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Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati: A Saint of Lofty Goals
Youth Find Kindred Spirit in Rugged Outdoorsman Who Loved the Poor
By Emily Stimpson Chapman
Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati was a mountain climber, cigar smoker and ambassador’s son. He also was a daily communicant, lover of the Blessed Virgin Mary and friend of the poor. Above all, with another possible miracle attributed to Frassati now under investigation in Rome, he soon may be a saint.
The miracle, which was submitted for review last fall, involves the inexplicable healing of Kevin Becker, an American college student who fell from the second story of his home in 2011, fracturing his skull and severely injuring his brain. After his mother asked Frassati for a miracle, Becker awoke from his coma. Within three weeks, he walked out of the hospital with a clean bill of health.
If the miracle is approved, it will mark the end of an almost century-long campaign to canonize Frassati.
A Hero for Our Times
As a new biography by Cristina Siccardi, Pier Giorgio Frassati: A Hero for Our Times (Ignatius, 2016), recounts, Frassati was born in 1901 into one of the most influential families in Turin, Italy. Despite growing up in a home where both human affection and religious devotion were in short supply, the young Frassati lacked neither.
Warm, funny and full of faith, Frassati was the center around which a large group of school friends revolved. He organized hiking trips, discussion groups and theater outings, along with prayer gatherings and evening Rosaries.
Privately, the young Frassati spent countless hours with the poor of both his native Turin and Berlin, Germany, where his father served as ambassador. His father was also the founder of the Italian newspaper La Stampa.
In his late teens and early 20s, Pier visited orphans, cared for the sick and used his pocket money to help those in need. Sacrificing even his bus money (and running home instead), Frassati paid for the education of orphans, bought tools for the unemployed and purchased medicine for the elderly. He also studied engineering so that he could “serve Christ better among the miners.”
Frassati’s life of friendship and service ended in 1925, when he contracted polio (likely from the sick he tended). The night before he died, the 24-year-old’s last work of mercy was to scratch out a message with his almost paralyzed hand, asking a friend to take medicine to a sick man he visited. His feast day is July 4, the date of his death.
His parents only learned about their son’s charitable endeavors when thousands of Italy’s poor lined the streets for his funeral.
Not surprisingly, private devotion to Frassati began immediately after his death. The formal case for his canonization began seven years later, in 1932.
In 1943, however, false rumors — related to how coed groups of Frassati’s friends would go on trips into the mountains together; nothing inappropriate by today’s standards, but in the 1930s some people objected — about Frassati brought the process to a halt. It would take another 47 years before St. John Paul II would move his cause forward, beatifying Frassati in 1990.
A Hero for Our Youth
During that time, Frassati had no religious order pushing his cause; his sister and nieces did nearly all the work. Following his beatification, however, more helpers joined the cause.
Among those helpers was Domenico Bettinelli, director of community engagement at Massachusetts Citizens for Life.
In 1994, Bettinelli was a young graduate student. When he attended a talk about Frassati, he was immediately captivated by, as he describes, “this young man who was so much like me — around the same age, similar heritage and similar outlook on life.”
Soon afterward, Bettinelli built the first website dedicated to Frassati. (It can still be found at bettnet.com/frassati.)
“I think what really made me connect with Frassati was how ‘real’ he was to me,” said Bettinelli. “By that, I mean, he’s relatable. As a young man of the 20th century, he dealt with much of what I dealt with at that age, including struggles with school, relating to family that sometimes didn’t understand him, spending time with friends, and balancing that with other obligations, including faith activities and politics. He showed us what all the saints show us: that the perfection Christ calls us to in Matthew 5:48 is attainable, through Jesus Christ, in our regular, old daily lives.”
Twenty-three years later, young people are still learning that lesson from Frassati.
Since 2013, Sarah Harmon, a residence director at Franciscan University’s Gaming, Austria, campus, has taken groups of students on pilgrimages to the Frassati summer home in Pollone, Italy. This past semester, 42 young people accompanied her. There, they met Frassati’s family, toured the home, prayed in the shrine dedicated to him, and hiked the trails he once hiked.
For the students, Harmon says, the trip is life changing.
She explained, “They see Pier Giorgio, who died at age 24, who wasn’t married or a priest, who was just living his life as a friend to his friends, a son to his parents, a brother to his sister, and a servant to the poor. They see and hear about his life, and think, ‘If he could do it, why couldn’t I?’”
“After this trip, one student came away with the phrase ‘no excuses’ in her mind,” she continued. “No excuses for not making it to Mass, no excuses for not having a time of prayer every day, no excuses for not striving each day to serve and love a little more. No excuses.”
Eleven years ago, Frassati’s example (and the experience of working in Italy with his niece), inspired Christine Wohar to found FrassatiUSA (FrassatiUSA.org), which spreads information about Blessed Pier Giorgio across the English-speaking world, providing everything from prayer cards and books to information about local “Frassati Groups.” Over the past 11 years, Wohar has seen devotion to Frassati spread rapidly. Much of that spread, she believes, is because “Pier Giorgio is the antidote for what ails our youth culture.”
“He wouldn’t have known the meaning of a safe space,” she said. “He had everything — wealth, privilege, good looks — but he was always getting out of his comfort zone to serve the sick and poor. He knew that money couldn’t buy true peace; it was just the opposite.”
A Hero for Us All
Frassati, however, isn’t just an example of holiness for the young. Wohar also believes Frassati shows Catholics of all ages how to be both deeply Catholic and deeply committed to social justice.
“He used to say that he went among the poor, because Jesus came to him every day in Communion,” she explained. “He said, ‘I repay him by serving the poor.’ He was very sacramental. That was the core of his life. But then he took that out to care for the poor.”
Likewise, Brother David Brokke, of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, who studied Frassati this past year during his third year of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, thinks Frassati demonstrates how to transcend the past and embrace God’s love in the present.
“A lot of people, if treated poorly or too strictly by a parent during their early years, act out of those wounds,” he explained.
“Blessed Pier Giorgio certainly had wounds from his family life, but he never allowed them to form his identity or determine his actions. Instead, Pier Giorgio responded with humility, respect, love and concern.”
“As I tried to enter into his mind and heart, it drew me closer to this man of God in more ways than I thought possible,” he said.
“He’s not simply a really cool guy. He was a young man with a heart meek and humble. He was a man who shows us how to live an integrated life.”
Emily Stimpson Chapman
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