Friday, June 27, 2014
Pier Giorgio Frassati: A Modern Saint
What do you think saints are like? Are they rather dour looking? Do they look unhappy? Or even unhealthy? Pier Giorgio Frassati is probably not everyone’s idea of a ‘saint’. In fact he looks more like a model for men’s aftershave or some upscale sportswear or expensive watch ad. He was young, healthy and unbelievingly good-looking. He enjoyed being with his friends and he even 'goofed off' sometimes. Yet, on May 20, 1990, Pier Giorgio was beatified (the step before sainthood) by Pope John Paul II in Rome. As a result of his exemplary life, the Pope called him 'a man of the Beatitudes'. Beatifying or canonizing a person doesn't make them a saint, it is the way the Church recognizes the person as having an exemplary life and one which we can follow in our walk with God.
Early Life of Pier Giorgio Frassati
Pier Giorgio was born in 1901 in Turin, Italy to parents who were wealthy and influential. Frassati's father was Italy's ambassador to Germany in 1921 and was the owner of the liberal newspaper, La Stampa. He claimed to be an agnostic. His mother was an accomplished artist. Her daughter, Luciana, says in her book, "Neither of our parents were devoutly Catholic: our father was an agnostic and our mother was not deeply religious. Our mother and her sister, Elena, would not have missed Mass, but they were never seen by us to go to Communion or to kneel and say a prayer." (Frassati, page 21). Blessed Pier Giorgio's niece, Wanda Gawronska commented (in private communication) that it was the custom of many to take Communion only twice a year which was the minimum required at that time. Ms. Gawronska also relates that for his 18th birthday, his mother gave Pier Giorgio the book, "The Imitation of Christ" with a very meaningful dedication. In any case, his parents sometimes wished their son would not spend so much time attending daily Mass and helping the poor but would devote more time to his studies.
On the way to Sainthood
It seems that Pier Giorgio Frassati had always been drawn to the poor and disadvantaged. Once, a woman with a barefoot child, knocked at the door of the Frassati mansion. Pier Giorgio, then himself a child, immediately took off his shoes and gave them to the barefoot child.
Frassati was known for his kindness and courtesy to all and throughout his brief life he was to give away money, his clothes and his time whenever he met someone who needed them. Once he arrived in Berlin to visit his parents wearing only a light jacket in -12° C weather because he had given his overcoat away. He was active in the St. Vincent de Paul Society that provided for the poor but his unselfishness was often more personal. He would give away his books to fellow students or pay for their tuition secretly and in order to have more money to give away he always traveled third class!
Whenever he was able, Frassati went to his beloved mountains in northern Italy. There he would climb, either alone or with his friends, enjoying the challenge of the climb and his time with others. He also loved to ski. He fell in love with a girl in his group of friends but because he knew his parents did not altogether approve of her for their son he did not pursue the relationship.
Life in Pre-War Italy
In October 1922, the Fascists came to power in Italy. Like many Catholics at the time, Frassati opposed Mussolini and his 'black shirts' but could not do much to stop their power. In Turin he took part in a religious procession during a Eucharistic Congress and also a march to Rome with Catholic Youth groups. Taking part in these activities often ended up with some being detained by the police. When Pier Giorgio was detained he would pray the rosary. Once when the authorities discovered that he was the son of the prominent Alfredo Frassati, he was immediately released but he never took advantage of this privilege. Although Frassati believed Jesus' promise that 'the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church', his greatest concern was of the persecution against it by both Marxism and Fascism.
Pier Giorgio was a member of the student group Catholic Action and was also a lay Dominican. Politically he belonged to the Popular Party for, although he believed in charity, he also believed in reform.
Pier Giorgio Frassati's Illness and Death
Frassati knew that to fulfill his dream of becoming a mining engineer he had to study harder. But even with this goal in mind, his studies never prevented him from visiting the sick. Ultimately it was because of his visits to the sick and poor that at the young age of 24 he contracted polio. After a short illness and much suffering, he died on July 4, 1925 at his family home. Years before, he had written to a friend, 'The day of my death will be the happiest day of my life.'
At his funeral hundreds of the poor and sick that he had helped lined the streets of Turin. HIs parents could not believe this outpouring of love to their son.
In 1981, when his remains were transferred from the family tomb in Pollone to Turin's cathedral, his body was found completely incorrupt. Since then many pilgrims, especially young people, have journeyed to his tomb to seek the courage to follow his example.
For those wanting to know the complete story of his life, Pier Giorgio's younger sister, Luciana, has written an excellent biography of her brother, A Man of the Beatitudes (in Italian Pier Giorgio: I giorni della sua vita).
Patron Saint of WYD in Sydney
Pier Giorgio Frassati was chosen to be the Patron Saint of World Youth Day in Australia in 2008. His body was brought to Sydney for that occasion.
Frassati, Luciana. A Man of the Beatitudes. (In Italian: Pier Giorgio: I giorni della sua vita) San Francisco:Ignatius Press. 2000.
Personal communication with Wanda Gawronska, Blessed Pier Giorgio's niece.