The Relic of St. Maria Goretti and Our Vocation to be Saints
The Most Rev. Edward K. Braxton, Ph.D., S.T.D.
Bishop of Belleville
November 1, 2015
I. A Time of Grace for the Diocese
The Diocese of Belleville was privileged to have the relic of the heroic St. Maria Goretti in our Cathedral of St. Peter all day on October 19. This was a time of grace for all of us. It was a call to prayer for a renewed awareness of the dignity of our bodies and the true meaning of the gift of human sexuality. It was a reminder of our common vocations to be saints ourselves. Eleven-year-old Maria’s courage in accepting death rather than yielding to the sexual desires of Alessandro Serenelli eventually led to his conversion. Her fidelity to Christ has been an inspiration to countless young people, moving them to respect their bodies and the gift of sexuality in our secular age which shows very little support for the value of the family and faithfulness in marriage.
As many as 8,000 pilgrims venerated the relic between 7:00 AM and 11:00 PM. Nearly 1,500 people overflowed the Cathedral for the 7:00 PM Mass which was attended by several of the saint’s American relatives, including Erick and Amy Schork and their daughter, Anna of St. Louis. During my visits to the Cathedral throughout the day and at the evening Mass, I was struck by the steady flow of prayerful pilgrims from many places far beyond southern Illinois. Those who stood in the long lines ranged from very traditional Catholics to those who espouse the most contemporary Catholic viewpoints. This may well be true in every Diocese where the relic is being venerated in the United States for the first time. The remains of the body of St. Maria Goretti, who is revered by many Catholics as a model of purity, has been brought to the United States on a “Pilgrimage of Mercy.” The relic will be seen in 25 dioceses in 18 states from September 21 to November 13. His Holiness, Pope Francis has encouraged this opportunity to venerate the saint’s relic as a spiritual preparation for the Jubilee Year of Mercy which begins on December 8.
This extraordinary event invites Catholics to give renewed attention to our common vocation to be saints and our devotion to the saints. On the one hand, it sometimes seems that our Catholic tradition of honoring the saints turns our attention away from our own need to respond to the call to holiness in our personal lives. On the other hand, it is fairly apparent that devotion to the saints has declined in the lives of many Catholics since the Second Vatican Council and the devotion that has endured sometimes overshadows the fact that saints are human just as we are. When we lose sight of the true humanity of saints, certain forms of popular piety and devotion can be impaired and move imperceptibly from affirmation of mystery to invocation of magic and from veneration of sacramental signs to unintended superstitious practices. For this reason, devotion to the saints must always be related to the liturgical life of the Church and guided by the magisterium.
II. The Communion of Saints
The Church’s tradition concerning the Church as the “Communion of Saints” is a good starting point. The Communion of Saints is, of course, the communion of all the faithful united with Christ. This includes all of us living our faith as the pilgrim People of God; all of those who have died in faith and do not yet share in the joy of heaven because of the need for purification; and those who have attained the joy of eternal life, the blessed in heaven. All three groups are united in one Communion.
As Catholics, we do not always respond to the inevitable end of our personal lives as if we actually believe in the Communion of Saints. Our faith teaches us that in death, life is not ended but merely changed. Yet, our everyday language almost suggests the opposite. When we learn that someone’s mother has died, we ask, “What WAS your mother’s name?” The reply is usually, “Her name WAS Evelyn,” as if her name is not still Evelyn — as if she no longer IS. Our faith teaches us to pray for the dead. The funeral rite is a prayer for the dead, designated by the Church as the “Liturgy of Christian Burial.” Yet, many parishes regularly disregard this and print programs for funerals announcing, “The Mass of the Resurrection: A Celebration of Life,” even though the person has obviously not yet been raised from the dead. Furthermore, being raised from the dead does not guarantee sainthood and eternal life with God. Scripture teaches that all of the dead shall be raised. However, only the just are destined for the Kingdom of God. Nevertheless, some well– meaning homilists assert that the person whose gentle remains lie before the Paschal Candle is “already in heaven with the angels and saints.” Obviously, this is our hope. But, if we know they are saints, what need have we to pray for them?
When we are baptized, we experience a rite of purification and initiation by which we are joined to the Body of Christ and called to put on Christ. When we are confirmed, we are sealed with the sign of Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. When we receive the Eucharist, we are fed on the Body and Blood of Christ, the spiritual food we need for our journey from God to God. These three Sacraments of Initiation call each of us to learn our faith, love our faith, and live our faith. In other words, we are initiated into our vocations to be saints and make Jesus Christ present in the world as husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, sisters and brothers in all walks of life. This is the vocation of every Christian, whether we live long enough to raise a family like St. Louis and St. Marie Martin, the parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who were canonized by Pope Francis during the Synod on the Family, or whether we live very brief lives like St. Maria Goretti, who was murdered when she was only 11 years old.
