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

About Elizabeth Duffy
  • TheReluctantWidow

    I know how hard these conversations can be with children. I haven’t had THAT one yet, but in light of the Boy Scouts latest decision, I did have to have a conversation with my almost 12-yr old about same sex attraction, why I prefer that term to homosexuality or “gay” and what the Church teaches (and I believe) about sex outside of marriage period. My oldest and I have been treading through the waters of the changes taking place in his body, feelings, and all that goes with the beginnings of puberty. I am a bit embarrassed to admit, I always intended for my husband to take care of that conversation with my boys, but it seems life has tagged me “it.” (no reference to the above mentioned game intended) And, by the way, where in the world do kids think up the idea that having a rapist as part of a game is fun? I don’t get that.

    The other aspect of your post that I appreciate is your offering a different take on why we honor saints like Saint Maria Goretti. As a woman who was raped when I was a virgin, I sometimes read these stories and feel that I just wasn’t holy enough, or that somehow I didn’t fight hard enough, or any number of other self-blaming statements. And, as a close relative of a little girl who has been molested by a male relative, I like to think someday we can have a conversation about the radical forgiveness shown by Saint Maria Goretti. Thank you again for a very well thought out post!

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/duffy/ Elizabeth Duffy

      Yes, one thing that has always troubled me about Maria Goretti’s story, is the language of “choice” that often shows up in the retelling. “Preferring” to die, for instance, in order to protect her chastity. Exercising preferences while under violent attack is definitely not the norm.

      I’m still struggling with the conversation with my kids. I didn’t feel I had finished it the first time the topic came up, so Saint Maria Goretti’s feast day provided another opportunity to revisit the subject.

    • Notquite Archimedes

      Please, forgive me for the presumption of discussing a subject so personal to you,

      Maria Goretti’s “choice” strikes me as a choice impossible to judge. The most I can do is to find sympathy for her situation.

      If I were a young girl who believed fervently in God and was devoted to Him, I might see the torments of self-blaming endured by a woman who was raped as the greatest threat separating me from God that I could imagine. Self-blaming can push one to doubt that one is worthy of God’s love and capable of being saved.

      As an adult, she might make a different “choice,”one no less heroic, to live for her husband and her children, but suffering from self-blaming.

      Perahaps, Maria Goretti knew herself and acted in accordance with her faith.

  • Anne

    This may seem silly and trivial, but as a child who frequently took it upon herself to “explain” things to her peers, it might be a good idea to emphasize to your kids is that it’s not their job to explain what rape means to their peers. But then again, maybe your kids don’t have that tendency.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/duffy/ Elizabeth Duffy

      Ah yes, another “ongoing conversation!” Only one of mine really has that tendency, and I’m not sure if the “don’t share this information” conversation makes it more enticing to share or not.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    In the early 1980s, I was often the target of a game called “schmear the queer”. It wasn’t until 1999 that I learned why I was often the target of that game (and oddly enough, had more to do with autism than homosexuality, since I wasn’t homosexual, but my mental illness still made me queer).

  • Charity Killens

    Now I can’t help but wonder what your child’s theory was for the meaning of the word. It’s not fair for you to allude to something interesting and not share!

    I would like to share Maria Goretti with my 6 year old son, but dare not after all the times I have been burned by my lack of appropriate filters. The random mommies at the McDonald’s play place get funny looks on their faces when your child explains to them details of the tragic loss of a friend’s pregnancy. We were going to the funeral and he had very insistent eyes as he asked me for the things he Needs To Know. I kept trying that trick of answering his questions with general vague statements, but he wouldn’t have it. And I have a weakness. Maybe a few more years before we go Goretti.

    Just the other day, my son’s assistant teacher for his Catholic kindergarten class, an unusually loving and Catholic-soaked woman (and his favorite that he always runs to hug), was expressing to me how sick she was of always seeing the virgin martyrs everywhere. She was relieved when our community was involved in a novena to St. Gianna Molla. Everyday it was another virgin martyr. Finally here was a married woman. With children! I know it really is nice to have Gianna, but somehow I felt this sentiment was taking away from what I feel Goretti deserves. It was almost as if this teacher, whom I had always thought oozed rosaries from her pores, had a thing against virginity. I happen to really like it. Although I guess I do sometimes wonder if anyone would have cared what happened to Goretti if she were 36 with 6 children. I’m now wondering if there’s entire platoons of matron martyrs whom rather died than be raped, but no one ever pushed for their beatification because their story was too boring.

    When I do tell my son about Goretti, he’ll probably just ask me why sex is worse than death.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/duffy/ Elizabeth Duffy

      I agree that Goretti is a saint for later. And I’m not sure I would have introduced her at this age (11 and 12), if we had not just had the conversation where my kids asked me what rape meant.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Flee the rapist???? My we have come a long way from when I was a child and we just played tag. You assume that it’s seen as stigmatic, but I’m not sure we really understand how children are interpreting it. Afterall one of the kids has to play the rapist, and is he seen as triumphant? I bet there is a multifaceted interpretation going on. And what happens when he actually catches one of the fleeing kids? It’s not going to turn kids into rapists, but I don’t like the whole thing.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/duffy/ Elizabeth Duffy

      No, there is nothing positive about this game. And I have forbidden my kids from participating in any such games in the future.

      It just never occurred to me that I would have to do such a thing. Ted Seeber mentioned Smear the Queer, and that was a game that was around when I was a kid. I think this might be latest incarnation.

      • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

        I never heard of smear the queer either. In a way that might be even worse. Where do they come up with these things?

