New Insights on the Gospels

March for Life 2012

Evil triumphs when good men do nothing - Edmund Burke

Saturday, July 11, 2009

St Benedict Abbot - 11th July 2009

Overrun by half-civilized pagan and Arian hordes during the fifth century, Italy and the entire Mediterranean world was falling back into barbarism. The Church was torn by conflict, city and country alike were made desolate by war and pillage, violence was rampant among Christians as well as heathen. During this anarchic time appeared one of the noblest of the Fathers of the Western Church—St. Benedict of Nursia, founder of the great order which bears his name. We know little of his background, save that he was born about the year 480 at Nursia, in the province of Umbria, in north central Italy, and that his family was probably of noble lineage. We also know that he had a sister called Scholastica, who from childhood vowed herself to God.

Sent to Rome to be educated, young Benedict was quickly revolted by the licentiousness of his fellow students. He was not yet twenty when he decided to go away from Rome to live in some remote spot. No one knew of his plan except an aged family servant, who loyally insisted on accompanying him to serve his wants. Benedict and this old woman made their way to a village called Enfide, in the Sabine Mountains, some thirty miles from Rome. In the , St. Gregory gives us a series of remarkable incidents associated with Benedict's life, one of them occurring at this time. While staying in the village, Benedict miraculously mended an earthen sieve which his servant had broken. Wishing to escape the notice and the talk which this brought upon him, he soon started out alone in search of complete solitude. Up among the hills he found a place known as Subiaco or Sublacum (beneath the lake), so named from an artificial lake created there some five centuries earlier. It was near the ruins of one of Nero's palaces. He made the acquaintance of a monk called Romanus, and to him Benedict revealed his desire to become a hermit. Romanus, who lived in a monastery not far away, gave the young man a monastic habit made of skins and led him up to an isolated cave, where he might live completely undisturbed. The roof of the cave was an overhanging rock over which descent was impossible, and it was approached from below with difficulty In this desolate cavern Benedict passed the next three years, unknown to all but his friend Romanus, who each day saved for him a part of his own portion of bread and let it down from above in a basket by a rope.

According to Pope Gregory, the first outsider to find his way to the cave was a priest, who while preparing a special dinner for himself on Easter Sunday heard a voice saying to him: "Thou art preparing thyself a savoury dish while my servant Benedict is afflicted with hunger." The priest immediately set out in search of Benedict, and finally discovered his hiding place. Benedict was astonished, but before he would enter into conversation with his visitor he asked that they might pray together. Then, after they had talked for a time on heavenly things, the priest invited Benedict to eat, telling him that it was Easter Day, on which it is not reasonable to fast. Later Benedict was seen by some shepherds, who at first glance took him for a wild animal because he was clothed in the skins of beasts. It did not occur to them that a human being could live among the barren rocks. From that time on, others made their way up the steep cliff, bringing such small offerings of food as the holy man would accept and receiving from him instruction and advice.

Even though he lived thus sequestered from the world, Benedict, like the Desert Fathers, had to struggle with temptations of the flesh and the devil. One of these struggles is described by Gregory. "On a certain day when he was alone the tempter presented himself. A small dark bird, commonly called a blackbird, began to fly around his face and came so near him that, if he had wished, he could have seized it with his hand. But on his making the sign of the cross, the bird flew away. Then followed a violent temptation of the flesh, such as he had never before experienced. The evil spirit brought before his imagination a woman whom he had formerly seen, and inflamed his heart with such vehement desire at the memory of her that he had very great difficulty in repressing it. He was almost overcome and thought of leaving his solitude. Suddenly, however, with the help of divine grace, he found the strength he needed. Seeing near at hand a thick growth of briars and nettles, he stripped off his habit and cast himself into the midst of them and plunged and tossed about until his whole body was lacerated. Thus, through those bodily wounds, he cured the wounds of his soul." Never again was he troubled in the same way.

Between Tivoli and Subiaco, at Vicovaro, on the summit of a fortified rock overlooking the Anio, there lived at that time a community of monks. Having lost their abbot by death, they now came in a body to ask Benedict to accept the office, no doubt with the idea that his growing fame would attract offerings to their community. He at first refused, assuring the monks that their ways and his would not agree. At length they persuaded him to return with them. It soon became evident that the severe monastic discipline he instituted did not suit their lax habits, and in order to get rid of him they finally poisoned his wine. When, as was his habit, he made the sign of the cross over the cup, it broke as if a stone had fallen on it. "God forgive you, brothers," Benedict said serenely. "Why have you plotted this wicked thing against me? Did I not tell you beforehand that my ways would not accord with yours? Go and find an abbot to your taste, for after what you have done you can no longer keep me with you." Then he bade them farewell and returned to Subiaco.

