ROME — On July 4, 1925, Pier Giorgio Frassati died of polio, which he contracted at a man’s bedside a few days earlier, at the age of only 24. Almost a century later, his testimony to living a life devoted to God has spread around the world, inspiring countless vocations, especially among young people.
Born on April 6, 1901, in Turin, Italy, Frassati dedicated his short existence to social-justice issues and was a member of the Third Order of St. Dominic as well as Catholic Action and various charitable organizations such as the St. Vincent de Paul Society. He drew from the Gospel his particular concern for the least of this world and spared no effort to assist the poor, the sick and the marginalized of his hometown.
He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in May 1990 in Rome.
As a layman, Blessed Frassati embodied the perfect balance between a life of prayer and a deep commitment to practicing his faith in the world, especially through acts of charity benefiting others. Frassati had numerous areas of interest and attached great value to his friends and the activities they often organized together, including mountain hikes in the nearby city of Pollone.
Wanda Gawronska is the daughter of Luciana Gawronska, Frassati’s younger sister. Although she never knew her uncle, Wanda was deeply struck by his model of sanctity and is still working tirelessly, despite her advanced age, to share his message of hope with the world.
In this interview with the Register, his 92-year-old niece discusses her blessed uncle’s unique spirituality and also reveals some of the unexplored elements of his life, such as his political commitment and his special devotion to the Virgin Mary.
You’ve dedicated the past three decades to sharing Pier Giorgio Frassati’s testimony of faith with the world. How did he influence your personal life?
Actually, I discovered his life very late. I did hear about “a holy uncle” when I was young, but I have to admit I was not very interested at that time. My mother did not speak about him so often, even though I knew he played such an important role in her life. We weren’t obsessed with our “holy uncle.”
I got to know him in 1975 only, when I was already 48, on the occasion of an exhibition about his life that my mother, Luciana Gawronska [Frassati’s sister], organized for the 50th anniversary of his death. My mother asked me to help her with it, as I used to be a photojournalist. But I realized I actually didn’t know anything about my uncle, so I started exploring his life. I then became fascinated with him and the way he engaged life, how he followed the saying of his beloved St. Catherine of Siena, “If you are what you ought to be, you will set the world on fire!” This is how I got involved in making him known. It is so precious and important that someone had to do it full time.
Is the awareness of having such a holy man in your family a source of strength in your life?
I have to say that I’ve never really felt he was my uncle. First of all because it is difficult to imagine that such a young man can be your uncle! He is far more than an uncle. The fact that he’s part of my family gives me the opportunity to have access to many more direct sources of information. It is helpful for what I do. It is hard work, but it gives me such joy. It has given me the chance to encounter so many extraordinary young people!
However, he is indeed a source of strength for me, but it also makes me feel guilty sometimes, as I feel incapable of being worthy of his testimony of life! Nevertheless, I feel a very strong protection from him for our entire family. We all feel this incredible protection. We know that he resolves many issues in our lives.
Do you pray to him often?
Actually, I talk to him as if he were here. I ask him things. I ask for his help. People used to tell my mother to pray to Pier Giorgio for some intercessions. Once I remember her answering, “I won’t pray to him — I’ll tell him!” We feel his presence, and we ask for his help in many different situations of life.
Pope John Paul II, who beatified Pier Giorgio in 1990, has always had a strong relationship with him. Can you tell me more about it?
Karol Wojtyla knew about his life when he was a young man, as a biography of Pier Giorgio was published in Poland in 1929, and he was edified by his testimony. When he came to Pollone in 1989 to pray at Pier Giorgio’s tomb he said, “I, too, in my youth, felt the beneficial influence of his example, and, as a student, I was impressed by the force of his Christian testimony.”
In 1977, when he was still quite an unknown cardinal, Wojtyla called him “The Man of the Eight Beatitudes,” while Pier Giorgio was just a Servant of God. What more could be said about the holiness of Pier Giorgio? For me, that statement is like a canonization. One year later, Cardinal Wojtyla became pope under the name of John Paul II.
How do you explain the fact that Pier Giorgio is still so popular among young people?
He is absolutely one of a kind! There is a perception for some that in order to be a saint one has to disconnect from life in the world. Karl Rahner, who knew Pier Giorgio when they were about 20 years old, wrote about this point. He said that we are looking for a saint like Pier Giorgio today, a saint whose spirituality and life in the world are fully integrated, living Christianity in a way in which his spirituality does not take away from his humanity, nor do his activities in the world detract from his relationship with Christ.
He was interested in a thousand different things.
Pier Giorgio is proof that it is also possible to be holy while living entirely with the world, having fun with friends, drinking a glass of wine, going to theater, at school … his living with the world, enjoying the beauties of the world; but that didn’t lessen the spiritual part of his life — on the contrary.
And he had the exact same problems and concerns as so many young people today. He used to have difficulties with exams, which weighed down on him a lot. This is why many students identify themselves with him. He also had problems with his parents, who didn’t get along and who were about to separate. He also secretly loved a young woman that he decided to let go. His joyful faith and his freedom are also a great source of inspiration for youth. Pier Giorgio instilled the idea that faith is not something that limits you; on the contrary, it frees you; it gives you wings. He used to have an incredible freedom in his opinions, choices — in everything. He believed that freedom is the greatest gift that God gave to his creatures.
And on top of that, he was also a good-looking man, so he is such a fascinating symbol for many young ladies!
He is, indeed, a rare model of lay sanctity for the world.
