St. Maria Goretti: Virtue in Children

Today in the liturgical year we celebrate the life of a young saint who lived in Italy during the turn of the 20th century. This was a hard-working little girl from a poor farming family, whose father died when she was nine, requiring her family to move in with another family. When she was 11, one of the sons of the family they lived with, Alessandro, made sexual advances toward her. When she refused him, he stabbed her 14 times. As she was dying in the hospital she forgave him. He was imprisoned for 27 years, during which time he had a conversion of heart. When he was released, he begged Maria’s mother’s forgiveness — which she granted — and he became a lay brother in a monastery later in life.

Yes, it’s a pretty heavy story, to say the least. But it’s a story with so much grace and inspiration. Every year when her memorial comes around, I cannot help but consider the virtue that had been built up in this little girl over her childhood. Like so many saint stories, we see that there is no such thing as virtue that suddenly appears in a given moment. Grace does for sure! But the virtue in the moment is the result of a life of virtuous habits and living faith. The moment tests that virtue, tests that faith, and we see the real character of the person emerge. Clearly this was a girl who was living her life on earth with her heavenly home in mind every day.

We can read stories like this about child saints who lived 100 years ago during a time and place where everyone took for granted the truth of the Church and faith in God, and we can easily think: Such virtue is not possible for my children today. As I think about young Maria, I can’t help but consider my children’s yelling and hitting each other yesterday over rather minor offenses. I think about their disobedience or talking back to me, and sometimes as parents we can get discouraged. Will they ever rise above these reactions and bad behaviors?

But then I consider my own story, the big story, and God’s overwhelming grace and promises poured out over them at their baptisms. And I have faith. In God’s big story, we are all on different timelines, and nothing is wasted. Every planted seed aimed at growing virtue will reap a harvest. When will we see it? God only knows. But remember that the best part of Maria’s story is the part about the aggressor. Yes, it is hard to imagine a dying little girl forgiving her violent attacker; but it is harder for me to imagine that young man who stabbed her to death having a conversion of heart, being able to accept God’s forgiveness and come to the end of his life at peace and restored. Alessandro’s story gives me faith to weather any amount of lacking virtue in my own children. If God can do that in his life, then he can do anything and redeem anything.

We may have children at any point on the spectrums of virtues and vices. But we parents can have great faith in the promises of God for our children and their unique paths toward virtue, toward holiness, toward heaven. He’s got them in his hands; he’s running after them all of their days. They are capable of being moved by the Holy Spirit. We are here to help them to virtue, to plant those seeds with daily grace, to lift them up and remind them of the greatness for which God created them — to know him, love him, and serve him in this life and to be happy with him in the next.


Copyright 2018 Jessica Ptomey