Disciples now began to gather around Benedict, attracted by his sanctity and by his miraculous powers. At last he found himself in a position to initiate the great work for which God had been preparing him. This was the idea that had slowly been germinating during his years of isolation: to bring together those who wished to share the monastic life, both men of the world who yearned to escape material concerns and the monks who had been living in solitude or in widely scattered communities, to make of them one flock, binding them by fraternal bonds, under one observance, in the permanent worship of God. In short, his scheme was for the establishment in the West of a single great religious order which would end the capricious rule of the various superiors and the vagaries of individual anchorites. Those who agreed to obey Benedict in this enterprise, he settled in twelve monasteries of twelve monks each. Although each monastery had its own prior, Benedict himself exercised general control over all of them from the monastery of St. Clement.

They had no written rule, although they may at first have been guided by the Eastern Rule of St. Basil. According to one old record, they simply followed the example of Benedict's deeds. Romans and barbarians, rich and poor, came to place themselves under a monk who made no distinction of rank or nation. Parents brought their young sons, for, in the prevailing chaos, the safest and happiest way of life seemed to be that of the monk. Gregory tells us of two noble Romans, Tertullus, a patrician, and Equitius, who came with their small sons, Placidus, a child of seven, and Maurus, a lad of twelve. They were the forerunners of the great hosts of boys, in succeeding centuries, who were to be educated in Benedictine schools. On these two aristocratic young Romans, especially on Maurus, who afterwards became his coadjutor, Benedict expended his utmost care.

Gregory tells also of a rough untutored Goth who came to Benedict, was gladly received, and clothed in the monastic habit. As he was working one day with a hedgehook to clear the underbrush from a sloping piece of ground above the lake, the head of the hook flew off and disappeared into the water. When Benedict heard of the accident, he led the man to the water's edge, took from him the shaft, and dipped it into the lake. Immediately from the bottom rose the iron head and fastened itself in the shaft, whereat Benedict returned it to the astonished Goth, saying in a kindly voice, "Take your tool; work and be comforted." One of Benedict's greatest accomplishments was to break down in his monasteries the ancient prejudice against manual work as something in itself degrading and servile. The Romans had for centuries made slaves of conquered peoples, who performed their menial tasks. Now times were changing. Benedict introduced the novel idea that labor was not only dignified and honorable but conducive to sanctity; it was therefore made compulsory for all who joined the order, nobles and plebeians alike. "He who works prays," became the maxim which expressed the Benedictine attitude.

We do not know how long Benedict remained in the neighborhood of Subiaco, but he stayed long enough certainly to establish his monasteries there on a firm and permanent basis. His departure seems to have been unpremeditated. There was living in the neighborhood an unworthy priest called Florentius, who was bitterly envious of the success of Benedict's organization and of the great concourse of people who were flocking to him. Florentius tried to ruin him by slander; then he sent him a poisoned loaf, which failed of its purpose. Finally he set out to corrupt Benedict's monks by introducing into their garden women of evil life. Benedict realized Florentius' malicious schemes were directed at him personally and he resolved to leave Subiaco, lest the souls of his spiritual sons should be further assailed. Having set all things in order, he summoned the monks, or their representatives, from the twelve monasteries, bade them farewell, and withdrew with a few disciples from Subiaco to the more southerly territory of Monte Cassino, a conspicuous elevation where land had been offered him by Placidus' father, the patrician Tertullus.

The town of Cassino, formerly an important place, had been destroyed by the Goths, and the remnant of its inhabitants, left without a priest, were relapsing into paganism; the once-fertile land had fallen out of cultivation. From time to time the inhabitants would climb up through the woods to offer sacrifices in an ancient temple dedicated to Apollo, which stood on the crest of Monte Cassino. Benedict's first work, after a preliminary forty-day fast, was to preach to the people and win them back to the faith. With the help of these converts, he proceeded to overthrow the pagan temple and cut down the sacred grove. He built two oratories or chapels on the site; one he dedicated to St. John the Baptist and the other to St. Martin. Round about these sanctuaries new buildings were erected and older ones remodeled, until there rose, little by little, the tremendous pile which was to become the most famous abbey the world has known. The foundation was laid by Benedict probably about the year 520.

Profiting no doubt by his earlier experience, Benedict did not distribute his monks in separate houses, but gathered them together in one great establishment, ruled over by a prior and deans under his own direction. Almost immediately it became necessary to build guest chambers, for Monte Cassino[1] was easily accessible from Rome, Capua, and other points. Among the early visitors were Placidus' father, who came to confirm his donation, and Maurus' father, who bestowed more lands and churches on Benedict. Another generous benefactor was Gregory's father, Gordianus, who in the name of his wife Sylvia gave Benedict the Villa Euchelia in the suburbs of Aquinum, not far away, and other valuable property. Not only laymen but dignitaries of the Church, bishops and abbots, came to consult with the founder, whose reputation for sanctity, wisdom, and miracles was spreading.

