Today, the liturgical calendar asks us to remember a 12-year-old Italian girl, Maria Goretti, who died on this day in 1902 after being sexually assaulted by an older boy. On her deathbed, she explicitly forgave her assailant.
Extending forgiveness to her murderer definitely is a holy act, a sign of a deep following of Gospel-mandates. But to think of Maria Goretti’s resistance to sexual assault as a heroic battle for her “purity” or “chastity” — rather than as a twelve-year-old’s struggle against sexualized violence — betrays a serious mis-construal of rape that many today find deeply troubling. Sadly, listing Maria Goretti as a “Virgin and Martyr” in the liturgical calendar of saints does not help to shift this mis-construal, and that of Maria Goretti as a martyr of chastity (it is troubling to think that priests today might use the recent new texts for a votive Mass for Chastity today!).
I find myself in need of different texts to think and pray with today. I offer a stanza from the hymn text, “Sacred the Body” by Ruth C. Duck, as a counter-narrative for all those similarly troubled by established narratives in the church of what it might mean when a 12-year-old girl struggles against sexualized violence:
Sacred the body
God has created,
Temple of Spirit that dwells deep inside.
Love does not batter, neglect, or abuse.
Love touches gently,
Love leaves the other with power to choose.
In my reading of her story, Maria Goretti resisted sexualized coercion and violence (I do not know of any 12-year-olds who would actually welcome that kind of violence). The real spirit of Maria’s holiness becomes visible to me not in her safeguarding her “purity,” but in her forgiving her assailant before she died. Alessandro, after having served his prison sentence, became a Capuchin brother.