrative. My children have learned earlier than I’d like that there is such a thing as forcible sex.

While making very clear that I don’t expect my children to become rapists just because they are boys, I’ve had to reinforce that never, is it ever ok to violate anyone in any kind of sexual manner.

Moreover, Christians are called to defend the defenseless and be guardians of every virtue. We cannot take as the moral of Saint Maria Goretti’s story that it is preferable to die rather than experience an offense against one’s own chastity, without also concluding that it is preferable to die rather than offend someone else’s chastity.


3. Above all, Saint Maria Goretti’s story is one of radical forgiveness. Can we forgive even minor offenses? Can we take up as our life’s work bringing peace to the souls of those who persecute, violate, rape, offend or denigrate us? Christ on the Cross forgave every sin, including the sins a chaste mind cannot even fathom. Saint Maria Goretti did the same.


Saint Maria’s Goretti, we ask you to intercede for us in protecting our children from sexual violence, healing victims of sexual assault, and bringing perpetrators of sexual violence to repentance and forgiveness in faith.


Update: In an earlier draft of this post I wrote that Alessandro Serinelli was present at Saint Maria Goretti’s beatification. He was not. I’m informed that stories recounting his presence there are a myth that persists in spite of the fact that  footage of her beatification shows no evidence that Serinelli was present.


Special thanks to the Patheos expert on all things Goretti, Max Lindeman

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