It was probably during this period that Benedict composed his famous Rule.[2] Gregory says that in it may be perceived "all his own manner of life and discipline, for the holy man could not possibly teach otherwise than as he lived." Although the Rule professes only to lay down a pattern of life for the monks at Monte Cassino, it served as a guide for the monks of the whole Western Empire. It is addressed to all who, renouncing their own will, take upon them "the strong and bright armor of obedience, to fight under our Lord Christ, our true king." It prescribes a diversified routine of liturgical prayer, study, and physical work, in a community under one father. It was written for laymen by one who was not a priest; only after some five hundred years were clerical orders required of Benedictines. Its asceticism was intended to be reasonable; the monks abstained from flesh meat and did not break fast until mid-day. Self-imposed and abnormal austerities damaging to health were not encouraged. When a hermit who lived in a cave near Monte Cassino chained his foot to a rock, Benedict, to whom he looked for direction, sent him the message, "If thou art truly a servant of God, chain thyself not with a chain of iron but with a chain of Christ."

Far from confining his attention to those who accepted his Rule, Benedict extended his solicitude to the people of the countryside. He cured the sick, relieved the distressed, distributed alms and food to the poor, and is said on more than one occasion to have raised the dead. When Campania suffered from a famine, he gave away all the provisions stored in the abbey, with the exception of five loaves. "You have not enough today," he said to his monks, noticing their dismay, "but tomorrow you will have too much." Benedict's faith had its reward. The next morning a large donation of flour was deposited by unknown hands at the monastery gate. Other stories were told of prophetic powers and of an ability to read men's thoughts. A nobleman he had converted once found him in tears and inquired the cause of his grief. Benedict astounded him by replying that the monastery and everything in it would be delivered to the pagans, and the monks would barely escape with their lives. This prophecy came true some forty years later, when the abbey was wrecked by a new wave of invaders, the pagan Lombards.

Meanwhile, Totila, King of the Goths, had defeated the Emperor Justinian's army at Faenza and in 542 was making a triumphal progress through central Italy towards Naples. On the way he wished to visit Benedict, of whom he had heard marvelous tales. He therefore sent word of his coming to the famous abbot, who replied that he would see him. To discover whether Benedict really possessed the supernatural insight attributed to him, Totila ordered Riggo, captain of the guard, to don his own purple robes, and sent him, with the three counts who usually attended him, up to Monte Cassino. The trick did not deceive Benedict, who greeted Riggo with the words, "My son, take off what thou art wearing; it is not thine." Confounded, Riggo threw himself at Benedict's feet and then withdrew in haste to report to his master.

Totila now came himself to the abbey and, we are told, was so awed by Benedict that he fell prostrate. Benedict, raising him from the ground, rebuked him sternly for his cruelties and foretold in a few words all that should befall him. "Much evil," he said, "dost thou do and much wickedness hast thou done. Now, at least, make an end of iniquity. Rome thou shalt enter; thou wilt cross the sea; nine years thou shalt reign, and die the tenth." Totila begged for his prayers and departed, and from that time on, people said, was less cruel. In course of time he advanced on Rome, sailed thence to Sicily, and in the tenth year, lost both his crown and his life.[3] Benedict did not live long enough to see the prophecy fulfilled.

He who had foretold so many things was forewarned of his own death, and six days before the end bade his disciples dig a grave. As soon as this was done, Benedict was stricken with a fever, and on the sixth day, while the brethren supported him, he murmured a few words of prayer and died, standing, with hands uplifted towards Heaven. He was buried beside his sister Scholastica,[4] on the site of the altar of Apollo which he had thrown down. In art Benedict is commonly represented with King Totila, or with his finger on his lips, holding the Rule, or with the opening words, "," ("Hearken, O son") proceeding from his mouth. His symbols are reminders of various incidents in his life: we see him with a blackbird, a broken sieve, a rose bush, a scourge, a dove, a globe of fire, or a luminous stairway up which he is proceeding to Heaven; occasionally he is depicted with King Totila at his feet. The order which Benedict founded has spread over the earth. It was mainly responsible for the conversion of the Teutonic races, and has left its mark on the education, art, and literature of Europe. Within its cloisters, always marked by an atmosphere of industry and peace, were copied and recopied the great writings of the past, to be cherished and passed on to succeeding generations.



1. . . service, in the organization of which we trust that we shall ordain nothing severe and nothing burdensome. Yet if, prompted by a desire to attain to righteousness, we prescribe something a little irksome for the correction of vice or the preservation of charity, do you not, therefore, in terror flee from the way of salvation, the entrance to which must needs be narrow. For by continuing in this mode of life and faith the heart is enlarged and in the unutterable sweetness of love, we run in the way of God's commandments. Thus never straying from His guidance but persevering in the monastery unto death in His teachings, through patience we become partakers of Christ's passion and worthy heirs of His kingdom. Amen....

