An overflow crowd of worshipers was spilling out of the entrance to the church and onto St Clair Avenue by the time my wife and I arrived. It was Saturday morning, and the body of Saint Maria Goretti, the patron saint of young women, purity and rape victims, was being viewed at St. Nicholas of Bari Church.
We pulled in our breath, and slid sideways through the tightly packed crowd, cautiously making our way into the main body of the church, where a Mass was already in progress. The energy was palpable, and I was struck by the variety of ages of the participants. I also appreciated the fact that nobody pushed or shoved, and that such a large throng could be so calm and peaceful.
There were elderly ladies dressed completely in black, fingering rosaries and whispering their prayers as they tried to make space to get enough air to allow them to breathe properly. There were young children in strollers, and babbling babies in mothers' arms, teenagers nervously preparing their Blackberries to get a close-up of Saint Maria Goretti, young couples searching for a blessing on their budding relationships, and middle aged Catholics renewing their faith before a saint who had just taken an overseas flight all the way from Italy.
Father Vito asked us all to say the Our Father in the language of our choice, whether that might be Italian, English, or any other, but he emphasized that we should say it with spirit and meaning, especially in honor of Saint Maria Goretti. And the crowd acquiesced. One could have heard our prayers down the street and into the next block. In fact, I have never heard the Our Father prayed with such fervour, and the smile on the priest's face seemed to be saying, “Can you imagine if we prayed like this at every Mass?”
At the end of Mass came the thunderous cheers and loud ovations for Saint Maria Goretti: “Viva Santa Maria Goretti!” shouted the priest, and the crowd took up the chant three times, and ended with a standing ovation. This is the type of energy we are accustomed to seeing at a sports event, but not at a church. And this is the type of warm energy only a saint can evoke from a church full of prayerful people, from many differing cultures, on a cold and cloudy Saturday morning in Toronto.
As I passed by the glass-sided coffin, I reveled in the Gregorian Chants being piped throughout the church, and I decided to kneel down so that I could see Saint Maria Goretti better, for the coffin was quite low. And once she got me on my knees, Saint Maria shook me to my core with her sense of purity, and the aura of forgiveness which surrounded her body.
Maria Goretti's life ended 110 years ago on a farm in a small Italian village, but here she was in downtown Toronto, doing what the saints of the Catholic Church do so well.
She had brought together a disparate group which had travelled from all parts of the city and beyond. She had made them forget their busy, connected lives, and for an hour or so, had given them peace, hope and a tangible example that a holy life is possible and within reach of us all.
And because of that, they almost lifted the roof, as their joyful cries flew through the doors of the church, and down the sidewalks of St. Clair Avenue:
“Viva Santa Maria Goretti!”