Sexual assault and St. Maria Goretti

John Stein, Contributing Writer

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St. Maria Goretti, whose remains ordinarily rest in Nettuno, Italy, was killed by wounds inflicted in a sexual attack, making her a perfect icon for the sexual assault awareness campaign. Photo courtesy of Michael Obegola.

As students on a college campus, we are all witnesses to the recent surge in attention that is being paid to the topic of sexual assault. Since 2009, when President Barack Obama declared April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month, campuses across the country have introduced more and more means to educate people about sexual assault. University of Dallas students have certainly noticed the increase in attention given to this subject in the past few years.

Another seemingly unrelated event is also occurring in the United States right now. As I sit here writing this article and you sit there reading it, the century-old bones of a young Italian girl are being transported around the United States for public viewing. Lest one think this is some sort of spooky Halloween exhibit, I should mention that these bones — usually referred to as relics — are from the early 20th-century virgin martyr, St. Maria Goretti.

This is the first time in history the relics of St. Maria have traveled across the Atlantic from their resting place in Italy to the United States. While the reasons for such travels have not been made explicit, I see a profound connection between the relics’ journey and the increase in sexual assault awareness mentioned above. It is often said that saints are canonized not for themselves, but rather for the rest of us, that we might be guided by their example of holiness and heroic virtue. I submit that there could be no better paragon for the sexual assault awareness campaign than St. Maria Goretti.

When she was only 11 years old, St. Maria was attacked by her 20-year-old neighbor Alessandro, who backed her into a deserted bedroom and tried to rape her. She resisted, and Alessandro — enraged that she would not comply — stabbed the girl numerous times. St. Maria died the next day from her wounds.

One could applaud St. Maria for refusing the advances of someone with whom she had no desire to engage sexually, and this would be perfectly appropriate. However, there is something more that she teaches us, something that makes her truly heroic and the perfect model for the sexual assault awareness campaign: she forgave her attacker.

On her deathbed, St. Maria said:

“I forgive Alessandro Serenelli … and I want him with me in heaven forever.”

Not only did St. Maria forgive her attacker without any hesitation, but eyewitness accounts confirm that, even during the attack itself, she showed more concern for Serenelli and his soul than she did for herself. Far from overlooking the evil of rape, and knowing that Serenelli would live with the painful regret of what he had done for the rest of his life, nay, for eternity, Maria cried out for him to stop — not for her own sake, but for his.

The Christian virtue of love is not a feeling or a sentiment, but an act of the will. It involves a willingness to prefer another’s good to one’s own, to will the good of the other with no strings attached. 11-year-old Maria Goretti was a pristine example of this, wanting what was best, even for the man who brutally assaulted and killed her.

Some might perceive actions like St. Maria’s to lessen the emphasis on the wrongheadedness of sexual predators. Nothing could be further from the truth. She knew the horror of assault more than most of us, and she saw clearly the profound guilt of her attacker. But rather than repay injury with insult, she repaid it with love.

This is why Maria is the perfect icon for the sexual assault awareness campaign. Her story spurs all people of good will on to concrete action, for one cannot read it and remain passive in the face of such evil. St. Maria went above and beyond what is expected of a victim in her position. In truly selfless fashion, she turned her attention to the other, and it was for this that she was canonized. May her story inspire us.

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