2. . An abbot who is worthy to preside over a monastery should always remember what he is called and justify by his deeds his title as a superior. For in the monastery he is looked upon as the representative of Christ, since he is called by His name, and the Apostle says: "Ye have received the spirit of adoption, whereby we cry Abba, Father."[5] So an abbot ought not to teach, institute, or command anything contrary to the precepts of the Lord, but his orders and teachings should be sprinkled in the minds of his disciples with the leaven of divine justice.... He must show no favoritism in the monastery, nor love one more than another, unless it be one whom he finds excelling in good works and obedience. He must not place a man of gentle birth above one lately a serf, except for some other reasonable cause . . . for whether bond or free, we are all one in Christ....

48. . Idleness is the enemy of the soul. At set times, accordingly, the brethren should be occupied with manual work, and again, at set times, with spiritual reading. We believe therefore that the hours for each should be fixed as follows: that is, from Easter to the first of October they should go out early in the morning from Prime[6] and work at what has to be done until about the fourth hour, and from the fourth hour spend their time in reading until about the sixth hour. When they rise from eating, after the sixth hour, they should rest on their beds in complete silence, or if one happens to wish to read let him do so without disturbing anyone else. Let Nones be said in good time, about the middle of the eighth hour; and then let them work again at whatever needs to be done until vespers. And let them not be disturbed if poverty or the necessities of the place compel them to toil at harvesting the crops with their own hands, as did our fathers and the Apostles.... In Lent they shall each receive a book from the library and read it entirely through. These books shall be given out at the beginning of Lent. Above all, have one or two seniors appointed to go around the monastery during the hours for reading to see that no restless brother is by chance idle or chattering and not intent on his reading and so of no profit to himself and a distraction to others.... However, if there is anyone so dull or lazy that he either will not or cannot study or read, let him have some task assigned him which he can perform, so that he may not be idle....

64. . Let him who has been created abbot reflect always on the weighty burden he has assumed and remember to whom he shall give an account of his stewardship. Let him understand too that he is to help others rather than command them.... He must hate vice but love the brethren. Even in his corrections he should act wisely lest while he too vigorously scrubs off the rust the vessel itself is shattered. He shall always bear in mind his own frailty and remember that the bruised reed must not be broken.... And he shall aim at being loved rather than feared.... Wherefore, adopting these and like principles of discretion, mother of virtues, let him so temper all things that the strong man may find scope for action and the weak be not intimidated. And especially let him keep the present Rule in all respects, so that when he has well administered it, he may hear from our Lord what that good servant did who gave meat to his fellow servants in due season.[7] "Verily I say unto you, That he shall make him ruler over all his goods."

Notes:

1 The monastery of Monte Cassino was destroyed by the Lombards about seventy years later. It was rebuilt and again destroyed, this time by the Saracens in 884; after its second restoration, it enjoyed a period of tranquillity, and in the eleventh century attained its greatest influence. It suffered severely from aerial bombardment during the Allied advance northwards in World War II, but the rebuilding of damaged portions has already begun.

2 "A monument of legislative art, remarkable alike for its completeness, its Simplicitys and its adaptability," wrote H. F. Dudden. The French historian Michelet said that it "gave to a world worn out by slavery the first example of work done by the hands of free men."

3 Totila was killed in the battle of Tagina, fighting against the forces of the Emperor Justinian under Narses. With his death all hope of the Goths for a kingdom in Italy ended. For more background on this period, see , below.

4 St. Scholastica was abbess of a nunnery about five miles south of Monte Cassino. Once a year she visited her brother and they spent the day in song and prayer and conversation. On the day of her death it is said that Benedict, at prayer in his cell, had a vision of his sister's soul ascending to Heaven. Filled with joy at her happiness, he thanked God, and then went out to announce her passing to his brethren.

5 Roman viii, 15 (Father) was used by the early Jews as a title of honor, and by Jesus and his contemporaries of the Deity.

6 Historians differ as to the exact length of the periods of work, rest, and reading, but the office of Prime was said probably between five and six in the morning, and the first hour would be about six, the sixth about noon. In the winter months work did not begin until about an hour later in the morning.

7 See Matthew XXIV, 45-47.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

St. Augustine Zhao Rong - 9th July 2009

Saint Augustine Zhao Rong was a Chinese diocesan priest who was martyred with his 119 companions in 1815. Among their number was an eighteen year old boy, Chi Zhuzi, who cried out to those who had just cut off his right arm and were preparing to flay him alive: "Every piece of my flesh, every drop of my blood will tell you that I am Christian." This optional memorial is new to the USA liturgical calendar and will be inscribed on July 9.

Christianity arrived in China by way of Syria in the 600s. Depending on China's relations with the outside world, Christianity over the centuries was free to grow or was forced to operate secretly.

The 120 martyrs in this group died between 1648 and 1930. Most of them (eighty-seven) were born in China and were children, parents, catechists or laborers, ranging from nine years of age to seventy-two. This group includes four Chinese diocesan priests.