The Church rightly celebrates All Saints Day on November 1, before the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed on November 2. In this way, we are reminded that in the Sacraments of Initiation we are all called to live our lives now as saints. Sanctity is our destiny. But we do not have to be dead to fulfill this destiny. We can be saints alive! Sadly, All Hallows (Saints) Day has been completely obscured by the ghosts and ghouls of Halloween, so that children are unaware that October 31 is really All Hallows Eve. Regrettably, in most communities, the children of Catholic families join with the children of other families celebrating Halloween and “trick or treat.” Frightful “haunted house” images of the dead completely eclipse a true Christian spirituality of death. As a result, children may find it difficult to appreciate that they should strive to make All Saints Day their feast day. When All Saints Day is diminished, the true meaning of All Souls Day is obscured as well, and we lose sight of our Christian hope that those who die in Christ, purified by the flame of divine love, will also be numbered among the saints. The Communion of Saints reminds us the vast majority of the saints in heaven have not been formally canonized by the Church.
It is within the reality of the Communion of Saints that we should think seriously about our vocation to be saints. If I ask you if you are saints, or if I am a saint, we might be tempted to respond, ‘’No, we are not.” This response may even suggest that it would be presumptuous for any of us to think of ourselves as saints. But is that not exactly what we should think? If we are not saints, we are, at least, striving to become saints. After all, the saints did not become saints after they died. They became saints during their lifetime. And we should not think that our goal to be numbered among the saints is something impossible to attain because we are not “perfect” the way individuals in the New Testament revered by the Church as saints and those later canonized by the Church as saints are perfect. However, this is an incorrect understanding. The saints of the New Testament and those canonized by the Church are not venerated because they are perfect, but because of their heroic fidelity to the Gospel. They, like us, are redeemed sinners.
Before and after the Holy Father canonized St. Junipero Serra during his pastoral visit to the United States, a number of individuals and groups raised questions about and criticized the new saint because they believe that Father Serra and the Franciscan missionaries did not always show respect for the native people in California and treated them harshly. In response to these criticisms, various members of the Church rightly pointed out that saints are NOT perfect and no saint is without sin, with the exception of St. Mary, Mother of the Lord. Only God is perfect. Saints are not saints because their lives are without blemish. They are men and women who keep striving heroically to love God with their entire being and to love everyone else in the world as much as they love themselves. Maria Goretti accomplished this before she was a teenager!
Ill. Saints and Confirmation
The details of Maria Goretti’s brief life can be easily enumerated. She was born October 16, 1890, in Corinaldo, Italy and baptized the next day. Her father, Luigi, died of malaria from a mosquito bite when she was 10 years old. A year later, June 16, 1901, she received the Eucharist for the first time. She was confirmed on October 4, 1896.
On July 5, 1902, 11-year-old Maria was sitting on the steps of the home where her family and the Serenelli family lived. She was mending a shirt of 20-year-old Alessandro Serenelli, who was working in the barnyard. He returned to the house and threatened her with a knife if she did not submit to his sexual desires. However, she would not submit, protesting that what he wanted her to do was wrong and sinful. She fought to stop him, screaming, “No! This is sinful.” He choked her, but when she insisted she would rather die than submit to him, he stabbed her 14 times with his knife. She died the next day, after forgiving Alessandro and praying for his repentance and salvation.
Alessandro was captured shortly after the attack and sentenced to 30 years in prison. He remained unrepentant for three years, until Bishop Giovanni Blandini visited him in prison. He wrote a letter of gratitude to the Bishop asking for his prayers. When he was released from prison, Alessandro visited Maria’s still-living mother, Assunta, and begged her forgiveness. She forgave him, saying that if Maria had forgiven him on her death bed then she could not do less. They attended Mass together the next day, receiving the Eucharist side by side. He reportedly prayed through her intercession every day and referred to her as “my little saint.” She was canonized by Pope Pius XII on June 24, 1950, with her mother, Assunta, and her surviving children attending the canonization. Assunta was the first mother ever to attend the canonization of her own child. Alessandro later became a lay Franciscan brother and died in a monastery in 1970.
Pope Pius XII addressed the throngs assembled in St. Peter’s Square, “We order and declare, that the blessed Maria Goretti can be venerated as a Saint and we introduce her into the Canon of Saints.” Turning to the crowd of young people, he said, “Dear young people, pleasure of the eyes of Jesus, are you determined to resist any attack on your chastity with the help of the grace of God and live as faithful followers of Jesus Christ?” There was a resounding response of “Yes we are!” To this day Maria Goretti remains the youngest person ever canonized in Church history. She was 11 years, 8 months, and 21 days old.
