CLOSING OF THE CELEBRATIONS
HOMILY OF CARDINAL ANGELO SODANO
Shrine of Our Lady of Grace and of
St Maria Goretti, Nettuno
Today, gathered at the glorious Shrine of St Maria Goretti, let us first of all renew this act of faith in the Holy Church of Christ, contemplating one of her characteristic features: holiness.
Then a hymn of gratitude wells up in our hearts to the Lord who can inspire in his Church ever new figures of Christian heroism in all the sectors of society and in all the ages of history.
A hymn of gratitude
1. A great Father of the Church wrote that "God, in crowning our merits, crowns his own gifts" (St Augustine). And in reality, faith teaches us that everything is a gift of God, that with his Holy Spirit he sanctifies his Church, creating in all the ages marvellous figures of holiness, before whom human beings raptly praise the glories of the divine Omnipotence.
This is what we want to do today as we close the centenary celebrations of the martyrdom of our Saint, the glory of the community of Albano and of the Catholic Church throughout the world.
Heaven above the marshes
2. Let us conclude the celebrations of the first Centenary of the martyrdom of our Saint this evening with these sentiments of inner rejoicing and this vision of hope for the future. Actually, the more closely we look at her life, the more clearly we see that she was a true beam of heavenly light which shone upon the reality of the human marsh.
Of course, evil exists in the world, but the saints show us that God's grace is stronger than evil. St John's Gospel mentions Jesus' bitter observation: "The light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light" (cf. Jn 3: 19).
Our great poet, Giacomo Leopardi, used these words of Christ as the epigraph to his beautiful poem on broom. On a journey to the slopes of Vesuvius, he was astonished at the sight of the flow of ashes and lava which had once sown desolation and death, and then paused to reflect on a sweet-scented bush of broom that was struggling to survive in those harsh conditions.
We too can often contemplate fragrant flowers of holiness shining among our human misery: they are the saints and, in particular, they are the martyrs of all times.
An extraordinary girl
3. Maria Goretti is one of these heroic figures of God's holy Church: she was 12 years old but her life was full of many noble ideals and a greatness of soul that still amazes us today. This is the merit of the Christian family she came from. It is the fruit of her response to God's grace. Our dear Fr Alberti wrote in his biography of "Marietta" (as her family called her) that she did not become a saint "in five minutes" (G. Alberti, Maria Goretti, Rome 2000, p. 243), since holiness is not improvised but is the fruit of constant effort and daily acceptance of the prompting of the Holy Spirit who dwells in the hearts of believers.
In reading the life of this marvellous girl, we are surprised by the depth of her interior life. In her there is such faith in divine Providence that she can say to her mother, Assunta, in the hour of her suffering: "Mother, do not be distressed, God will never leave us". There is love for her family that impels her to say, after the death of her father: "I'll take care of the house now". There is a pressing desire to receive the Lord: "Mother", she exclaimed, "Mother, when can I make my First Communion?". There is a profound vision of the meaning of life and eternity when she says to Alessandro Serenelli: "But what are you doing, Alessandro? God is not pleased, you will go to hell". Finally, there is a true sense of Christian love which is also capable of forgiveness when, before dying, she speaks of the one who stabbed her, exclaiming: "Through love of Jesus, I forgive him with all my heart" (ibid., pp. 247-248). This is the masterpiece of grace that God worked in this blessed land. This is the Saint that Nettuno presents to young people today, reminding them that the Christian ideal is possible and that with the grace of God, it can be lived intensely.
A glorious epic
4. So it was in the past in pagan Rome with Agnes and Cecilia, with Tarcisius and Pancras. So it is today with Maria Goretti and so many heroic figures of our times. Among these I would like also to recall a young woman from my own region of Piedmont who was brutally murdered on 28 August 1944, during the last World War, by a German soldier who wanted to posses her: I am speaking of Teresa Bracco, like Maria Goretti a martyr of purity, whom Pope John Paul II beatified during his last Apostolic Visit to Turin on 24 May 1998.
In this case too, reading the life of Teresa, cut down in the flower of her 20th year, one can see that her heroism was the logical consequence of a sound Christian formation in a family full of faith and a fervent Christian community, as was that of Santa Giulia, set among the wooded Langhe of Alto Monferrato (cf. G. Galliano, Teresa Bracco. Un fiore ed una luce sugli orrori della guerra, Asti, 1998).
The same epic of holiness continues in the Church of Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit, "the Lord, the giver of life".
Nor, as I celebrate this holy thanksgiving Mass in a church belonging to the Passionist Fathers, could I possibly forget the centenary of the death of another Saint, St Gemma Galgani, who also ended her brief life in 1903, when she was just 25. In reading her life, we are ecstatic before the gifts with which God crowned her. In Lucca she was called "the little girl of grace". Poor, humble and simple, she came to be one of the greatest mystics of modern times: such are the marvels that God works in those who are open to his grace.
Then God's power is manifested even more visibly in the martyrs. Each one of them could justifiably repeat the Apostle Paul's words to the Philippians: "I can do all things in him who strengthens me" (Phil 4: 13).
The triumph of love
5. In the case of Maria Goretti, the power of divine grace was manifested not only in her fortitude, but also in her splendid gesture of forgiveness to young Alessandro Serenelli. The girl from the village of Ferriere di Conca had learned from her pious mother that it was impossible to separate love of God from love of neighbour. Even in her agonizing pain, she could pray for her persecutor.
This is a masterpiece of Christian tenderness, the most beautiful flower of love. It constitutes the beauty of our great little Saint. A well-known Russian writer, Dostoyevsky, wrote that beauty would save the world. He ought, perhaps, to have completed his sentence by saying that it is the beauty of love that will save the world. Yes, for it is love that truly saves us!
A prayer to the Saint
6. Brothers and Sisters in the Lord, with sentiments of gratitude to God for the marvels he has worked in St Maria Goretti, today we are concluding the first centenary of her martyrdom. Since 24 June 1950, we have venerated her on our altars, that is, since Pope Pius XII canonized her at a memorable ceremony which took place in front of St Peter's Basilica before a great multitude of the faithful.
On that luminous evening, the late Supreme Pontiff added her to the list of the Saints and proceeded to entrust the young people of today to her intercession with words that still move us, in spite of being written in the style of the last century (cf. L'Osservatore Romano Italian daily edition, 26 June 1950).
For my part, I would like to sum up by repeating this heartfelt prayer of Pius XII:
"Hail, O sweet and lovable Saint!
On your forehead, clear and shining,
To you, who can powerfully influence
They admire your heroism,
To you fathers and mothers turn,
In you, through Our hands,
And so may it be for us all! Amen.