Friday, July 6, 2012

Is it possible to be pure in an impure age?

Today is the feast of St. Maria Goretti. She is a virgin martyr who died at the age of twelve. She speaks to our age because she is of our age. Born on October 16, 1890 in Corinaldo, a small town in Central Italy, Maria was the third child of farm worker Luigi Goretti and his wife Assunta. Maria never learned to read or write, as her family was too poor to spare her for school. The following I borrow from Dawn Eden's book "My Peace I give you: healing sexual wounds with the help of the saints." Dawn notes: "when Maria was eight, her father, seeking to save his family from desperate poverty, accepted an offer to work as a tenant farmer outside the coastal town of Nettuno. Because he lacked the funds to do it on his own, he entered into the tenancy jointly with a widower names Giovanni Serenelli. The Goretti's lived on one side of the upper floor of a barn, while Serenelli and his fifteen year old son Allesandro lived on the other; both families shared a central kitchen and stairs. It was an uneasy arrangement, as the Serenelli's had a very different lifestyle from the devout Goretti's. Giovanni drank and brought home lurid magazines; Allesandro, a moody sociopath, used pornographic pictures from the magazines to decorate his room. In late April of 1900, Luigi fell ill with malaria. The disease took several days to complete its fatal course. As he lay dying, fearing what might happen to his wife and children if they continued to live with the Serenelli's, Luigi urged Assunta to move the family back to Corinaldo. He was 41 when he passed on, leaving his wife with five children and a sixth on the way........nine year old Maria, although devestated by the loss of her father, stayed strong for her mother's sake. She told her mother not to worry: she herself would take over household duties so Assunta could work in the fields....The fact that Maria now had neither father nor mother at home to protect her did not go unnoticed by Allesandro, now eighteen. Aware that she was concerned to preserve her purity, he set about confronting her with dirty jokes and stories while she was doing household chores. How she responded to Allesandro's abuse brings us to one of the ways popular piety has unwittingly obscured the real Maria Goretti. Although the holy card image of her as a gentle maiden bearing white lillies is symbolically accurate, it fails to capture her fierceness. She embodied the saying of G K Chesterton that the whiteness of purity should not be imagined as something antiseptic, like hospital walls: rather, 'it means something flaming, like Joan of Arc.' And so, when she could not escape his sex talk, she hit Allesandro with whatever was at hand-a broom, an overturned bucket of water, anything to make him stop the flood of filth...." Maria began to long to receive holy communion. She pressed her mother to receive at age eleven. Her mother relented after some resistance and on May 29, 1902, the feast of Corpus Christi, she received her first holy communion. The date is significant for me because that is my ordination date (May 29, 1999). Dawn Eden draws upon some interesting historic parallels. She notes: "On the eve of her First Communion, Pope Leo XIII issued an encyclical on the Holy Eucharist that happens to both encapsulate the nature of Maria's holiness and presage her martyrdom. 'At the present day,' he wrote'an insatiable appetite rages (for bodily pleasures), infecting all classes as with an infectious disease, even from tender years.' He could have been describing Alessandro Serenelli. 'Yet' the pope went one, 'even for so terrible an evil there is a remedy close at hand in the divine Eucharist.' He gave two reasons for this. The first was spiritual-'it puts a check on lust by increasing charity'-but the second touched on the mystery of the Incarnation:'The most chaste flesh of Jesus keeps down the rebellion of our flesh.' We do not merely east the Eucharist, we become the Eucharist. 'St Augustine makes Christ himself say: You shall not change Me into yourself as you do the food of your body, but you shall be changed into Me.'" Young Maria was soon to become a living Eucharist. On July 5 yelling "No! No! It is a sin!" Maria bravely tried to fight off Allesandro's attempts to rape her. Undeterred by her resistance he began to stab her repeatedly. She did not die at first. She was brought to a hospital and died the next day. Remarkably, she forgave Allesandro and went to be with the Lord. Allesandro was sentenced to thirty years in prison. In his 27th year he had a dream of Maria standing in a garden holding out a flower and telling him she forgave him. Allesandro became a changed man, was released from prison three years early and was present at the Canonization ceremony of the young girl he had attacked. There are many lessons to be learned from this story. Some people say that pornography is harmless. There are no victims. Wrong. The woman, man, or child that is depicted in pornography is the victim. The good news is that even though there is so much readily accesible porn on the internet and computers, there are equally as many organizations and groups ready and willing to help people who struggle with porn addictions. Why is it important that the Christian strive to live a life of purity? For one, Jesus and scripture speak about it. St. Paul writes in First Thessalonians: "This is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from unchastity, that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like heathens who do not know God." (1 Th 4:3-5) The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks about "Training in the school of self-mastery." One great resource on the web is the Chastity Project: go to for more info. Two cd's that may be of great help are Jason Evert's talk "Finding love in a world of lust." Another talk worth listening to is Matt Fradd: "Taking down Goliath: Five strategies to get porn out of your life." In his general audience on July 23, 1980, Blessed Pope John Paul II states: "The heart has become a battlefield between love and lust. The more lust dominates the heart, the less the heart experiences the nuptial meaning of the body. It becomes less sensitive to the gift of the person, which expresses that meaning in the mutual relations of man and woman....Does this mean that it is our duty to distrust the human heart? No! It only means that we must keep it under control." The Catholic Church has always taught that sex and sexuality are wonderful gifts from God.It has always speaken out vigorously against certain philosophies or worldviews that look to diminish the sacred gift of sexuality. We can learn from the story of St. Maria Goretti that pornography is not innocent. Lust does have consequences, but purity is possible. Frequent recourse to the sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation along with a life of prayer and fasting should enable one to live in a chaste manner. Are we speaking chastity for chastity's sake as if someone were to win a medal in the chastity Olympics? NO. The issue is charity. The purer our hearts, the freer we will be to love our neighbor. Conversely, the more we struggle to live purity of heart, the more love we will have in our heart for the poor, the sick, and the lonely. The two go hand in hand. Some try to pass off the church teaching on social justice and sexuality as if they were mutually exclusive. They are not. Guaranteed. Someone who is striving to live purity of heart will do more for the poor than someone who is not.