If you visit the Vatican website, there are details about the 120 people who are counted among those martyrs we remember tonight. Most of them died in the 19th century, persecuted during the Boxer Rebellion. Reading about them, you’re struck by several things.

First, are the ages. So many were children. Three, four years old. One was ten months old. Some were teenagers, like 14-year-old Wang Anna…who refused to renounce her faith. Moments before her death, she cried out: “The door of heaven is open to all,” then whispered, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” Seconds later, she was beheaded.

So many of them were also lay people. Mothers and fathers, even entire families. They were people like 18-year-old Chi Zhuzi, who became a Catholic at 17, and was disowned by his family. He was eventually captured and ordered to publicly worship idols. When he refused, they cut off his right arm. He still refused, declaring: “Every piece of my flesh, every drop of my blood will tell you that I am Christian.” He died by mutilation.

And about a quarter of the martyrs weren’t from China. While 87 of them were native Chinese – the first ever to be canonized -- 33 of them were missionaries, from France, or Germany, or Italy, who went to China to proclaim the Kingdom of God…and met bloodshed

The thirty-three foreign-born martyrs were mostly priests or women religious, especially from the Order of Preachers, the Paris Foreign Mission Society, the Friars Minor, Jesuits, Salesians and Franciscan Missionaries of Mary.

Augustine Zhao Rong was a Chinese soldier who accompanied Bishop John Gabriel Taurin Dufresse (Paris Foreign Mission Society) to his martyrdom in Beijing. Augustine was baptized and not long after was ordained as a diocesan priest. He was martyred in 1815. Beatified in groups at various times, these 120 martyrs were canonized in Rome on October 1, 2000.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

St. Priscilla - 8th July 2009

St. Priscilla and her husband, St. Aquila of the Seventy, were Jewish Christians. Originally from Pontus (in Egypt), they moved to Rome to work as tentmakers. After they were exiled from Rome during the expulsion of the Jews in 49 AD, however, they moved to Corinth and met St. Paul.

Ss. Priscilla and Aquila moved to Ephesus and established a church in their home. In Ephesus they discipled Apollo, a famous early evangelist in the Church. They moved back to Rome for a while, where their tireless work for God prompted St. Paul to praise them in Romans 3-4. In the end, they returned to Ephesus, where St. Aquila was a bishop with St. Timothy.


Tuesday, July 7, 2009

St. Benedict XI - 7th July 2009

Nicholas Boccasini born at Treviso, Italy, 1240; died at Perugia, 7 July, 1304. He entered the Dominican Order at the age of fourteen. After fourteen years of study, he became lector of theology, which office he filled for several years.

In 1296 he was elected Master General of the Order. As at this time hostility to Boniface VIII was becoming more pronounced, the new general issued an ordinance forbidding his subjects to favour in any way the opponents of the reigning pontiff; he also enjoined on them to defend in their sermons, when opportune, the legitimacy of the election of Boniface. This loyalty of Boccasini, which remained unshaken to the end, was recognized by Boniface, who showed him many marks of favour and confidence. Thus with the two cardinal-legates, the Dominican General formed the important embassy, the purpose of which was the concluding of an armistice between Edward I of England and Philip IV of France, then at war with each other.

In the year 1298 Boccasini was elevated to the cardinalate; he was afterwards appointed Bishop of Ostia and Dean of the Sacred College. As at that time Hungary was rent by civil war, the cardinal-bishop was sent thither by the Holy See as legate a latere to labour for the restoration of peace. At the time of the return of the legate to Rome, the famous contest of Boniface VIII with Philip the Fair had reached its height. When, in 1303, the enemies of the pope had made themselves masters of the sacred palace, of all the cardinals and prelates only the two Cardinal-Bishops of Ostia and Sabina remained at the side of the venerable Pontiff to defend him from the violence of William of Nogaret and Sciarra Colonna.

A month after this scene of violence, Boniface having died, Boccasini was unanimously elected Pope, 22 October, taking the name of Benedict XI. The principal event of his pontificate was the restoration of peace with the French court. He was Pope only for a year (1303-1304).

Benedict XI was beatified in the year 1773. His feast is celebrated at Rome and throughout the Dominican Order on the 7th of July. He is the author of a volume of sermons and commentaries on a part of the Gospel of St. Matthew, on the Psalms, the Book of Job, and the Apocalypse.

Monday, July 6, 2009

St. Maria Goretti - 6th July 2009

"By the loving providence of God, we have assisted this evening at the supreme exaltation of a humble daughter of the people, in a ceremony whose solemnity and dignity are unique in the history of the Church.

For tonight's canonization has been held in this vast and inviting place of mystery, made for the occasion into a sacred temple whose vault is the open heaven that proclaims the glories of Almighty God—a choice for which you first expressed the desire before We had decided to make the disposition.

