The major relics of St. Maria Goretti visited two Brooklyn parishes in early October as part of a seven-week “Pilgrimage of Mercy” in the U.S.
Part of an effort by the Vatican Congregation of the Causes of Saints, the saint’s Pontifical Basilica and Treasures of the Church evangelization ministry, the tour is meant to prepare American Catholics for the Holy Year of Mercy, set to begin Dec. 8.
St. Maria Goretti was chosen for the tour because the Church recognizes her as a model of mercy. From prisons to parishes across the nation, the Church’s youngest saint is bringing a message of forgiveness to people of all ages and walks of life.
Several hundred people venerated the remains of the girl known as the “little saint of great mercy” at Good Shepherd Church, Marine Park, and St. Joseph Co-Cathedral, Prospect Heights, Oct. 1 and 2, respectively.
“She’s here as a friend of mercy. Ask her to pray for you and invite her into your hearts,” Father Carlos Martins, C.C., custodian of the relics and pilgrimage director, told the faithful at Good Shepherd, where the relic was available from 7 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.
“You are welcome to touch the reliquary,” he said, “because God likes to heal through relics, and touch is the way by which that healing is received.”
Over two days, many knelt and placed their hands and prayer cards to the glass-sided coffin enclosing the waxen figure of a little girl in a white dress. The saint’s skeletal remains repose within the statue.
Widely honored as the patroness of purity, Father Martins explained to those greeting St. Maria, “Her purity, as great as it was, was not her greatest virtue.
“Her purity was the fruit from a tree that was much deeper within her, and that tree is mercy,” he said. “What touches people’s hearts is the mercy she demonstrates, her identification with Jesus Christ.”
Born in 1890, Maria Goretti was the eldest child of a poor Italian farming family. When her father died, her mother went to work while Maria, cooked, cleaned and cared for five siblings. Around this time, a neighbor Alessandro Serenelli, 20, began making sexual advances toward Maria, which she resisted. Serenelli demanded her virginity and when Maria refused, he stabbed her 14 times.
She died at age 11 in 1902, and her final words were of forgiveness for Serenelli and a desire that he join her in heaven forever.
“This story would not have the happy ending that it does if Maria had not made that difficult choice that she did, had she not chosen to forgive,” Father Martins told the faithful.
Serenelli showed no remorse for killing Maria and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. While in prison, he dreamed of Maria giving him 14 lilies as a symbol of forgiveness for the 14 wounds. He had a conversion of heart and confessed his sins.
Besides Serenelli’s conversion, many miracles have been attributed to St. Maria Goretti, who was canonized on June 24, 1950.
After Serenelli’s release from prison, he asked and received forgiveness from Maria’s mother. He went on to become a Franciscan Capuchin and lived a holy life to his death in 1970.
In recognition of Serenelli’s conversion behind bars, the tour began on Sept. 20 at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, N.Y., and will end in Tulsa, Okla., Nov. 12.
This is the first time the relics have traveled to the U.S., but for Mother Angelus, S.S.V.M., from St. Gabriel Church, East New York, seeing St. Maria was “like seeing an old friend.”
It was just the way she wanted to celebrate her birthday.
“I was looking for something special to do and when I found out about this, I said, ‘Alleluia, I’m going,’” she said.
She and three sisters from her community joined parishioners at Good Shepherd to venerate the relics and pray for the families they serve.
“We live in a difficult neighborhood. Family life is a mess,” Mother Angelus said.
“St. Maria is the most chosen saint among our girls for Confirmation. I think they want to be like her, but they don’t think they can be,” she said, wiping away tears.
John O’Brien, principal of Good Shepherd Catholic Academy, was grateful to bring the boys and girls from his school to see the relics.
“I’m thrilled they’re able to be here,” O’Brien said. “St. Maria Goretti is a great example to the children, especially as an example of forgiveness.”
He said seeking and giving forgiveness is going to be a focus of this academic year.
St. Maria’s visit was a “beautiful and enlightening experience” for Marine Park resident Doreen DeMartini, who first heard of the saint when she was a student at Bishop McDonnell H.S.
“The idea of a saint of mercy is a welcome thing in today’s world,” DeMartini said.
During the Holy Year of Mercy, she added, “I will be praying that St. Maria’s incredible act of mercy, and continued acts of mercy will rub off on me and the rest of the Church.”