Big families are not trending these days. For the past 20 years, the number of kids in an American family averaged 2.5 (Pew Research Center) … I guess that means between two and three on average.

I grew up in a family with four kids, all boys born 1947, 1949, 1955 (me!) and 1959 – and we survived! I mention this because psychologists say family size affects child development, along with spacing, placement and a bunch of other factors. I never really thought about it much.

Maria Goretti was the third of seven children in her family. She was born on October 16, 1890, in Corinaldo, Italy. Her father, Luigi, owned a farm and, along with her mother, Assunta, guided their children as they all worked the farm. By 1895, the family experienced such poverty that they had to give up the farm, leave their home and begin working for other farmers. Following their third move, the Goretti family moved in with another family of tenant farm workers, the Serenelli family. 

When Maria turned nine, her father contracted malaria and died, adding yet another burden to the Goretti’s already strained resources. While her mother, brothers and sisters worked the farm, Maria remained at home attending to household chores. Through all its struggles, the Goretti family maintained a deeply religious faith, which strengthened its family bond.

Maria never went to school and could neither read nor write. Around eleven years of age, she attended catechism class to prepare for her first communion, but biographers have noted that she had difficulty with her lessons and was socially awkward, despite her physical maturity.

One day, while sitting on the stairs outside the house where she lived mending a shirt, Maria was approached by the son of the family with whom her own family was residing, 18-year-old Alessandro Serenelli. He pulled her inside and attempted to rape her. She begged him to stop, crying, “No, God does not wish it. It is a sin. You would go to hell for it.”

His assault was unsuccessful, so he began stabbing her with a sharp instrument 14 times. Maria was babysitting her young sister Teresa at the time. The child awoke and began crying. When her mother and brother came home, they found a Maria on the floor and, with Alessandro’s father assisting, took her to a neighboring hospital.

Although they could not administer anesthesia, doctors attempted to save her. While dying, Maria, fully conscious, informed police that Alessandro had approached her for sexual favors before. Her condition deteriorated quickly, and a priest brought her the last sacraments. Her final recorded words were, “I forgive Alessandro Serenelli and want him with me in heaven forever,” and she died.

Serenelli was arrested and tried for his crime. Police found a great deal of pornography in his residence.  He protested his innocence, claiming he acted in self-defense to rebuff the attacks of Maria. Alessandro changed his implausible story, eventually admitting to several previous attempts to rape the girl. Since he was still considered a minor, Alessandro was sentenced to 30 years in prison rather than a life sentence. He was a notoriously angry and violent inmate and had to be isolated from the general prison population.

After Maria’s death, her mother could no longer care for her children. In abject poverty, Assunta Goretti gave her children up for adoption.

Six years into his prison sentence, Alessandro Serenelli experienced a vision of Maria Goretti, who handed him 14 white lilies, one for each of her wounds. He asked to see the local bishop, confessed his sins and had a total conversion. His behavior changed so radically that he was released from prison for good behavior three years earlier than planned. He immediately sought out Maria’s mother and begged her forgiveness.

In the intervening years following her death, Maria Goretti’s young life, well-known piety and her rejection of sexual impurity inspired her neighbors’ and townspeople’s devotion to her. Gradually, news of her story spread throughout the region and attracted the attention of Church officials who sought her canonization. Miracles were attributed to her intercession, and she was beatified in 1947 and then canonized a saint by Pope Pius XII on June 24, 1950. He called her “the sweet little martyr of purity.”

At age 11, Maria Goretti was the youngest person ever canonized. Over 500,000 people attended the ceremony, moving it outside the Basilica to St. Peter’s Square, the first canonization ever celebrated outdoors. Another amazing detail: Maria’s mother, Assunta, and her murderer, Alessandro, who had become a lay Franciscan brother, were both present for the celebration, the first time a saint’s mother ever attended the canonization of her child. St. Maria Goretti’s feast day is a July 6, the day of her death.

St. Maria Goretti was a simple, young girl who became a saint. Unschooled, unable to read or write, her brief life witnessed such incredible holiness, and her death was an ultimate sacrifice for purity. She is a model example and patron of youth, especially young women. She is proof that sanctity does not require a long life or an early death – only a life, whatever its length, lived with and for the Lord. For young people in today’s world, little Maria Goretti shows us that saints can and do look like them. Pray for the youth of our Diocese, St. Maria Goretti, and inspire them, like you, to love the Lord.