Tuesday, July 11, 2017

St. Maria Goretti: Truly a Martyr to Chastity

I am getting older, and as I age, I sometimes fall prey to the common problem of thinking I've already heard everything there is to hear. This week I was reminded this is certainly not true, as I became aware for the first time of a very silly argument people are making about St. Maria Goretti.

Apparently, certain Catholic bloggers - shall we say, those who lean to the left of the political spectrum and have embraced certain principles of feminism - have suggested that it is offensive to say a reason for St. Maria Goretti's canonization was because she resisted her attacker to defend her chastity. Apparently, this implies rape victims who don't resist out of fear aren't holy. Celebrating St. Maria for her spirited defense of her chastity might make rape victims who didn't make a vigorous defense feel bad about themselves.

If you were to ask these bloggers what alternative criteria we should propose for St. Maria's sanctity, they would say the fact that she forgave her killer. Hence, she should not be celebrated as a martyr for chastity, but as an exemplar of Christian forgiveness.

I did not even know this argument was a thing until a friend made me aware of it last week (Maria's feast day was July 6th). It struck me as the latest manifestation of the ever growing cult of sensitivity, whereby something exceptional can't be celebrated because people who don't possess whatever is being honored might feel bad. It's part of the "Don't ask mothers to stand up for a blessing at Mother's Day Mass or women who don't have children will feel excluded!" "Don't suggest Catholics should go to daily Mass if they can because working fathers who can't make it to daily Mass will feel like bad Catholics!" "Don't speak out too strongly against abortion or else women who have had abortions might feel guilty!" This is more of the same.

There are really two questions in play here: (1) What was the actual reason for St. Maria's canonization? (2) Is celebrating St. Maria as a martyr to chastity intrinsically offensive to rape victims who did not fight back?

The first question is easily answered by looking at the acta surrounding Maria Goretti's actual canonization. This would include the proclamations of beatifications and canonization, as well as the papal homily on the occasion of her canonization in 1950. We could also look to subsequent papal commentary on the saint for guidance.

In the first place, let us consult the 1947 Decree of Beatification from the Congregation of Rites. This document makes it plain that it was for St. Maria's spirited defense of her virginity that she was considered for beatification:


"Never has there been a time when the palm of martyrdom was missing from the shining robes of the Spouse of Christ [the Church]. Even today in our very degraded and unclean world there are brief examples of unearthly beauty. The greatest of all triumphs is surely the one which is gained by the sacrifice of one's life, a victory made holy by the blood-red garments of martyrdom. When, however, the martyr is a child of tender age with the natural timidity of the weaker sex such a martyrdom rises to the sublime heights of glory.

This is what happened in the case of Maria Goretti, a poor little girl and yet very wonderful. She was a Roman country maid who did not hesitate to struggle and to suffer, to shed her life's blood and to die with heroic courage in order to keep herself pure and to preserve the lily-white flowers of her virginity. We can justly say of her what St. Ambrose said about St. Agnes: 'Man must marvel, children take courage, wives must wonder and maids must imitate.' These words are true indeed: 'The father of a saintly child may well jump for joy. All honor to the father and the mother. Happy the mother that gave thee birth' (Proverbs 23)."

Thrice happy maid, you are now rejoicing with your father in Heaven while your mother rejoices with us on earth like the happy mother of the angelic youth, Aloysius. So also let Italy, your Motherland, rejoice, smiling once more through her tears as she reads the motto which you have written for her in childish letters of brilliant white and gold: 'Brave and Beautiful' (Proverbs 31).
Italian girls especially in the fair flower of their youth should raise their eyes to Heaven and gaze upon this shining example of maidenly virtue which rose from the midst of wickedness as a light shines in darkness. We call her a model and protector. God is wonderful in His Saints! He sets them before us as examples as well as patrons. How He has given to the young girls of our cruel and degraded world a model and protector, the little maid Maria who sanctified the opening of our century with her innocent blood."

