St Maria Goretti, who died defending her virginity, should be an inspiration for Aids charities

This painting of St Maria Goretti hangs at the shrine where she is buried in Nettuno, Italy (CNS photo)

Last Monday, July 2, I was included in an email by David Skinner of the Christian Peoples Alliance about the Terrence Higgins Trust. This trust is a well-known charity, indeed “the leading and largest HIV and sexual health charity in the UK”, attracting much celebrity endorsement by Stephen Fry and others, as well as NHS funding and occasional sums from the Department of Education, in its campaign against the spread of HIV/Aids. Skinner drew my attention to certain “health information for gay men” available on the Trust’s website, which was easily accessible to everyone, including young people. What he described was scatological and pornographic. Interestingly though, when I finally got round to checking out for myself the Terrence Higgins Trust website on Friday, July 6, the site was, coincidentally, unavailable; apparently it was being modernised and updated. When I did manage to access it a day later, all graphic references to scatological practices had been removed.

Perhaps this was because of the publicity stirred up by the Christian Peoples Alliance? At any rate, checking the website was a depressing enough experience as it was. The trust wants to open a “broader debate in society including the entertainment industry and the media, concerning growing sexualisation in the UK”. What does this mean: a new evolutionary leap (backwards) or the fact that promiscuous sexual behaviour and corrupting sex education are reaching ever wider and deeper into society and to ever younger age groups?

It happens that Friday July 6 was also the feast day of St Maria Goretti. My CTS New Daily Missal provides the following information about her: “St Maria Goretti (1890-1902) was born in Corinaldo, near Ancona (Italy), the third of six children, and became known for her cheerfulness and piety. When she was twelve, she was the victim of attempted rape and was mortally wounded as she defended her virginity. She forgave her murderer shortly before she died in hospital. The culprit was imprisoned and experienced a conversion of heart; he was present at St Maria’s canonisation in 1950 and ended his days as a Capuchin brother.”

Seen in the light of today’s society this is much more than an old-fashioned, pious story. The concept of modesty is barely mentioned these days – yet for Maria, a poor and unsophisticated peasant girl, her purity mattered more than her life. Her attacker, a neglected and brutalised youth (who was converted in prison by a vision of St Maria) was in the habit of reading pornographic magazines – now commonplace on the internet and at newsagents and sometimes blamed for youthful crimes involving sex. I rather think that St Maria Goretti should be invoked on behalf of the Terrence Higgins Trust. To wish to eradicate HIV/Aids is a worthy ambition – but will this be achieved, for instance, by the Trust’s advice on its site that “gay saunas should provide condoms”? The original Terrence Higgins was born in 1945, the same year as I was; he died of Aids in 1982. He is regarded by the trust as a martyr to the cause of combating social bigotry and prejudice. Maria Goretti, described in the Missal as “virgin and martyr”, is a powerful and unfashionable witness to a Christian counter-culture.

If it seems odd to suggest her as the spiritual companion to Terrence Higgins, we should recall that it is the saints who show us the way to lasting wholeness and healing.