The concourse of the faithful coming here for the occasion, exceeds anything that has ever been witnessed at any other occasion. You have been lured here, we might almost say, by the entrancing beauty and intoxicating fragrance of this lily mantled with crimson whom we, only a moment ago, had the intense pleasure of inscribing in the roll of the saints; the sweet little martyr of purity, Maria Goretti."

Assunta Goretti, Maria's mother, must have had many thoughts and mixed emotions as she listened to His Holiness, Pope Pius XII deliver this homily. More than 250,000 people had gathered in the piazza, St. Peter's Square on the evening, June 24, 1950 to participate in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, to pray, and to honor Assunta’s canonized daughter. Any mother would be transported back in time, the early days of marriage, young children, family, familiar surroundings...

...To the never-ending winter of 1897. The blustery Alpine cold whipped down along Italy's eastern edge. Italy's backbone, the Apennine Mountains, deflect all the warmth from the Mediterranean and the African Continent. Luigi Goretti, Assunta's hard working farmer husband, was discouraged. The pure mountain air, steep paths and craggy landscape were appealing. Even the beauty of the Adriatic could be seen from the church tower in their little village of Corinaldo. But it was not enticing now. Enduring the long winters of heavy snows and bitter cold wind while gathering precious fuel was no way to live. Luigi was a man of action. God helps those who help themselves. He wanted more for his family than the meager existence the mountains provided. Assunta felt a knot of fear and panic at the thought of leaving her ancestral home. But Luigi, in his youthful travels as a soldier, had seen what lay beyond the mountains. There was the milder Mediterranean climate, fertile plains, and a chance for a man to make a living for his family, rather than the constant battle against nature.

Luigi and Assunta packed what little they had, along with their four children, Angelo, nine, Maria, six, Marino, four and new born Allesandro. Across the Apennines they traveled, two hundred miles in two weeks, due westward on steep, treacherous mountain paths until at last the Roman Campagna spread before them.

Into the city they headed, overwhelmed by the size, the multitudes of people and a strange, noisy life. They found comfort inside the city's numerous churches, praying, lighting candles, imploring the saints for guidance that they would find fruit and not folly in their adventure.

By chance they learned of rich farm lands owned by Count Mazzoleni south west of the city near the coastal town of Nettuno. They were told to stop and inquire at Ferriere. The land could be rented reasonably, or perhaps worked on a profit-sharing basis. The family was eager to settle. The boys were becoming restless. Only Maria remained sweet and uncomplaining as the city pavement fell away to a landscape of vineyards, and fields of wheat and corn. But as they continued, the Mediterranean coastal plain was very different. The "fertile" farmland had to be wrestled away from marshes and swamps. The air was hot and always heavy and damp from the sea.

It was mid afternoon when they entered the village of Ferriere on the edge of the Pontine Marshes. Not a soul was on the street to greet them; no church, no shops.

The heat of the day was intense, the children thirsty and tired after the day's journey.

Luigi swallowed his disappointment as he knocked on a door. Looking around him he felt unwelcome, as if all the sidewalks had been pulled up and locked away.

Finally after several attempts to arouse someone, Luigi heard the slow shuffling of feet. An elderly woman unbolted the door and directed him in the direction of the Count's "estate": the "old cheese factory" at the end of town.

The Goretti's found the oblong two story building perched on a small rise surrounded by flat, swampy, treeless land. The outbuildings consisted of a shed, stable and hen house, abandoned, empty of all life. With minimal fuss and bother, the Goretti's became sharecroppers for Count Mazzoleni.

Assunta quickly took over the cares of the house and made it home for her family.

Luigi began to work immediately to make a success of his endeavor. His first project was to drain the neglected land. All summer he continued with tireless effort and by fall had tilled enough land to plant eight acres of wheat and barley. But the summer of backbreaking work, the change in climate and the proximity of the malarial-infested Pontine had put Luigi in grave danger. At first, he ignored a slight chill and fever. With so much to be done how could he rest? There was work at the quarry to patch the roadway, hedges to trim, firewood to secure, buildings and roofs to repair, lofts to clean, and task after task after task. A troublesome cough followed him day and night, but he never stopped.

Harvest time came and Count Mazzoleni came to inspect the yield. He found Goretti's grain half cut, limp in the fields. The Count angrily stormed into the house.

Luigi lay ill, prostrate with fever. He could only admit that he could not bring in the harvest by himself. Without waiting for further explanation, the Count said he would send Giovanni Serenelli and his son to complete the work for a share of the crop.

Luigi fought back bitter disappointment. Now he must share half his harvest and expect Assunta to care for two more people. How could he ask his lovely Assunta to do more? Already she was overburdened with his illness, the children, a new baby, and the cares of the farm. As Luigi and Assunta prayed together before retiring, Luigi knew he must tell Assunta, but first he must sleep.