Every year, many young girls and not a few boys all over the country, whose ages are close to hers, choose St. Maria Goretti as the saint in whose name they are confirmed. Unfortunately, many confirmandi choose their confirmation names without serious reflection and prayer. Some do not have a good knowledge of the lives of these saints and others do not take their new names seriously, as if it is a name for one day only. This undermines the true meaning of the sacrament of Confirmation as the conclusion of initiation into the Communion of Saints. Before Confirmation, I always meet with the confirmandi and encourage them to remember why they chose the saint’s name. The selection of a new name is an expression of their vocations to be holy women and holy men, an acceptance of their call to conversion, an expression of their willingness to be like Simon who became Peter and Saul who became Paul. The new names betoken their new life in Christ. I remind them of the lyrics “I told Jesus it would be alright, be alright, be alright, be alright. I told Jesus it would be alright if He changed my name.”
I urge their catechists to make them aware of the worldwide community of saints, including more contemporary saints. I insist that they should not reinforce the easily misunderstood idea that they invoke saints primarily because of what they hope saints will do for them. They should be cautious about stressing some aspects in popular devotions that emphasize what the saints will do for them. Ordinarily, saints do not “intervene” and change the events in our everyday lives. If a confirmation candidate cannot sing, choosing the name St. Cecilia, the patroness of musicians, will not give her a beautiful voice. If a confirmation candidate cannot master a golf swing, choosing the name of St. Sebastian, the patron of athletes, will not make him a better golfer. While it is a venerable tradition to honor saints in this way, the true spiritual reason for confirmandi to select the name of a saint is because of what the saint inspires the newly confirmed to do for Christ, for His Church, and for other people, by the power of the Holy Spirit. The saint chosen for Confirmation should be an example of holiness that will be a model for them for a lifetime.
IV. The Veneration of Relics
The first class relic of St. Maria Goretti that American Catholics are seeing is a relic of her body contained in a wax likeness contained in a glass case. It is not a relic of her incorrupt body. I am sure that many of our Catholic young people, who rarely if ever hear about relics in their churches or religion classes, and their relatives and friends who are not members of the Catholic Church, have questions about the Church’s long tradition of venerating the physical remains of saints as relics. They may think that veneration of physical remains is a form of superstition or magical thinking. It is important that we who venerate the saints make sure that nothing in our devotional practices reinforces this misunderstanding. There are many Catholics for whom the veneration of relics is not a part oftheir spiritual lives. It is good to be mindful of the fact that a Catholic who does not have a particular devotion to venerating relics may still have a genuine devotion to the saints.
What is a relic? The word relic comes from the Latin relinquo, which means “I leave,” or “I relinquish.” In Catholic tradition, a relic is something that a saint has “left behind” after their death. It can be an object which has been touched to the coffm of a saint, an item of clothing, an object owned or used by the saint, or, most dramatically, a part or all of the body of a saint. It is somewhat paradoxical that Catholic Christianity, which affmns the mystery of the resurrection of the dead, also embraces the practice of venerating the bodies of faithful Christians who have died. However, the bodies (the mortal remains which have been left behind or relinquished) recall and “re-present,” in some way, the spirituality and holiness of the lives led by the saints.
When we venerate such relics, they serve to direct us to the transcendent mystery of God who dwells in unapproachable light. We invoke the lives of these saints because of their Christ–centered lives, exemplifying the virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love. We venerate the relics of saints, especially their eminently gentle remains, not because of a macabre preoccupation with the great mystery of death, but because of our timeless faith in the great mystery of the Incarnation. The words of the Gospel of John, “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us” (Jn 1:14) proclaim God’s wondrous decision to pitch His tent in the cold stable of our world and enter into human history in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The Incarnation has redeemed all of humanity and, in a certain way, it has redeemed and consecrated the entire material and, in a certain way, it has redeemed and consecrated the entire material world. We venerate the bodies of holy women and men who have died NOT because we expect the relic to do something to us or for us simply because we have seen it or touched it. After all, we know that the person who is Maria Goretti is not inside of the wax likeness of her (or trapped in the skeletal remains inside the likeness) in the gilded glass case. She is not there; she is with God. This is why it is inappropriate to speak of the relic as “she.” Such speech, if taken literally, can easily be misinterpreted, especially by children, to mean that the spiritual personhood of the saint is somehow trapped “in” the relic.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that by becoming incarnate, the Son of God introduced a new “economy” of images. Because of this, whoever venerates an image or a relic venerates the person portrayed in the image or associated with the relic. Since adoration is rendered to God alone, the honor paid to sacred images and relics is a “respectful veneration” that must not in any way be confused with adoration or worship. Religious images and relics are “mere things” and, therefore, worship is never directed to these images and relics. They have a distinctive value because they direct our minds and hearts beyond the images and relics to the transcendent mystery of God (cf. The Catechism #2131, #2132). The Catechism reminds us to be mindful of the many forms of piety and popular devotions that are part of Catholic traditions. These traditions, such as the veneration of relics, are connected in varying degrees to the Church’s sacramental life. These expressions of piety are in some way derived from the liturgy itself and should lead the faithful back to liturgical prayer. The Church’s liturgy is, by its very nature, far superior to devotional or pious practices such as venerating relics (cf. The Catechism #1674, #1675). Thus, any veneration of a relic that suggests it has a greater spiritual value than the Sacred Scriptures, the Mass and the Sacraments, is contrary to the faith of the Church.
