Trigger warning for mention of sexual harassment, attempted rape, and child sexual abuse.
As a ten-year-old in my Catholic grade school, we were instructed to write a short biography on our patron saint based on our birthday. Excitedly, I flipped through our five-pound Lives of the Saints book, an encyclopedia of sorts of holy men and women throughout the ages, to my birthday only to find a boring, old man who didn’t resonate with my pre-teen self.
Disappointed, I decided that I would check out the saints around my half-birthday to see if there was a more appropriate match. To my surprise, there was. On the page marked sixth of July was an illustration of a young eleven or twelve-year-old girl named Maria Goretti. With long, curly hair and a lily in her hands, I thought to myself this is perfect as I scribbled her name down on the note-taking sheet next to me. She’s around my age, has curly dark hair like me, and is Italian, too!
At 10 years old, I knew that I’d like having St. Maria Goretti as my (chosen) patron saint. I just didn’t know how in another 10 years she’d be the patron saint of more than just my half birthday.
The following paragraphs on the page disturbed me. At ten-years-old, I didn’t grasp the full meaning of what the words were conveying, but I knew something bad happened to her. It said that an eighteen- or nineteen-year-old in her neighborhood had repeated sexually harassed and attempted to rape her, even threatened to harm her if she didn’t have sex with him. Each time, she vehemently refused his crude advances, telling him that it was a mortal sin and that he would go to hell if he followed through. “Something bad happened,” I remember thinking to myself, wondering how I’d summarize it for my report.
I kept reading. The story said that one day, she refused him for the last time. After proclaiming that she would rather die than submit to him, he stabbed her some eleven to fourteen times and then left her bleeding to death. Twenty hours later, Maria died in a hospital bed while clutching a crucifix and a picture of the Virgin Mary.
I was shocked, knowing that what happened was a grave injustice but not comprehending why it happened. So I kept reading, stumbling upon what other than the sixth of July Maria was a patron saint of: rape victims, teenage girls, poverty, purity, and forgiveness.
In my neatest handwriting, I wrote down r-a-p-e on my sheet, feeling a burn in my cheeks as I stared at the word. I knew what it meant because I had heard it years before on the TV. On Easter vacation one spring, I heard the word repeated on the Maury show and out of the pure curiosity of a second grader asked my mother what it meant. In the same matter-of-fact tone she used to teach the proper names of our private parts, my mother explained that rape is when someone forces you to have sex with them.
“Oh,” I said, the only response I could muster in that moment.
I remember my face turning crimson after she explained what it meant. As a second grader, I heard people talk about sex only as “it” on the playground, and understood that it was embarrassing like having a crush on someone, but not bad like when people said rape. It would be another decade before I more fully understood the meaning and ramifications of that word.
At this point, I was too invested in having St. Maria Goretti be my patron saint to choose another, less tragic saint to write my report on. So I continued reading about how her murderer was captured and sentenced to 30 years in jail. I took notes on how Maria forgave him on her deathbed, even going so far as to wish that he be saved so she could see him in heaven. I grimaced through the part on how he was unrepentant and uncommunicative for three years in jail, refusing to come to terms with the grave crime he committed until he had a dream in which Maria visited him. In the dream, she gave him some lilies which promptly burned to ashes in his hands.
I don’t remember if my teacher allowed me to write about such a brutal, disturbing story, but I do know that Maria’s story has stuck with me over the years in both the simple and profound sacredness of everyday life.
I thought of her when as a young girl with barely budding breasts I would get whistled and yelled at on the street by much older men.
I thought of her when I would watch SVU, reciting along with the narrator, in the criminal justice system, sexually-based offenses are considered especially heinous... up until the double gong of the judge’s mallet.
I thought of her when a boyfriend first tried to pressure me with the stereotypical line if you really loved me, you’d have sex with me and I vehemently refused, refusing such crude and unwanted advances as Maria did.
I thought of her when I accompanied college friends to the emergency room specialized nurse to investigate the sexual trauma inflicted upon them by no fault of their own.
I thought of her when she became my patron saint for more than just my half birthday, more than just girls and young women, more than just chastity.
And I think of her now as I grapple with how she forgave even before her murderer repented, how she wished to see him in heaven even as she sat on her deathbed. She pardoned, lending ugly yet redeeming grace to someone who destroyed her life -- even took it -- and who didn’t deserve forgiveness. If only I had her faith to do the same.
St. Maria Goretti, pray for me. Pray for all of us.