Pier Giorgio is the first modern lay saint! He lived by the principles of Vatican II at the beginning of the 20th century [what the Church was teaching near the end of the 20th century]. He anticipated the role of laypeople within the Church. He is the first saint of the encyclical Rerum Novarum.
And his example is a source of inspiration for everyone. A priestly fraternity called “Fraternità Sacerdotale dei Preti Loschi di Pier Giorgio Frassati” [in reference to the society of friends Pier Giorgio created, which he jokingly called “Società dei Tipi Loschi” (The Shady Guys Society)] was recently created in Italy.
How would you define his apostolate?
He used to define his own apostolate as an apostolate of persuasion. In a talk he gave to the members of the Catholic youth of Pollone in 1923, he wrote that, before starting any kind of apostolate, we must first of all focus on our own personal formation, and then comes the apostolate. There are three apostolates, according to him: example, charity and persuasion — which, according to him, is the most beautiful one. His letters are a must-read to better understand his approach to the apostolate!
You often highlight the slowness of his beatification process, which lasted decades. How do you explain that?
In regards to canonization, there is no [second] miracle approved, which is the only request the Church makes. Why is there no miracle? Because there is not enough information about him out there, no formal organization to introduce him to the faithful, not enough people asking for his prayers or informing about graces received.
Why, in your estimation, is your uncle so popular in the United States?
He is a layman whose example is totally compatible with everyday life. What strikes me the most about him is the fact that his testimony can edify any kind of person, including priests, monks and seminarians. In the U.S. there are so many seminaries that dedicated a floor to him, for example. There are also nuns that take Pier Giorgio’s name, asking to be called “Sister Frassati.” Many Dominican priests and brothers there also take his name.
And the way he used to live his faith is close to the way young American Catholics do nowadays.
A pretty unexplored aspect of his life is his political commitment.
It is a very important aspect of Pier Giorgio’s life! Unfortunately, no one stresses such an aspect when talking about him. He was a member of the Italian People’s Party, founded by Sicilian priest Luigi Sturzo. It was the first time Catholics had a political party. Pier Giorgio was a very active member of this party.
He fought a lot — first against the communists and later the fascists at that time. He also had strong connections with young people from other countries working for peace. In the aftermath of World War I, he rightly felt it was important to strengthen the relationship between the young in Italy and in Germany. He felt that brotherhood has no borders.
Just like Father Luigi Sturzo and his own father, Alfredo Frassati, a politician and a journalist, founder of the well-known Italian newspaper La Stampa, Pier Giorgio was in favor of separation of Church and state. He used to think that charity was not enough, that reforms were necessary. He was convinced of the necessity for Catholics to commit themselves in public and political life.
What would he like to teach to today’s world, in your opinion?
One of his greatest messages to the world, especially to youth, is that it is worth committing oneself to the faith. For me, Pier Giorgio’s motto that describes him is not “To the Heights,” with which many like to remember him; but a better motto is “Live — do not just ‘get along.’” He once wrote: “What a grace it is to be a Catholic. 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.’”
According to Pier Giorgio, we must not be afraid to make commitments. This is the recipe for joy, even if there may be suffering. Suffering is also a way to God, as we get stronger and improve ourselves. Very often in his letters to friends, Pier Giorgio asks them to pray so that he can strengthen his will, so that he won’t fail his projects. Today, we no longer teach children to be strong-willed. If God gives you a grace, you must have the strength of character that enables you to respond to such a grace.
You’ve just quoted Pier Giorgio’s most famous motto — “To the Heights.” He wrote it on the back of the picture of his last mountain hike, a few weeks before he died. How do you interpret it?
The picture was taken on Sunday, June 7, 1925. We cannot know if he actually felt that death was imminent. Some of his letters at the same period are pretty mysterious because he said things like “I am about to reap what I’ve been sowing.” What does that mean? Was he talking about his exams or something greater?
In one of his last letters, responding to a friend who was asking what his projects would be after graduation, he writes: “I would like to defend these unique and true things, in the state that the Lord will choose.” He is talking about evangelization. He doesn’t say what he would like to do after graduation, in his professional life, as an engineer, for instance. He says “in the state that the Lord will choose.” And the Good Lord gave him the largest field he could have — he took him to heaven. There he can evangelize the whole world!
Blessed Pier Giorgio’s special relationship with the Virgin Mary is another relatively unknown aspect of his spirituality. Can you tell us something about it?
His best friend used to say we cannot understand Pier Giorgio’s spirituality if we don’t know his relationship with the Virgin Mary. He always carried his rosary in his pocket and was known to give them away to his friends. Once, when leaving church, rosary still in hand, a friend who saw him running by asked him, “Pier Giorgio, have you become pietistic?” “No, I have remained a Christian!” was his quick reply.
In his room, he displayed on the wall the Prayer of St. Bernard to Mary [“O Virgin Mother, Daughter of Thy Son” ...], from Dante’s Paradiso. Pier Giorgio copied the text by hand and put it on the wall of his room. The two sanctuaries where he most expressed his devotion were the Sanctuary of Oropa and La Consolata.
In 1920, he was at the fourth coronation of the black wooden Virgin statue of the Sanctuary of Oropa in Biella, Piedmont. This coronation has happened every century since 1620. The fifth coronation will take place next year, in August of 2020. On that occasion we plan to organize a meeting of Pier Giorgio’s friends in order to pray for the intercession of the Virgin Mary for Christian values in Europe. We would like to do use the European flag, a symbol of the event, highlighting the reason for its 12 stars.
Solène Tadié is the Register’s Rome-based Europe correspondent.