Early the next morning, the Serenelli's arrived. Giovanni was a man about sixty and his youngest son, Alexander, was a strong and well-built young man of eighteen.

Giovanni hailed from Assunta's own country and spoke lovingly of the people and places that were dear to her heart. He also had a well-practiced and touching litany of his own miseries: his wife's death in the asylum and a son's confinement there, his other children following their own lives back home. He was now left with his youngest, destitute and alone, but willing to work with Luigi—for half of the profits and a communal life with the Goretti's.

As the Serenelli's diligently began to work to get the harvest under control, a bit of joy returned to the Goretti household. Assunta prepared her best meals. The children were happily amused with Alexander's prowess at catching birds and making reed whistles. But as autumn's labors turned to the rainy, idle days of winter, the Serenelli's dispositions soured.

Giovanni had taken a liking to the strong, local wines and became irritable and overbearing. Alexander began to act vile, hostile and sullen, the result of years of maternal neglect and a youthful, depraved apprenticeship among the stevedores. He now shunned the children and spent his time locked in his room brooding over seamy magazines. Assunta discovered his hoard of pornographic books as she cleaned his room one day. She worried about Alexander's influence on her oldest son, Angelo, but unwilling to start a quarrel, she swallowed her first impulse to burn every piece of trash she found. Their home did not need more trouble. Luigi regretted their move from the mountains and especially repented of taking these two strangers into his home.

The malaria was doing its subtle job through the winter. As spring beckoned with endless work, Luigi attempted to meet its rigors uncomplainingly. He came in from the fields pallid and exhausted. Each night the children knelt about the bed in prayer; Luigi looked at his beautiful little Maria, with her limpid eyes and rosy cheeks. Why had he not noticed her maturity and grace? Silently she prayed and wept for her family. As April 1902 ended, so did Luigi's earthly life. As he lay surrounded by family and neighbors, he whispered haltingly to Assunta: "Go back to Corinaldo..."

Giovanni Serenelli became master of the farm. He was harsh and ruthless. He allowed Assunta and the children to stay and work for him. She desperately longed to go back to home and family, back to the fresh mountain life. She could not fulfill Luigi's dying wish now. A woman traveling over two hundred miles alone with seven young children and no money was unthinkable. Giovanni insisted Maria, now twelve, assume all the household duties while Assunta worked in the fields.

Her father's illness and death, the Serenelli's sinister cruelty, the never-ending labors of the farm had made Maria far too serious for her age. Her devotion to Jesus and her obedience to her mother was extraordinary. Even the other village children noticed her piety as she walked to town to sell eggs. It was with admiration and a touch of envy that they referred to Maria as "The Little Old Lady."

It was now July 1902. Only a few months before, Maria, though illiterate, had completed her Catechism instructions in order to receive her First Holy Communion.

How she had longed to take Jesus into her heart often! Once a week on Sunday just did not seem like enough. Maria managed the rigors of life because she had her Jesus for strength. This serious little girl had matured spiritually beyond her years, too.

Assunta noticed her young daughter's character changing. There was no childish playfulness left in Maria. The cares of the world clouded her eyes with sadness. Her night prayers become longer. She examined her conscience repeatedly for occasions of sin, her small body trembled with fear and bitter sobs. Alexander Serenelli had been stalking her for months now, prowling about with evil in his heart, threatening to kill her if she told a soul. She did not take Assunta into her confidence for fear of burdening her mother with more cares and creating more trouble with the Serenelli's.

The intense summer sun burned down on the farm yard. Assunta watched her children playfully helping with the threshing. She gazed upon them with intense love. They were her last joy left in this life. Maria was up on the porch outside of the kitchen, fingers flying with needle and thread, baby Theresa asleep at her feet.

Maria was lost in thought, too. She was rejoicing in eager anticipation of going to Mass. Tomorrow was Sunday and the Feast of the Precious Blood of Jesus. How she longed to share herself with Him in Confession and Communion. Then suddenly, Maria was startled by the sound of footsteps behind her. It was Alexander. He demanded she come into the kitchen. She froze in terror. Maria's silence further inflamed his foul passions. He grabbed her arm, dragged her into the kitchen, pressed a dagger to her throat and bolted the door. She fought him fiercely and screamed, "No! No Alexander! It is a sin. God forbids it. You will go to hell, Alexander. You will go to hell if you do it!" All went unseen and unheard.

Maria awoke with the sun streaming through the kitchen window. She heard the children playing and the monotonous sound of the threshing. The baby Theresa was crying at the edge of the porch. Maria attempted to lift herself to the open kitchen door. Her call for help was more a submission to the searing pain. A napping Giovanni heard the infant crying, and in an instant of exasperation for what he thought was Maria's neglect, headed up the stairs. His shout brought Assunta and the neighbors running, hearts pounding. They found Maria, tortured with pain, badly bruised and lying in a pool of blood. Assunta, recovering from shock questioned her sweet Maria, who answered, "It was Alexander, Mama... Because he wanted me to commit an awful sin and I would not."