This document makes it plain that St. Maria was considered a martyr, and that the reason she is a martyr is because she "did not hesitate to struggle and to suffer, to shed her life's blood and to die with heroic courage in order to keep herself pure." Her act of forgiving her killer is not mentioned.

In his Homily for the Beatification, Pius XII elaborated further on why the Church was declaring Maria Goretti a Blessed servant of God.The comparison to St. Agnes is very telling:

"Maria Goretti resembled St. Agnes in her characteristic virtue of Fortitude. This virtue of Fortitude is at the same time the safeguard as well as the fruit of virginity. Our new beata was strong and wise and fully aware of her dignity. That is why she professed death before sin. She was not twelve years of age when she shed her blood as a martyr, nevertheless what foresight, what energy she showed when aware of danger! She was on the watch day and night to defend her chastity, making use of all the means at her disposal, persevering in prayer and entrusting the lily of her purity to the special protection of Mary, the Virgin of virgins. Let us admire the fortitude of the pure of heart. It is a mysterious strength far above the limits of human nature and even above ordinary Christian virtue."

St. Agnes is invoked because, like St. Maria, St. Agnes preferred to suffer death rather than have her virginity robbed from her. Pius XII also praises Maria's fortitude, which was exercised "with energy." This is undoubtedly referring to her fortitude in resisting the advances of Alessandro Serenelli. The energetic fortitude she exercised in the face of danger is certainly not referring to her act of forgiveness subsequent to the suffering she endured. Pius equates fortitude with purity of heart. This is clearly about her defense of her virginity.

At St. Maria's canonization in 1950, Pius XII again noted the connection between St. Agnes and St. Maria, declaring, "Maria Goretti is our new St. Agnes. She is in Heaven." Here are further excerpts from Pius XII's homily of canonization::

"You have been lured here, we might almost say, by the entrancing beauty and intoxicating fragrance of this lily mantled with crimson whom we, only a moment ago, had the intense pleasure of inscribing in the roll of the saints; the sweet little martyr of purity, Maria Goretti...

Dearly beloved youth, young men and women, who are the special object of the love of Jesus and of us, tell me, are you resolved to resist firmly, with the help of divine grace, against every attempt made to violate your chastity?

You fathers and mothers, tell me—in the presence of this vast multitude, and before the image of this young virgin who by her inviolate candor has stolen you hearts...in the presence of her mother who educated her to martyrdom and who, as much as she felt the bitterness of the outrage, is now moved with emotion as she invokes her tell me, are you ready to assume the solemn duty laid upon you to watch, as far as in you lies, over your sons and daughters, to preserve and defend them against so many dangers that surround them, and to keep them always far away from places where they might learn the practices of impiety and of moral perversion?

...We greet you, O beautiful and lovable saint! Martyr on earth and angel in heaven, look down from your glory on this people, which loves you, which venerates, glorifies and exalts you. On your forehead you bear the full brilliant and victorious name of Christ. In your virginal countenance may be read the strength of your love and the constancy of your fidelity to your Divine Spouse. As his bride espoused in blood, you have traced in yourself His own image."

I again want to draw attention to the fact St. Maria is presented as a martyr, and a martyr to chastity. She shed her blood to preserve her virginity. None of the official acts I could find made any reference to her act of forgiveness as the rationale for her beatification or canonization. She was elevated to the altars because she shed her blood for the sake of her virginity. This is beyond dispute.

Pope St. John Paul II also indicated St. Maria was a martyr to purity. In a 1991 article in L'Osservatore Romano commemorating the 100th birthday of St. Maria, he wrote:

"She did not flee from the voice of the Holy Spirit, from the voice of her conscience. 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 virginal purity. Maria Goretti's blood, shed in a sacrifice of total fidelity to God, reminds us that we are also called to offer ourselves to the Father. We are called to fulfill the divine will in order to be found holy and pleasing in His sight. Our call to holiness, which is the vocation of every baptized person, is encouraged by the example of this young martyr. Look at her especially, adolescents and young people. Like her, be capable of defending your purity of heart and body; be committed to the struggle against evil and sin" (L'Osservatore Romano, Oct. 7, 1991).
Again, Maria's heroic death is praised, but her act of forgiveness is not mentioned.