Gestures such as touching the case containing the relic of a saint’s body is an acknowledgment of our physical embodied condition. Placing a hand, a rosary, or a cloth on the relic gives expression to our desire to be united with Maria Goretti’s spirit, which is not “physically” in the relic. If someone experiences profound spiritual renewal or (in very rare cases) a physical healing after venerating a relic, this must be seen as the power of God responding to acts of extraordinary faith. The relic itself is not a metaphysical entity containing within itself automatic healing power. If it did, everyone who touched it would be healed. In St. Mark’s Gospel, the blind man, Bartimaeus, says to Jesus, “Lord, that I may see!” Without touching him, Jesus says, “Go, on your way. Your faith has saved you” (Mk. 10:51). God provides the “sign” of sight to the blind man because of his faith.
In faith, we hold out the hope that when we pray in the presence of a relic of a saint’s body (which was once a temple of the Holy Spirit) with an open mind, an open heart, and an open spirit, we are disposed for the grace of God to help us to live the virtues exemplified by the faithful disciple of Christ, whose body we venerate. This is not unlike the special regard, attention, and reverence that we should show to the bodies of those who are most dear to us who have died, in our final farewell before they are buried and the custom of prayerfully visiting their graves.
V. Conclusion: All Saints Day Prayer
This, the first occasion for the relic of St. Maria Goretti to be venerated by the Christian faithful in the United States, is a time of grace and opportunity. The relic of the patroness of young people, the poor, those striving to live a chaste life, those who have been sexually assaulted, and those whose hearts are filled with compassion and forgiveness serves as a singular reminder of the Holy Father’s plea for Catholics to give a primacy to mercy in all of our relationships. This time of grace is reminding the Christian faithful of the remarkable life of a child who attained sainthood by her martyrdom, declaring, death rather than sin! This is an extraordinary message for our American culture in this secular age, especially for our young people who urgently need a reminder that a life of Christian virtue is possible.
The presence of the relic of St. Maria Goretti is an opportunity for our Catholic people to reflect at a very deep level about who saints are and what they mean in our lives of faith. Have we allowed some vague “spirit of the Vatican Council” to cause us to all but ignore the saints as icons of the holiness to which we are called? The Council did not decree a diminishment of devotions to saints. The Council urged us never to forget that our devotion to saints must always bring us closer to Jesus Christ and the sacred liturgy. The wide attention given to this relic provides an occasion to talk about the saints with our relatives and friends and co-workers in ministry who are not of the Catholic faith. Priests serving in parishes named for saints would do well to provide the parishioners with an historically accurate life of the saint. If the saint has written inspirational texts, they should be quoted in the bulletin or discussed in Advent study groups. If the parish has an authentic flrst class relic of its patron that has been neglected, consideration should be given to preparing worthy services during which the relic can be venerated. At the same time, and perhaps most importantly, it is an opportunity for our own spiritual awakening to the profound meaning of the sin-shattering, life-giving call to be saints that we received when we were baptized, confirmed, and received the Eucharist for the flrst time.
Let us pray:
O God of boundless love and mercy, as the Church concludes the Synod on the Family, we ask you to strengthen and protect all families. Teach us to respect the gift of our bodies and the gift of human sexuality. Help parents to provide an inspiring example for their children. Give them the courage to shelter them from those aspects of our secular, popular culture which glorifies the abuse of sexuality and shows no regard for modesty in dress, little respect for women, and an indifference to genuine family life.
Renew in us the commitments made at our Baptism, Confirmation, and First Communion. Help us to make frequent use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation so that we may live in such a way as to be numbered among your saints in this life and the life of the world to come.
You are praised in the company of your Saints
and, in crowning their merits, you crown your own gifts. By their way of life you offer us an example.
By communion with them you give us companionship.
By their intercession, sure support.
So that, encouraged by so great a company of witnesses, we may run as victors in the race before us
and win with them the imperishable crown of glory. Saint Maria Goretti. Pray for us! AMEN.