Little saint of mercy draws crowds of faithful

November 24, 2015

HOUSTON — Catholics from all across Gulf Coast filled the pews of three Houston Catholic churches for a chance to venerate the youngest saint ever canonized by the Catholic Church. Inspired by Pope Francis’ proclamation of a Holy Year of Mercy, which begins next month on Dec. 8, 11-year-old St. Maria Goretti’s major relics traveled to 20 states on what was called a “pilgrimage of mercy.”

 At St. Theresa Catholic Church in Sugar Land, the first parish to host St. Maria Goretti’s relics on Nov. 4, Kris Frank said he was inspired by the diversity of those coming to venerate the young saint. 

It was beautiful to see not all all the thousands of people, but to see everyone from all the different traditions and places and how they were all there for the same reason: to celebrate our faith and those who have gone before us as a witness, he said.

   Frank, who is the high school youth minister at nearby St. Laurence Catholic Church, brought several teens from the parish youth group hoping that St. Maria Goretti, who is known as the patroness of youth, would inspire other young people. 

   “In Houston we get to see a lot of cool things because it’s such a big city, but to show (the teens) something like this, something that’s so unique and specific to our Catholic faith that we don’t get to see very often is cool,” he said. “It’s just unique and rare that we get to see a saint come before us and pray and venerate, especially a saint like St. Maria who was young. Our teens are 14 - 16, and she was 11 and she did great things for God with his grace and his mercy. To show them in such a tangible way and example of what the can be and what they can aspire to is such a special opportunity.”
 
  The tour is directed by Father Carlos Martins, CC, who is a priest of the Companions of the Cross, a religious order based at the Catholic Charismatic Center. The Center was the next parish to host St. Maria Goretti. 
 
  The veneration at the Catholic Charismatic Center brought an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 pilgrims to the church near downtown Houston Nov. 5. And just like at the other two churches, the Knights of Columbus from all around the Archdiocese escorted St. Maria Goretti at each parish and formed a rotating honor guard by her side during the hours of her veneration even into the early morning hours.

   St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church was the last church to welcome the ‘Pilgrimage of Mercy’ and the faithful from the Greater Houston area and across state lines Nov. 6. 

   Tisha Meca wanted to see St. Maria Goretti at the Catholic Charismatic Center the day before, but couldn’t attend because of work constraints. Despite her hesitance to visit an unfamiliar church, the courage of her mother and a friend helped her brave the traffic of US 290 to make her pilgrimage to see the Italian saint while at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.

   “I think somebody was pushing me to come here and take the risk to drive here,” Meca said, a parishioner at Corpus Christi Catholic Church. She said she felt overwhelmed during her first visit to venerate a saint’s relic. “We could feel her presence and I felt happy.” She was praying for healing of her family members and friends, she said.

   Meanwhile, Sylvia Ortiz’s 5-hour bus ride from Harlingen, near the Mexico border, gave her time to think about why she came to see St. Maria Goretti. Eventually she found herself at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church to pray for others and for their future.

   “I prayed for my grandaughters, they’re just little,” Ortiz said. “I prayed that they have the same courage Maria Goretti had.”

   As with many churches who hosted the tour, pilgrims only had a brief moment — 15 seconds was the recommended time — to pray with and venerate St. Maria Goretti’s relics.

   “You have to pray really quickly, you only have a short 15 seconds to venerate, so I went three times,” she said. “I prayed a little bit, then a little bit more, then just a little bit more.” 

   She appreciated being able to venerate her in person and called it wonderful. “It’s different from seeing a movie or hearing about her story, versus coming and actually seeing her,”  Ortiz said.

   The pilgrimage, which consisted of day-long hours of veneration and at least one Mass at each church, brought long lines throughout the day.  Pilgrims were also able to bring holy items to touch to the glass reliquary, including Sister Maria Goretti Nguyen, O.P., who is the director of religious education and sacramental preparation at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. She brought many holy items she touched to St. Maria Goretti’s to bring back to her community of the Dominican Sisters of Mary Immaculate Province in Houston.
 
  The tour featured St. Maria Goretti’s major relics encased in a wax effigy, a sculpture made in her likeness, inside a glass-sided casket, offering pilgrims an upclose and personal moment — though brief — with the Italian saint.    Pilgrims also received prayer cards of St. Maria Goretti and Alessandro Serenelli, each touched to St. Maria Goretti’s relics or a letter written by Serenelli, making them a third-class relic. A special exhibit shared the story of how the lives of the Italian saint and her murderer became intertwined, and also explained why saints are an important part of the Catholic Church. 

   Several large panels detailed her 1902 death after being stabbed while resisting 20-year-old Serenelli’s attempt to take her virginity. On her death bed, she forgave him and sought to see him in heaven. While in prison, Serenelli repented years later, choosing to live a life changed by St. Maria Goretti until his death in 1970. She was canonized in 1950, with her mother present. 

   Those who venerated St. Maria Goretti were also able to gain a plenary indulgence, which grants the remission of all temporal punishment due to sin, for themselves or for the deceased under usual conditions, as decreed by the Vatican. 

   The Pilgrimage of Mercy was presented by The Congregation for the Causes of Saints and  Treasures ofthe Church, a ministry of Father Martins.  Called the little saint of great mercy, St. Maria Goretti reflects Pope Francis’ call for forgiveness to all, especially during the upcoming Year of Mercy. 

   In his opening message about the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis said “I am confident that the whole Church, which is in such need of mercy for we are sinners, will be able to find in this Jubilee the joy of rediscovering and rendering fruitful God’s mercy, with which we are all called to give comfort to every man and every woman of our time.”  

   To learn more about St. Maria Goretti and her tour, visit www.mariagoretti.com.