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Why St. Maria Goretti Was Canonized

by James Likoudis

Mr. Likoudis is the former President of Catholics United for the Faith.



In the early Church, martyrs, confessors, virgins, widows and others of the Christian faithful who had a reputation or holiness were acclaimed Saints by the decision of a bishop who added them to his local church's Calendar of Saints, or who were regarded as Saints by the popular esteem and enthusiasm of the faithful. Such "popular canonization" resulted in local patron saints whose Feasts were not celebrated throughout the Universal Church. When a more formal process of canonization was begun by the Pope himself in the 10th century, it was now possible to proclaim a Saint for the entire Church.

Pope Alexander III in 1170 decreed that no one could be venerated as a Saint of the Universal Church without Papal canonization.


Canonization is a papal declaration that the person is in Heaven, i.e., is certainly with God in glory. As a result the newly canonized person (now elevated to the honors of the altar by the official proclamation of the visible head of the Church Militant) now receives the public veneration by the faithful throughout the Universal Church. This honor and cult of veneration involves the faithful's petitioning the Saint to intercede for them with God.

Every person who reaches Heaven is, of course, a Saint, but in the long history of the Church a relative few have been declared a Saint by the process of Canonization conducted by the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints. It is this Congregation which conducts a rigorous and exhaustive investigation into the heroic virtues of the candidate for Sainthood and the miracles attributed to him or her.

In the early Church, martyrs, confessors, virgins, widows and others of the Christian faithful who had a reputation or holiness were acclaimed Saints by the decision of a bishop who added them to his local church's Calendar of Saints, or who were regarded as Saints by the popular esteem and enthusiasm of the faithful. Such "popular canonization" resulted in local patron saints whose Feasts were not celebrated throughout the Universal Church. When a more formal process of canonization was begun by the Pope himself in the 10th century, it was now possible to proclaim a Saint for the entire Church.

Pope Alexander III in 1170 decreed that no one could be venerated as a Saint of the Universal Church without Papal canonization. A distinction also began to be made in the 13th c. between Beatification and Canonization by the canonists of the time. Beatification would differ from Canonization by the Blessed's receiving permission to be venerated by the faithful of a particular diocese, province, or religious order whereas Canonization resulted in a cultus of veneration which was universal and obligatory. Canonization also had the advantage of being an "ex cathedra" infallible judgment from the Chair of Peter involving the infallibility of the Church.

It was in June 1950 that St. Maria Goretti was canonized by Pope Pius XII before the largest throng of people- over 200,000- ever to attend a canonization ceremony. It was also the first time in history that a mother (Assunta Goretti) was present for the canonization of her own daughter! With her canonization, as in every other canonization, the Catholic People of God were assured with absolute and infallible certainty that the little country girl not yet 12 years of age was living in the glory of Heaven and seeing the Holy Trinity in the Beatific Vision, face-to face,

Most theologians and canonists, past and present, have regarded Papal canonization as the exercise of Papal infallibility in faith and morals. This is the charism whereby the Pope as the Successor of Peter and heir of his special prerogatives as Rock of the Church, Bearer of the Keys, Confirmer of his brethren, and Chief Pastor of the Church commissioned to shepherd all the lambs and sheep of Christ-exercises his function as Chief Teacher of the Universal Church. In his important treatise "The Church" (Notre Dame Institute Press, Middleburg, VA, 1973), theologian Fr. Emmanuel Doronzo has explained:

"Canonization is an object of the infallibility of the Church, as a dogmatic fact connected with Revelation...If the Church were not infallible about doctrinal facts [such as] canonization of Saints, it could propose to the faithful something to be done or held which is opposed to the revealed truth...In canonization, the Church definitively declares that a person has led a holy life in harmony with the evangelical principles of perfection, that he or she is in Heaven, and that he or she can be an object of cult, of prayer, and imitation." (pp. 138-139; 279)

There is no question that the Popes in canonizing Saints have invariably believed and asserted that the decision in canonizing a Saint is an infallible judgment "from the Chair of Peter".

