By Grace Wong

Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Welcomed by crowds of teary-eyed faithful, the remains of St. Maria Goretti, the youngest saint canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, arrived in Chicago at dawn on a recent Monday, with law enforcement officers serving as pallbearers for the young saint’s glass casket.

“Just to see that moment of her convoy pulling up and to see people’s reactions to that, really ecstatic. I think words like ‘awe,’ ‘amazement’ and ‘beauty’ best describe what people were experiencing at that moment,” said the Rev. Joshua Caswell, a member of the Canons Regular, the religious order that runs St. John Cantius Catholic Church.

Revered as a model of mercy, St. Maria Goretti, an 11-year-old Italian girl stabbed to death while resisting a sexual assault in 1902, is believed to have forgiven her killer and appeared to him later in prison as an apparition, inspiring his conversion. Her famous words: “I forgive Alessandro Serenelli … and I want him with me in heaven forever” were on display with her that Monday.

Enclosed in the glass casket, the relics, which include most of the Italian child saint’s skeleton encased in wax, were on display at St. John Cantius in the Goose Island neighborhood before moving to other church locations in the area. Katie Higgins, 33, of Mokena, Illinois, did not know much about St. Maria Goretti but was moved by venerating the saint.

“The appearance of the wax statue is a bit unnerving because you’re like, ‘OK, it doesn’t look real,’ and you’re just kind of lost,” said Higgins, whose face was flushed and she couldn’t stop smiling. “And then something comes over you and your heart is just at peace and you just steady out. You just know something touched you. … It was like a greeting, like getting a hug.”

Bathed in a cool, fluorescent light, the wax figure of the saint stood out in the worship space filled with gold statues and red carpets. Some people waited in a line that poured out the door and onto the sidewalk before kneeling in front of the casket adorned with angels on each corner. Visitors pressed their hands, foreheads, rosary beads and prayer cards to the glass.

The Rev. Richard Fragomeni, professor of liturgy and preaching at Catholic Theological Union, said the practice of venerating saints fell out of favor after Vatican II reforms emphasized Christ’s mercy, making the intercession of saints less necessary.

The practice only recently has had a resurgence with new purpose. While the Vatican officially declares patron saints of specific causes, Catholics often cling to a saint’s story for inspiration. St. Maria Goretti, for example, has been called the patron saint of inmates, rape victims, purity, youth and forgiveness — officially and unofficially.

For many the saint represents hope, forgiveness and love. The tour of the relics sets the stage for a jubilee year called the Holy Year of Mercy. In March, Pope Francis announced the jubilee, beginning Dec. 8.

The Rev. Carlos Martins, national tour coordinator, said victims of clergy sex abuse can find strength in mercy. He expected protesters during the saint’s visit to Boston, but he believes even they were moved by her presence.

“If we forget that we’re capable of mercy then we relegate ourselves to be perpetual victims,” he said.

Judy Meyer, 51, of Kenosha, Wisconsin, said she was sexually abused by her father when she was about 10 years old. For years she struggled with the scars of her childhood until one day she decided to forgive him. She put him up in an apartment and took care of him until he died.

Meyer and her two daughters knelt in front of the young saint and prayed.

“It was very moving for me to come here and to venerate the relic of a girl who actually did the same thing before me,” Meyer said. “Also the purity of her mind, to stay pure; that’s why I brought my children, too, as an example to remain mindful of our thoughts and our actions and to be responsible with our bodies and our minds.”

Samuel Kendrick, 22, of suburban Park Ridge, Illinois, said many young people are making an effort to study the history and traditions of the faith.

“It makes it less weird when you understand where it comes from,” Kendrick said. “It’s not just history, it’s theology, too. A lot of the kids’ tendency is to seek orthodoxy, to know what are the ancient teachings of the church, what are the practices and the privileges that we have.

“I think people see the authenticity of how ancient our faith is,” Kendrick said. “It’s the feeling that you’re not alone.”