Some years back I traveled with a small party to a farmhouse in the Italian Pontine Marshes. The building proved a nondescript place, with the space below used for storing foodstuffs and farm equipment whilst on the first floor lay the living quarters. As it turned out those same living quarters were largely unchanged since the early part of the 20th Century. There was one noticeable addition, however. On the floor of the main room was a plaque marking the spot of a murder.
It was there in the summer of 1902 that, whilst resisting rape, an 11-year-old girl was brutally stabbed, dying a short time afterwards. This was, however, no macabre pilgrimage to the scene of a crime. Instead, this former scene of darkness had become for many an unexpected place of light. And stranger still, this came about not solely through the victim but through the murderer as well.
Maria Goretti was born on October 16, 1890. She was also born into poverty. At that time her peasant parents were like so many others then living in remote parts of Italy. Hard work in even harsher conditions allowed them to feed themselves and those they loved, but little else. They had few possessions, but at least they had each other. The Gorettis loved all their seven children – these were their most precious possessions. In Maria’s case, by all accounts, she was easy to love, a sweet natured child. And though such people were considered nothing in the eyes of the world they had something even more precious than each other – the gift of faith. This family was to know the obscure life of Nazareth, and, therefore, all its public humiliations and hidden joys. It was to be this faith that sustained them, made sense of the world around them, and one that, for them at least, was both seen and unseen. In this, they possessed a real wealth no eye could see.
The family moved, and then moved again, this time in 1899 to the Pontine Marshes. Economic necessity dictated each move; it was never their choice, but then these were people of a class with few choices. The new home the family established there was to be shared with others – another poor farmer and his adolescent son, Alessandro.
Life continued to be hard, work equally so. The family barely survived. Then tragedy struck: Maria’s father died. Reading the accounts of her life it was indeed a tragedy but one that was met with a rapid regrouping of what little resources the family had available in a desperate bid to continue their struggle for survival. There was no time for mourning, not publicly anyway. Maria’s mother took up the role of the family’s provider and went to work as her husband had done before. Maria was now also handed a role, that of carer for the younger children. She did not complain, even if she was barely 10-years-old. Perhaps, it was not so surprising after all for this little girl to have undertaken such an adult role. Her childhood was to be unlike many others. It was pointed out later that in her 11 short years she had never owned any form of doll as a toy.
She had had little by way of education either. Poverty was to be her teacher. At that time her social class had at least some of the fundamentals – reading, writing, basic arithmetic; she did not even have these. It was to be of little consequence though except that is in one regard: Holy Communion. Until she could demonstrate an understanding of the Sacrament and its theology, even if in its most basic form, she would not be allowed to receive. The resolve she was to show in overcoming this is touching.
This 11-year-old child convinced her mother of her ability to both complete her many chores and also to go to the priest in a nearby village for instruction, walking there and back alone. Needless to say soon she achieved her goal. The local parish priest commenting later on how well Maria had learnt her lessons and how deeply she understood what was being entered into.
It is chastening to reflect upon the fact that she was to receive Holy Communion only a handful of times in her life. Yet her ardour for the Sacrament was fervent, her preparation meticulous, her conduct impeccable both before and after. It is indeed chastening to reflect, not upon the few times Maria Communicated, but rather upon the many times we have done so, and yet…
She was older than the other children who were also present to make their First Holy Communion at the church. She was dressed differently too. Whereas the others were resplendent in their white dresses, Maria’s mother could not afford such luxury. Instead, the child was to wear jewellery previously given by her father to her mother on their wedding day. For the first and last time in her life the child wore jewels as she processed into the church where she would receive an altogether richer prize than even that which she wore. On that day, May 29th, 1902, and unknown to anyone then watching, another ‘jewel’ was being raised above her head, one with which she was soon to be crowned. The ‘jewel’ in question was a mystical one, however, the crown of martyrdom.
In an altogether different sense, there was another who watched her every move. Who would try to be alone with her; who would say strange things to her; who would invite actions that even in her innocence she knew to be wrong – mortally so. Still he persisted. Still she resisted. No one knew of her anguish; no one knew of his devilish intent. It was only a matter of time, he reckoned, and awaiting his opportunity, sat alone in his room reading things and looking at images that further poured oil on the infernal fires already raging inside his fevered mind. Alessandro was right, however, it was only a matter of time, and it came in the middle of a hot July day in 1902.
Alone with no one around, he threatened her with a knife. She showed no signs of yielding to his demands. He stabbed her repeatedly. He left her to bleed on the kitchen floor. She cried out and was found by her mother. Neighbours were called and she was taken to a local hospital. She died slowly and painfully of her wounds. As she did so, she identified her killer, and forgave him. A priest gave her the Last Rites. Police arrested Alessandro. He denied everything. Soon after he was tried and imprisoned, the charge of murder being proven.
That should have been the end of the matter. The victim laid to rest, the killer found, tried and jailed. Nevertheless, that was not to be the case. In fact, what happened next was even more curious still, as now the principal players were to be reunited once more, and in a most unlikely manner.
On Christmas Eve, 1937, a presbytery door was knocked. The widow housekeeper, as she was by then, as usual went to open it. On that cold December night, she found herself looking into the eyes of the man who had killed her daughter. Those eyes reawakened memories of the wounds inflicted on that now distant summer day, wounds she had carried with her for almost 36 years. Now he was stood in front of her against the backdrop of one of the darkest nights of the year, but also one of the holiest. He asked to speak to her. Reluctantly, she bade him enter…
The story he told was extraordinary. Sent to prison, he showed no remorse. For years he would have nothing to do with anyone, preferring to rot in his prison cell, filling his mind with the same poison that had prompted his evil actions in the first place. Both Prison Governor and Chaplain despaired. There appeared no hope for a soul such as Alessandro, existing now as he did in his own private hell. From a very different place, however, there was one who had never stopped praying for him.
One night, bathed in light, she appeared to him. His victim was before his eyes once more. She was dressed in white and in her hands held lilies. She offered one of the flowers to him…
This was the vision he recounted to the Prison Governor, who was as surprised at the change in this prisoner in front of him as much as in what he said. Now, Alessandro confessed all; in addition, he begged forgiveness for his crime. In a short time, he became a model prisoner: obedient, helpful, hard working – just like some years previously a child had been with her mother on the Pontine Marshes. And like his victim – or was it through her gift – he returned to the practice of his faith. More than that, he became devout. Unconvinced, those in charge watched for this new man to falter, to return to his former self. He never did. In fact, he was freer now than he had ever been.
That night, as Midnight Mass commenced at the shrine of the slain child martyr, knelt side by side were her mother and her murderer. Both had carried the Cross, if in very different ways, both had known suffering, and both had had their lives changed forever through knowing Maria Goretti. Both now watched at the altar as the candles were lit in remembrance of the Child, and of the Light that had come into the world…a Light the darkness could not overpower.
Later that day as the coach pulled away I took one last look at the place we had visited. I could only but marvel at the extraordinariness that had flowed from such an ordinary setting – this farmhouse in a remote part of Italy where poor people had once eked out a living. Dwelling upon such thoughts, I overheard our guide saying that Maria Goretti ‘and her story’ spoke little to modern times and needed ‘updating’. I held my tongue but shook my head knowing just how wrong he was, and, then, glancing back at the farmhouse now disappearing into the distance, watched as its lonely contours were bathed in the most wondrous glow of a setting sun.