The heroic virgin-martyr St. Maria Goretti (1890-1902) was beatified by Pope Pius XII on April 27, 1947 and canonized by the same Supreme Pontiff on June 25, 1950. Her canonization was the Church's response to the hundreds of thousands throughout Italy and the Catholic world acclaiming her sanctity: "Maria Goretti is our new St. Agnes. She is in Heaven".

In the 1947 Decree of Beatification of the Congregation of Rites (a section of which was transformed in 1969 into the Congregation for the Causes of Saints), we read the following concerning the heroic virtue of the young girl who died after being stabbed 14 times by the would-be rapist, 18 year old Alessandro Serenelli :

"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 indarkness. 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."
In his Homily for the Beatification, Pius XII elaborated further on why the Church was declaring Maria Goretti a Blessed servant of God. It was for her heroic virtue in preferring to sacrifice her life rather than commit a sin against the holy virtue of purity:

"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."

In words applicable to the parents of today often tempted to neglect the spiritual welfare and discipline of their children, the Pope noted: "There are many other generous and pure souls like Maria Goretti, but the number would still be greater if only parents would exercise greater watchfulness over their children and encourage them to a more trusting obedience."

The cry of the young virgin-martyr has resounded through the 20th century and into our own: "No, it is a sin. God does not want it!" St. Maria Goretti was beatified and canonized by the Church in response to a world's becoming awash in a sea of sexual immorality. Pius XII had lived through and suffered during the unleashed violence and genocide of two World Wars which would shatter the moral fabric of Western civilization. The rapid deChristianization of Western nations viewed today was accompanied by a corruption of sexual morals that is even worse than in the days of Pius XII. We are deluged by the sexually suggestive, the lecherous, the obscene, and the vulgar in countless movies, TV programs and commercials; there is the blatantly pornographic on the Internet. "Adult Book and Video stores" abound in our cities and along our highways. Calculated invitations to sexual immorality are found in posters, billboards, magazines and newspapers.

Our youth are beset by a torrential flow of moral dirt and filth in all forms of media and even their schools are not immune from instruction in promiscuity, marital infidelity, and perversion. The widespread propaganda for divorce, contraception, abortion, homosexuality, and population control in American society signify an assault on marriage and family life and the Christian understanding of sexuality that is unparalleled since the days of ancient paganism. Sociological surveys trumpet the statistics of the anti-baby mentality that has been furthered by popularized contraception and the massive killing of unborn children disposed as trash in dumpsters. Then, too, there is the number of abandoned and fatherless children, and the heinous increase in child molestation and physical abuse of children, and crimes of rape and murder. One observer has written, "Ours is a culture of rejection: an increasingly hostile place for children to live." What Pius XII foresaw prophetically has come to pass: the increasing rejection of Christianity and its norms for human behavior. It is not surprising that this great Pontiff is being presently maligned and calumniated by those who must be regarded as sworn enemies of the Church.

A few days before his death at the age of 88, Alessandro Serenelli who at the age of 18 had tried to rape Maria Goretti, and who later acknowledged that his repentance was due to her heavenly intercession, was asked if he had any advice to give to the youth of his day (this was the year 1970). He wrote the following words which have not lost their immediacy:

"I sincerely ask pardon of God and of the entire world for the crime which I committed against the martyr, Maria Goretti, and against purity. With all my heart I plead with you to avoid all immoral literature and shows, and whatever else will lead you into sins of impurity."

Alessandro would often repeat besides the picture of his victim: "I killed a saint, and now after 69 years of penance and prayer, by God's mercy I am going to join her in Heaven."

Pope John Paul II has often commented on the virtues and example of St. Maria Goretti. In a Homily commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the virgin-martyr's birth, he emphasized her importance for our own troubled times:

"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, nourishing your communion with the Lord through prayer, the daily practice of mortification, and scrupulously observing the commandments. Do not be afraid to take a counter-cultural stance, to reject the world's idols when it is a question of courageously witnessing by your lives that you belong to a chaste and poor Christ. Always esteem and love purity and virginity.

