Culture of Life
A Popular Kid from a Troubled Family
BY Raymond De Souza
November 14-20, 1999 Issue | Posted 11/14/99 at 1:00 PM
At beatifications, after the solemn pronunciation of the beatification formula, an image of the new blessed is unveiled to reflect that he is now worthy of public veneration. Typically, the images selected are simple portraits, sometimes embellished with pious touches. When Pier Giorgio Frassati was beatified in 1990, the image chosen was a scene of him on a mountaintop in his hiking clothes, his hair tussled and a pipe firmly clenched in the corner of his mouth.
A different portrait for a different kind of saint.
He was good-looking, popular among his peers, smart but not bookish, a mountaineer and a skier, an effortless leader and not afraid to get into a fight when necessary.
Pier Giorgio came from a prominent and wealthy family, and was set for a prosperous and influential life himself. His future was cut short by polio, however, and when he died on July 4, 1925, it was the poor, the sick and the outcasts, rather than the rich and powerful, who came by the thousands to pay their respects.
There is a certain suspicion in our contemporary mind-set, rarely voiced but often held, that holiness is something reserved for — to put it bluntly — losers. People who can make it in the world get ahead on their talents and their charm. Religion, piety and sanctity are for those who can't. The virtuous life is suited to those who don't have what it takes to be victorious in the game of life. Pier Giorgio is a living refutation of that devilish attitude, demonstrating that a man can conquer the world without worldliness conquering his heart.
The turbulent world of early 20th-century Italian public life was something well known to Pier Giorgio. He was born, on April 6, 1901, into the high society of Turin. His father, Alfredo, later a senator and Italian ambassador to Germany, was the founder of the influential daily La Stampa.
Alfredo was keen on his son's worldly future, preparing for Pier Giorgio a future in the newspaper — without asking him whether that was what he wanted.
Alfredo's agnosticism was respectful of the Catholic faith of his wife, Adelaide. Pier Giorgio's mother had a rather harsh personality, and while dutiful in her religious obligations, was not known to exhibit much Christian joy or charity. Alfredo and Adelaide were not a model of a happy Christian marriage. A year before Pier Giorgio died, Alfredo requested a legal separation.
It was not the kind of home that usually produces saints.
Yet Pier Giorgio had from an early age an extraordinary spiritual life, marked by deep prayer that overflowed into works of charity and evangelization. He did this in the most natural way, simply refusing to hide his faith and piety in front of his friends. To the contrary, when his peers would eagerly seek his company on mountain climbing or skiing trips, he would pray at the times he would normally do so, and encourage others to join. An excursion with Pier Giorgio would certainly be fun, illumined by his infectious humor and robust personality, and would also be infused with his piety, which was never ostentatious.
Contemplation, Action and Joy
“Jesus comes to me every morning in holy Communion and I return the visit in his poor,” Pier Giorgio said.
His charity was at once expansive and hidden. His parents did not know until after his death that he spent time in the slums with the St. Vincent de Paul Society, visiting the unemployed, the destitute, the sick and the children. He gave generously of his considerable means, going as far as saving the leftovers from the table in the embassy in Germany for the hungry.
The poor who came to honor him upon his death were the beneficiaries of his charitable action. That action was supported by an intense prayer life, devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and a supernatural outlook that saw Christ in all, especially the weak and suffering. In 1922, Pier Giorgio took the scapular of the Dominican Third Order, drawn by the Dominican combination of contemplation and action.
“You ask me if I am happy and how can I not be?” Pier Giorgio used to say. “As long as faith gives me strength I am happy. Any Catholic can't but be happy. Sadness should be banned from Catholic souls.”
Pier Giorgio was not naive about suffering — he bore his own final agonizing days with heroic silence — but he had a talent for happiness rooted in faith. Indeed, he knew that the happiness that the world so desperately seeks can only come from a faith embraced and lived out to the full, with a smile and a laugh.
The Rich Young Man
Pope John Paul II wrote about this youthful search for happiness, commenting on the question of the rich young man in the Gospel, What do I still lack? (Matthew 19:20): “This question is a very important one. It shows that in the moral conscience of a young person who is forming the plan for his or her whole life, there is hidden an aspiration to ‘something more.’ … It is in the Gospel that the aspiration to perfection, to ‘something more,’ finds its explicit point of reference” (Letter to the Youth of the World, 1985, No. 8).
Pier Giorgio Frassati was a rich young man. Most people of his age in North America today would qualify as “rich young men or women” by historic standards. They do not face hardship, and suffer — it is the right word — from an embarrassment of options. Many high-achieving high school and college students know that they can do whatever they want to do, and as a result cannot commit themselves to any one thing.
But Pier Giorgio knew that it was necessary to give oneself to one thing if happiness is to be found. One mission is better than a thousand-and-one options.
Every young person, especially the young man or woman who is blessed with talent and opportunities, wants “something more” from life.
That “something more” can be sought in another university degree, another six months spent traveling abroad, another résumé-enhancing summer job or internship, another career shift, another set of experiences to be had before moving on to whatever comes next.
It is possible that nothing might come next: Pier Giorgio died at age 24. But by then he had already discovered what his contemporaries in Turin needed to know then, and what his fellow young people need to know now, that the world has a lot to offer, but not enough for happiness. “Something more,” or better, “Someone more” is necessary.
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