Yesterday's feast engendered more than a few posts, tweets and comments across the web about the saint of the day. Here's one writer who finds inspiration in Maria's story--so much so that she is giving away two copies of a DVD on the saint's life. But there is also a meek protest in the comments from a person who, having suffered sexual abuse, almost sees Maria's martyrdom as a reproach. Are survivors of rape, abuse or violence at fault? Does Maria's canonization mean that every woman faced with rape is obliged to fight to the death? "Better off dead"? Is that what the Church is insinuating every year on July 6?
The Preface for the Mass of Martyrs says to God, "You choose the weak and make them strong in bearing witness to you." Faced with Alexander Serenelli's proposition, she forthrightly told him that what he was asking was gravely sinful and that he was risking his immortal soul. Where did a fatherless pre-teen find the courage (never mind the clear-headedness) to give an answer like that to a man with a knife in his hand? That's a sign of God making the weak strong in bearing witness. The important thing in Maria Goretti's story is not that she died, but that she bore witness to the truth--even when that truth was unwelcome. The fact that she did die under those circumstances made that act of witness unmistakeable and definitive. The manner of her death put a kind of "seal" on her last acts.
Maria's witness wasn't confined to catechetical truth-telling. In the hospital, before giving her Viaticum (two months after her First Communion), the priest asked Maria if she forgave Alexander (in her delerium, she had been repeating, "Poor, miserable Alexander! You will go to hell!"). She answered yes, "for the love of Jesus," and even added that she wanted him to be in heaven with her. That generosity is another sign of God making the weak strong in bearing witness--this time, witness to the scope of Christian charity. (That there was more going on here than an overdose of Neopolitan piety was proven later by Serenelli's conversion in prison.)
The Church honors martyrs ("witnesses") because they bring the truth of the Gospel into bold relief. There are some lives that manifest the power of God in a striking way. Maria's witness gives us a clue about what the grace of God can look like under her very particular circumstances. When we recognize and acknowledge and acclaim that power, we are making an act of hope that God's grace will also be powerful in us.