"In her silent heroism, Maria Goretti is a teacher of truth, consistency, and true love. She teaches us to rediscover in Christ the value of the truth which frees the human being from the slavery to material realities, to cultivate a taste for authentic beauty and the good which overcomes evil.

"Today, we thank the Blessed Trinity for this young life, and for the martyrdom which crowned it. Through her life and heroic death, the Son of man was glorified at the beginning of our century. 'Blessed be God in His Saints'." (L'Osservatore Romano- English ed., 10/7/91)

In his beautiful Homily, Pope John Paul II may be said to have summarized once again why the Catholic Church has canonized "a simple country girl who was born poor". It was for her deep faith in Christ, for her ardent love of Christ and His Virgin-Mother, for her fervent witness to the Gospel-virtue of purity, and for her heroic fortitude in preferring death rather than to commit sin in submitting to molestation and rape. For all these reasons the Church of Christ has honored her as a "virgin-martyr". To anyone who would question her designation as a martyr, the Church replies with the words of her greatest Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas:
"Not only is he a martyr one who refuses to deny a truth of the faith, but he who dies for the sake of some virtue, or to avoid sin against any commandment."

In what has been termed "the modern world's conspiracy against morality", St. Maria Goretti's example remains a magnificent witness to Christian truth. The Church assures us that her heavenly intercession is powerful before the throne of the Lamb of God. When she cried out to Alessandro, "No, it is a sin! God does not want it! You'll go to Hell!", she spoke as a teacher of the faith, reminding all those who are too eager to deny the reality of sin of yet another truth of the Gospel: namely, the possibility of eternal damnation.

An American biographer of St. Maria Goretti has fittingly corrected a misunderstanding of the Saint that has been made by those seeking to "limit the Saint's influence over the hearts of the young":

"What the Church raises in her is not, it must be noted, the glory of freely chosen perpetual virginity which is the offering of religious consecrated to God. Assunta Goretti, who taught Maria to love the virtue of purity, probably had no other plan for her eldest daughter than that she, too, when she was a few years older, should marry a good husband and bring up a Christian family. If Maria thought of such things, she also, probably, expected that her life would be like her mother's.

"....In what we know of Maria' upbringing, we can easily see that it is this kind of purity Assunta Goretti taught her daughter. The child was pious in a mature, balanced, sensible, loving way- not in a sentimental or soft or scrupulous way. From her early childhood, she faced hardship. She had before her the example of affectionate Christian parents, devoted to each other and to their children, and faithful to their religious responsibilities. When her temptation came, she resisted it absolutely, and with a superhuman fortitude which only grace could sustain.

"Yet she was so human and so aware of others that she could see in the terrible incident more Alessandro's danger than her own. Her cry, 'You'll go to Hell!' was a warning, not a threat, as we must see in her [deathbed] pardon of her assassin, which was free and unforced despite the atrocious suffering she was still enduring because of him. She was, even not yet 12, a valiant woman."

(C.E. Maguire, "Saint Maria Goretti, Martyr of Purity", N.Y: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1950)

St. Maria Goretti was indeed a "valiant woman" in the biblical sense of a woman faithful to God and who was willing to live and die for Him.

Her innocent blood bore witness to her total fidelity to Christ and His Gospel, and continues to do so today with regard to virtues which are more needed today than ever. It is for that witness that the Church has canonized her and calls upon us to ask for her heavenly intercession to assist both young and old in the stormy pilgrimage of this life. In her martyrdom we hear the echo of Our Divine Lord's words: "He who does not take up his Cross and follow Me, is not worthy of Me. He who finds his life shall lose it; and he who loses his life for My sake, will find it." (Matt. 10: 38f.)

president emeritus, Catholics United for the Faith (CUF)



St. Maria Goretti, pray for us!



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