A Day When Character and Chastity Were Trending

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2020/06/26/a-day-when-character-and-chastity-were-trending/

It was if they never heard of social distancing (which they hadn’t). They packed into the square, the crowd estimates ranging from a quarter- to a half-million.

What drew the crowd?

Was it hate? The whole story, after all, began with a murder. (What made it more intriguing was that the murderer was reportedly in the crowd.)

When the chief speaker addressed the crowd, he did not speak of vengeance, but of virtue. He did not point fingers, but challenged those in the crowd to be better.

This was hardly a mob. There was no violence; no looting.

There were statues, and they remained in place.

Quite a spectacle – all begun with the homicide of an 11-year-old girl.

June 24 marked the 70th anniversary of the canonization of Saint Maria Goretti, before a packed throng in St. Peter’s Square. It was the first outdoor canonization Mass ever held, because even the huge basilica could not hold such a gathering.

All because of an illiterate girl who was killed decades earlier, in 1902.

Perhaps, there is something to be learned.

Maria Goretti, the daughter of a poor sharecropper, was devout in her faith and, despite her inability to read and write, learned and practiced her Catechism. Her family shared a house in a village in central Italy with another sharecropper family – 20-year-old Alessandro Sevenelli and his alcoholic father. The dad was not only a drinker but was into pornography, a vice he shared with his son.

As pious as Maria was, Alessandro matched her with his vulgarity, often making suggestive comments to the pre-teenager. Matters got out of hand on July 5, 1902, when Alessandro discovered Maria alone in a room and tried to rape her. She resisted – saying, “No. It’s a sin. God does not want it” – and Alessandro Sevenelli stabbed her 14 times.

Maria would die the next day, but not before receiving last rites from a priest and declaring, “I forgive Alessandro Sevenelli … and I want him with me in heaven forever.”

Sevenelli, considered a minor, was sentenced to 30 years in jail. For six years, Sevenelli remained troublesome and unrepentant. Then Maria came to him in a dream. Sevenelli would later report that this dream featured Maria silently handing him 14 white lilies – lilies being a symbol of purity, 14 of them because of the number of stab wounds. His catechism may have been lacking, but Sevenelli came up with two interpretations:  Maria was in heaven, and he was forgiven.

Since then, several miracles have been attributed to Maria Goretti, but none may be as incredible as the conversion of Alessandro Sevenelli. After the dream, he made his confession and changed his life – his good behavior reducing his sentence to 27 years. Upon his release, Sevenelli sought out Maria’s mother, asking her forgiveness. Some reports say this meeting occurred on Christmas Eve and the two were seen together at Midnight Mass.

Sevenelli would be the first to testify in the case for Maria’s canonization. He moved into a Capuchin Franciscan monastery, became a lay brother, and worked as a porter and gardener.

During the 1950 canonization of Maria Goretti, declaring her a saint living in heaven, Pope Pius XII said:

“Not all of us are expected to die a martyr’s death, but we are all called to the pursuit of Christian virtue. This demands strength of character, though it may not match that of this innocent girl. Still, a constant, persistent, and relentless effort is asked of us, right up to the moment of out death.”

In 1970, Sevenelli died at the monastery. In his final moments, he said, “I killed a saint. Now I’m going to join her in heaven.” Later, the brothers at the monastery found a testament written by Sevenelli, which included these words:

“Looking back at my past, I recognize that in my early youth I followed a false road – an evil path that led to my ruin. Through the content of printed magazines, immoral shows … I saw the majority of the young people of my day following evil without even thinking twice. Unworried, I did the same thing.

“At the age of 20, I committed a crime of passion, the memory of which still horrifies me today. Maria Goretti … her words both of rebuke and forgiveness are still imprinted in my heart.”

St. Maria Goretti’s feast day is July 6. Seventeen years ago, Pope John Paul II marked her feast day with a reflection:

“Marietta, as she was lovingly called, reminds the youth of the third millennium that true happiness demands courage and a spirit of sacrifice, refusing every compromise with evil … How timely this message is. Today, pleasure, selfishness, and directly immoral actions are often exalted in the name of the false ideals of liberty and happiness. It is essential to reaffirm clearly that purity of heart and of body go together, because chastity ‘is the custodian’ of authentic love.”

So, you ask, what’s the big deal about a peasant girl being killed 118 years ago – apparently small news compared to today’s headlines of social unrest, and the 24/7 news/babble accompanying it.

The life and message of St. Maria Goretti and Alessandro Sevenelli are not trending. No hashtags.

The witness of their lives – strength of character, relentless effort, rebuke (of evil) and forgiveness, purity of heart, chastity, authentic love – offer us all a lesson.

Will we listen?


Kevin Thomas is a writer and teacher, living with his wife and children in Standish, Maine.