Maria was laid tenderly on a bed while a neighbor summoned the ambulance.

Assunta tried to soothe her daughter's agony as the ambulance wagon bumped along on that torturous trip to the hospital in Nettuno. The doctors attempted to repair the extensive damage, but could give Assunta no encouragement. Maria unconsciously cried as she resisted Alexander's demands over and over. When she opened her eyes, they were transfixed upon the Statue of Our Lady placed at the foot of her bed. Awake she seemed to remember nothing of the previous day's horrors and wished only to know of the well being of her family. The parish priest came in to offer her Viaticum, but first she took time to reflect on the good Father's reminder that Jesus had pardoned those who had crucified Him. As she gazed at the crucifix on the far wall, she said without anger or resentment, "I, too, pardon him. I, too, wish that he could come some day and join me in heaven." Assunta's tears flowed hot and heavy as she gave her sweet Maria her last mortal mother's kiss. As the bells throughout the city were proclaiming the vespers hour, Jesus came to gather sweet Maria into His eternal protection, her reward for strength and virtue beyond her tender years.

Back to the Present

"...Why does this story move you even to tears? Why has Maria Goretti so quickly conquered your hearts, and taken first place in your affections?

Assunta listened as the Holy Father's words continued, "The reason is because there is still in this world, apparently sunk and immersed in the worship of pleasure, not only a meager little band of chosen souls who thirst for heaven and its pure air—but a crowd, nay, an immense multitude on whom the supernatural fragrance of Christian purity exercise an irresistible and reassuring fascination." Assunta must have found great joy in knowing that her sweet, little Maria could be a guiding force of goodness in the souls of youth. But on that July day, so many years ago...

Assunta Goretti, now eighty-two years old listened with two of her children at her side as the Holy Father concluded.

"During the past fifty years, coupled with what was often a weak reaction on the part of decent people, there has been a conspiracy of evil practices, propagating themselves in books and illustrations, in theaters and radio programs, in styles and clubs and on the beaches, trying to work their way into the hearts of the family and society, and doing their worst damage among the youth, even among those of the tenderest years in whom the possession of virtue is a natural inheritance.

"Dearly beloved youth, young men and women, who are the special object of the love of Jesus and of us, tell me, are you resolved to resist firmly, with the help of divine grace, against every attempt made to violate your chastity?

"You fathers and mothers, tell me—in the presence of this vast multitude, and before the image of this young virgin who by her inviolate candor has stolen you hearts...in the presence of her mother who educated her to martyrdom and who, as much as she felt the bitterness of the outrage, is now moved with emotion as she invokes her tell me, are you ready to assume the solemn duty laid upon you to watch, as far as in you lies, over your sons and daughters, to preserve and defend them against so many dangers that surround them, and to keep them always far away from places where they might learn the practices of impiety and of moral perversion?

"Finally, all of you who are intently listening to our words, know that above the unhealthy marshes and filth of the world, stretches an immense heaven of beauty. It is the heaven which fascinated little Maria; the heaven to which she longed to ascend by the only road that leads there, which is, religion, the love of Christ, and the heroic observance of his Commandments.

"We greet you, O beautiful and lovable saint! Martyr on earth and angel in heaven, look down from your glory on this people, which loves you, which venerates, glorifies and exalts you. On your forehead you bear the full brilliant and victorious name of Christ. In your virginal countenance may be read the strength of your love and the constancy of your fidelity to your Divine Spouse. As his bride espoused in blood, you have traced in yourself His own image. To you, therefore, powerful intercessor with the Lamb of God, we entrust these our sons and daughters who are present here, and those countless others who are united with us in spirit. For while they admire our heroism, they are even more desirous of imitating your strength of faith and your inviolate purity of conduct. Fathers and mothers have recourse to you, asking you to help them in their task of education. In you, through our hand, the children and the young people will find a safe refuge, trusting that they shall be protected from every contamination, and be able to walk the highways of life with that serenity of spirit and deep joy which is the heritage of those who are pure of heart. Amen." (Homily of Pope Pius XII, June 24, 1950)

Epilogue

Assunta Goretti, unable to bear the weight of her daughter's murder alone, soon returned to her family in Corinaldo with her six remaining children.

Alexander Serenelli was quickly apprehended, tried and convicted of murder. He was sentenced to thirty years solitary confinement. His sour and uncooperative character changed approximately eight years after his incarceration. He claimed, under oath, that he had a dream of Maria gathering lilies. As she handed them to him, the lilies took on a heavenly radiance and he felt the peace of forgiveness. He became an exemplary prisoner and was freed from prison three years early. Maria and her mother had forgiven Alexander; however the community could not and he spent the rest of his days, an outcast, a gardener at local monasteries. He died at the age of 87, May 6, 1969 in a Capuchin Monastery.

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