ROME—Here is an excerpt of a talk given by Father Thomas Rosica, national director and chief executive officer of World Youth Day 2002, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of birth of Pier Giorgio Frassati, last April.
There is a perennial intrigue about Pier Giorgio Frassati who Pope John Paul II called “the man of eight beatitudes,” “of prophetic apostolic modernity,” at his beatification ceremony in St. Peter's Square nearly 11 years ago. Let us look at some of the highlights of this young man's life that combined political activism and work for social justice in a remarkable way.
Pier Giorgio Frassati was born 100 years ago today, at the turn of the last century in Turin, Italy. His mother, Adelaide Ametis, was a painter. His father, Alfredo, an agnostic, was the founder and director of the liberal newspaper La Stampa, and was influential in Italian politics, holding positions as an Italian senator and ambassador to Germany.
Pier Giorgio was educated at home with his sister Luciana, who was one year younger than him, before attending with her a public school and finally a school run by the Jesuits. There he joined the Marian Sodality and the Apostleship of Prayer, and obtained permission for daily Communion (which was rare at that time).
He developed a deep spiritual life which he never hesitated to share with his friends. The Eucharist and the Blessed Mother were the two poles of his world of prayer. At the age of 17, in 1918, he joined the St. Vincent de Paul Society and dedicated much of his spare time to serving the sick and the needy, caring for orphans, and assisting the demobilized servicemen returning from World War I.
What little he did have, Pier Giorgio gave to help the poor, even using his bus fare for charity and then running home to be on time for meals. The poor and the suffering were his masters, and he was literally their servant, which he considered a privilege. This spirit of selflessness was nurtured by daily communion with Christ in the Holy Eucharist and by frequent nocturnal adoration, by meditation on St. Paul's “Hymn on Charity” (1 Corinthians 13), and by the writings of St. Catherine of Siena.
He often sacrificed vacations at the Frassati summer home in Pollone (near Turin) because, as he said, “If everybody leaves Turin, who will take care of the poor?”
The young Frassati loved the poor. It was not simply a matter of giving something to the lonely, the poor, the sick—but rather, giving his whole self. He saw Jesus in them and to a friend who asked him how he could bear to enter the dirty and smelly places where the poor lived, he answered: “Remember always that it is to Jesus that you go: I see a special light that we do not have, around the, sick, the poor, the unfortunate.”
A German news reporter who observed Frassati at the Italian Embassy wrote, “One night in Berlin, with the temperature at 12 degrees below zero, he gave his overcoat to a poor old man shivering in the cold. His father, the ambassador scolded him, and he replied simply and matter-of-factly, ‘But you see, Papa, it was cold.’”
He decided to become a mining engineer, studying at the Royal Polytechnical University of Turin, so he could “serve Christ better among the miners,” as he told a friend. Although he considered his studies his first duty, they did not keep him from social and political activism. Beneath the smiling exterior of the restless young man was concealed the amazing life of a mystic. Love for Jesus motivated his actions. In 1919 he joined the Catholic Student Federation and the organization known as Catholic Action.
In opposition to his father's political ideas, he became a very active member of the People's Party, which promoted the Catholic Church's social teaching based on the principles of Pope Leo XIII's encyclical letter Rerum Novarum. He even thought about merging the Catholic Student Federation and the Catholic Workers' Organization. “Charity is not enough; we need social reform,” he used to say as he worked for both.
In 1921 he was a central figure in Ravenna, enthusiastically helping to organize the first convention of Pax Romana, an association which came into existence to facilitate the unification of all Catholic students throughout the world for the purpose of working together for universal peace.
Mountain climbing was one of his favorite sports. Outings in the mountains, which he organized with his friends, “The Shady Characters,” served as ideal moments for his apostolic work among them.
He never missed an opportunity to bring them to Mass, to adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, to the reading of Scripture, and to other forms of prayer. He often went to the theater, to the opera and to museums. He loved art and music, and could quote large sections of the poet Dante Alighieri.
Fondness for the epistles of St. Paul sparked his zeal for fraternal charity, and the fiery sermons of the Renaissance preacher and reformer Girolamo Savonarola and the writings of St. Catherine impelled him in 1922 to join the lay Dominicans (Third Order of St. Dominic).
He chose the name Girolamo, not after St. Jerome the Bible scholar, but rather after his personal hero, Savonarola. “I am a fervent admirer of this friar, who died as a saint at the stake,” he wrote to a friend.
Like his father, he was strongly anti-Fascist and did nothing to hide his political views. He was often involved in fights, first with anti-clerical Communists and later with Fascists.
Participating in a Church-organized demonstration in Rome on one occasion, he stood up to police violence and rallied the other young people by grabbing the group's banner, which the royal guards had knocked out of another student's hands. Pier Giorgio held it even higher, while using the banner's pole to fend off the blows of the guards.
Athletic, full of life, always surrounded by friends, whom he inspired with his life, Pier Giorgio chose not to become a priest or religious, preferring to give witness to the Gospel as a lay person. His friends remember him saying: “To live without faith, without a heritage to defend, without battling constantly for truth, is not to live, but to ‘get along’; we must never just ‘get along.’”
Just before receiving his university degree in mining engineering, he contracted poliomyelitis, which doctors later speculated he caught from the sick for whom he cared. His sickness was not understood. His parents, totally taken up by the agony, death and burial of his grandmother, had not even suspected the paralysis. Far from it, two days before the end, his mother kept on scolding him for not helping her in such days.
Not even in those desperate final days could he ever forget his closest friends, the poor. It was Friday, the day he visited them. While lying on his deathbed he wanted the usual material assistance to be brought to them. He asked his sister to take a small packet from his jacket and with a semi-paralyzed hand he wrote the following note to Grimaldi: “Here are the injections for Converso. The pawn ticket is Sappa's. I had forgotten it; renew it on my behalf.”
When the priest who was attending him asked, “What if your grandmother were to call you to heaven?” he replied “How happy I would be!”
But he immediately added, “What about father and mother?”
And the priest replied, “Giorgio, you will not abandon them; you will live in spirit with them from heaven. You will give them your faith and your self-denial, you will continue to be one family.”
These few words were enough to dispel Pier Giorgio's final human concerns and he smiled, nodded his head and said, “Yes.” His sacrifice was fulfilled at 7 o'clock in the evening of July 4, 1925.