St Maria Goretti's 'perfect Christian death'

St Maria Goretti's 'perfect Christian death'

Mary Kenny

Maria Goretti was born in 1890, at Corinaldo, near Ancona in Italy. She was not an educated girl, and indeed she lived and died illiterate. But she was always a religious child, and she had a moral sense: she was empowered by this to defend her values.

She was just twelve years old when she was pursued by a young man when she was working the fields. He overwhelmed her and at knife-point, demanded that she submit herself sexually. The young girl refused, adamantly, and struggled to defend herself. But he stabbed her with the knife, mortally wounding her. Yet with her dying breath she forgave her assailant.

The story of Maria Goretti gradually spread and people began to pray to her. She had certainly died a perfect Christian death.

Protection

Rape was not something which was discussed in public when I was a young girl. Indeed, I remember that when the subject began to be aired openly for the first time, a dear aunt of mine exclaimed: "There was no such thing as rape in the 1930s!" There was, but she was sheltered from conversation about it.

Young women were also protected in the more literal sense of the word. I was speaking to an elderly man the other day about his reasons for following his sister into political activities. "Basically, it was to protect her - to provide her with a male escort when she would go off to meetings at night." Well-brought up young men were taught to look out for their sisters and for other female relations: which shows that people were aware that a young woman or a girl could be sexually assaulted.

The risk of rape was one of the reasons why women had protective legislation in particular professions. Women were withdrawn from working in the mines because sexual assaults could occur.

Other restrictions were placed on women's working practices during the 1920s because of such fears - ironically, these restrictions were considered to be progressive at the time because they were protective. And women were vulnerable.

The Russians employed women as fighter pilots during the Second World War, but when they were shot down by the enemy, if they survived, they were liable to be raped. At the end of the 1939-1945 war, over a million German women were said to have been raped by Soviet troops who poured through east and central Europe. This was partly the spoils of war, partly the punishment for defeat.

In recent times, we have become more open about discussing the crime of rape, thanks, partly, to the feminist campaigns against this heinous assault. And who better to act as a patron saint of the anti-rape campaigns than St Maria Goretti, who died in July 1902?

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, many miracles were ascribed to the girl saint, whose sweet picture, surrounded by the lilies of chastity, became a popular icon. In 1950, she was canonised in the presence of her mother, her family, and an enormous crowd which included her murderer, who had repented of his crime. Many girls born in 1950 were called Maria Goreth, or Goretti, in her honour.

There was, I seem to remember, a certain amount of mockery of little Maria Goretti. I recall silly jokes being made, probably by our post-1950s generation who thought chastity hardly worth dying for, and virginity a somewhat overvalued state.

All the same, the story of Maria Goretti had a great popular impact: the courage of this simple peasant girl's defiance, and the perfect act of forgiveness with which she died.

Post-modern

I think it is now that Maria Goretti might come to be understood and venerated in a new and almost post-modern way - now that we are much more aware of the question of rape, and the entitlement that young women have to be respected.

A hundred years after her death, she illuminates the crime of rape in a particularly clear way - the coercive assault which is in no way connected with the ambiguous "date rape" category in which women signal their willingness and then change their mind. Maria Goretti is the very heart and symbol of milions of innocent young women who have been the victims of a totally unprovoked sexual assault, and an apt patron for the cause of campaigners against this crime.

With acknowledgement to 'The Irish Catholic'. Mary Kenny is an Irish journalist whose writings regularly appear in British and Irish newspapers and magazines.

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