This should be very, painfully clear that the reason for St. Maria's canonization was her heroic defense of her virginity. She is repeatedly called a "martyr." As St. Thomas Aquinas notes, one can become a martyrdom because of the heroic practice or defense of some virtue:

All virtuous deeds, inasmuch as they are referred to God, are professions of the faith whereby we come to know that God requires these works of us, and rewards us for them: and in this way they can be the cause of martyrdom. For this reason the Church celebrates the martyrdom of Blessed John the Baptist, who suffered death, not for refusing to deny the faith, but for reproving adultery (STh, II-II, Q. 124 art. 5).

I do not mean to minimize the importance of St. Maria's act of forgiveness. To wholeheartedly forgive someone who murdered you and tried to rape you is an exceptional act of Christlike charity. It is further evidence of her sanctity. But the plain fact is, this is not why St. Maria was canonized. She was canonized because of her heroic defense of her virginity. Full stop.

Her forgiveness was wonderful, but she could not be a martyr to forgiveness. The reason is simple. To be a martyr, one must be killed on the behalf of the thing you are being martyred for - either an article of faith or some virtue. St. Maria could not be killed because of her forgiveness since she did not exercise her act of forgiveness until after she had been knifed. The martyrdom was the cause of her act of forgiveness, not vice versa.

Our second consideration is whether praising St. Maria for her spirited defense of her virginity is offensive to rape victims who did not put up a fight. The answer is clearly negative. The mere fact that a deed of someone is praised does not mean to imply those who did not do similarly as bad or not holy. Those who did not fight back against a rape attack are not to be blamed by any means; it is well known that a woman's natural response to rape is to freeze - at least it is well known among those who have studied rape. Not everybody can be martyrs. We praise the martyrs not because their example is normative, but because it is exceptional. Because someone else has not taken the exact same course of action as a martyr does not intrinsically make them bad Catholics. St. Maria's actions are not put forward as the only acceptable course of action - but neither can we forget that they were praiseworthy and heroic in the highest.

St. Maria Goretti was canonized because she preferred to suffer death rather than allow her virginity to be ravished. And this is worth celebrating, as Pope Pius XII and John Paul II tell us. She is a true martyr to chastity. And to say so and celebrate this is not to condemn or diminish the suffering of anybody else who did not make such a heroic stand in similar circumstances.

I know this has already been written about elsewhere, and that much of what I am saying and even the citations from the popes have already been posted in other articles and discussions, but I wanted to write on this subject all the same to give it a wider audience - because I refuse to allow some kind of soppy political correctness and misguided sensitivity obscure the factual, historical reasons why this girl was canonized and what the Church wishes us to emulate in her life.

St. Maria Goretti, pray for us!

6 comments:

anonymous said...

Wonderful article about this great Saint!

John said...

The virgin saints are so important for us today, especially those heroic ones who died to preserve their chastity. I encourage those who are seeking to be chaste to look into St. Philomena and her sacramental, the "Cord of St. Philomena".

Konstantin said...

Dearly beloved youth, young men and women, who are the special object of the love of Jesus and of us, tell me, are you resolved to resist firmly, with the help of divine grace, against every attempt made to violate your chastity?

I once read that one of the many people who answered a similar address by the Pope at the beatification of St. Maria Goretti with an enthusiastic "yes!" was Pierina Morosini, who would die 10 years later in defensum castitas. She was beatified in 1987.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierina_Morosini

Orate pro nobis!

c matt said...

You are right, it is a silly argument. But only silly people buy it. It is the same thinking behind doing away with valedictorians, grades, etc.

However, these same people won't argue that average looking schmoes be movie celebrities and models, or overweight couch potatoes be featured in the NBA.

c matt said...

Or better yet, they wouldn't want the guy who barely passed medical school in the carribean doing open heart surgery on them.

Boniface said...

Lol...perfect