  • Melody

    St Maria Goretti is so counter cultural, not just in terms of her desire for purity, but the genuine concern for her attacker. It is not a sin to be raped. She didn’t want him to sin by raping her. Her thoughts and arguments under severe duress were to think of his soul and his well being.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/duffy/ Elizabeth Duffy

      This aspect of her story, I’ve always found confusing. Rage is not a better sin than lust, and murder is not a better sin than rape–so while I can see that after the event, her forgiveness and prayer for Alessandro helped to secure is conversion and save him from mortal peril, there was nothing to gain for his soul by preferring death to rape.

  • J H

    A mom of a teenage girl just told me about her daughter telling her about all the looks that she got while at the beach. She said to her mom, “I was eye raped” – like it was no big deal and the mom thought it was funny. I guess it starts with a “flee the rapist” game. So weird.

  • vito

    I am confused as to how exactly is YOUR CHASTITY affected by rape, to which you do not consent and which is totally against your will?
    So, is it always preferable to die rather than experience an offense “against one’s own chastity”? is this what the author recommends for her own kids and those of others: better die than be raped?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/duffy/ Elizabeth Duffy

      Catholics understand chastity as the balanced integration of sexuality into their person, ordered toward God and the dignity of others. Even though a person did nothing to incur a sexual assault, they often sustain physical and emotional wounds that they carry throughout their lives. Many feel that the successful integration of their sexuality has been thrown off balance in a way, and so desire spiritual and physical healing. This is why we call rape an offense against chastity. Rape doesn’t make you spiritually impure, but neither does it leave you unscathed. And no, I personally do not think death is preferable to this experience, but I cannot speak for others.

      • vito

        I see, but this still places too much importance on the physical side and sort of stigmatizes the victim. But even physically, something does not add up… In the crime of robbery, for instance, you may also sustain both physical and emotional wounds, sometimes very serious, but no one in their sane mind would say that this crime has somehow compromised the decency/honesty/morality of the victim of robbery. So, frankly, I still fail to see how rape can affect my chastity if I am not the rapist. It seems that this is based on the old superstitious idea that the sexual act itself renders you “impure” (if not spiritually, then physically) whatever its causes/motives are.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/duffy/ Elizabeth Duffy

          I’m beginning to see that no matter what I say, you would like to maintain your prejudices–and I don’t really have time to argue with that mentality today, so a couple more points, and then I’m signing out.

          1. No one in their sane mind is saying that rape compromises the decency/honesty/ morality of the victim–though you remain intent on inferring it, so I’m starting to think this is your problem.

          2. Robbery is not a synonymous analogy for rape. You’re not taking “some thing” from a rape victim (or this indeed WOULD place too much emphasis on the physical side), You are inflicting an act of violence on their most intimate spiritual and physical person.

          3. The body and soul are connected–you cannot offend the body without also offending the soul. If you are the victim of rape, someone has done something “impure” to you, and many victims of rape find it difficult to separate this act of physical violation from a feeling of spiritual violation. So in a sense, they internalize this feeling of impurity that has been inflicted on them from outside. Which is why, no matter how many times you say that being raped has not made you impure, victims of rape still report feeling “dirty.” If you fail to understand this, I can’t help you.

          • vito

            It is surprising that you have gotten angry so fast.
            Feel free to sign out whenever you want, no need to announce that, as if that somehow ends the discussion. None of us is of course obliged to carry this on.

            Yes, no one’s saying rape compromises decency/honesty/morality, but you seem to infer that it compromises the physical and/or spiritual purity of the victim (or are you NOT saying that and then we have no disagreement?).

            If the synonym of robbery does not work for you because in robber you “take” something away, you can replace robbery with assault, battery whatever. I still don’t see what is the difference… Why would the rape cast a shadow on the victim, while robber/assault, whatever, does not, is still beyond me.

            Yes, victims of rape sometimes report feeling dirty: perhaps having been forcefully undressed, touched, kissed, made to kiss, beaten etc etc and having all kinds of a stranger’s fluids inside of you can make you feel that way, I guess. They may even feel “dirty” spiritually, because, yes, there is also the spiritual wound; but this is a feeling that needs to be corrected, not stimulated, as they have done nothing wrong, have they? BUt perhaps our culture has made women feel guilty even in such situations.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/duffy/ Elizabeth Duffy

            And just to be clear, sex itself is not impure, but the act of forcing it on someone else is.

          • Melissa Pollard Keating

            I think I see what you’re trying to say, but a LOT more charity is in order here, Elizabeth.Remember what you’re talking about, and the wounds it brings up.

      • vito

        Further, I believe that people (women, mainly) who choose death instead of rape (although they usually consequently sustain both) are defending not their PURITY, which cannot be affected by the actions of other people, i.e. the rapists, with which they do not cooperate in any way (unless, of course, they do…), but are defending what the southern, especially Islamic cultures, refer to as “honour”, by which they actually mean reputation (since, again, your honour cannot be affected by the actions of other people to which you do not consent). Of course I admit that the word “choose” here is very relative, as often you do not know what the reaction to your resistance will be, and I am by no means advocating complete submission/non-resistance.

  • kimberly

    Today, in Mass, we were told that Alesandro attended Maria Goretti’s CANONIZATION, not her beatification….

  • Charming Disarray

    Your kids are really lucky to have you guide them through the murky mess of sexual immorality that their generation is growing up into. These are not easy issues to tackle and I have no doubt that your efforts will be rewarded many times over.