Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati
Born: 6 April 1901 (Holy Saturday that year), Turin, Italy
Enrolls in Engineering: 1918, Royal Polytechnic of Turin
Died: 4 July 1925, after a five-day-long intense deterioration from Polio
Beatified: 20 May 1990, by Pope John Paul II
It was in the context of the Toronto World Youth Days in 2002 that I first encountered the life and example of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. I was only 16 at that time, and I was blown away by the story of a young man who reached such heights of sanctity in so few years of life. He immediately became a role model to me. So much about his life drew me to him, especially because we shared so much in common.
When my mother’s family immigrated to Canada from Italy in the 1950’s, most of the men began to work for the Canadian Pacific Railway or the National Parks in the majestic Canadian Rocky Mountains. My mother grew up with her fondest memories spent enjoying those breathtaking surroundings, and she saw to it that her children would appreciate them just the same. A love for the mountains and the outdoors has been with me since my earliest days. This is one of the many things I have grown to discover I shared with a man who lived only 60 years before me in my family’s beloved homeland of Italy. Pier Giorgio was an avid outdoorsman who had a passion for mountain climbing and skiing in the northern Alps. In time, that passion would serve as something of a motif for his whole life.
I was not the only young man who had admired ‘Frassati’, as he was affectionately known by his friends. In his day, he was a very popular individual who attracted all types of people to himself. Those younger than him looked up to him; his peers loved to be with him; girls swooned over his attractiveness; priests yearned to get him into the seminary; his professors respected him; the poorest of the poor marveled at him.
Pier Giorgio Frassati was born on April 6th, 1901, the firstborn to Adelaide Ametis and Alfredo Frassati. His father was a prominent diplomat and had founded the Italian newspaper La Stampa. His mother had herself come from a noble background and was a painter. Consequently, Pier Giorgio and his sister, Luciana (one year his junior), grew up surrounded by incredible wealth. He did not become spoiled, however. He was a cheerful boy who had a naturally generous spirit and was always happy to share all that he had with others.
From an early age, Pier Giorgio manifested a deep faith that he learned at the knees of his beloved Nonna (grandma), who taught him to pray and to love Jesus. His parents, however, could not be bothered with the constraints of Catholicism. Although they did not oppose him receiving the sacraments as a child, they disapproved of his growing fascination with the faith. Sadly for him, despite his natural inclination towards sharing, one thing he was never able to share with his parents was his blossoming faith. As his life of piety and devotion continued to deepen, so too did the disapproval of his parents. Although this was a source of suffering for him, he bore it with tremendous patience, love and great hope for their eventual conversion. Perhaps it was being deprived of this fervent desire of his that bore so much fruit among the other relationships in his life. Nevertheless, he loved his parents and always strove to honour them.
What may have been lacking in sharing faith with his parents was made up for in abundance among his peers. Pier Giorgio never tired of finding very natural ways to encourage his friends to take the practice of the faith more seriously. The pillars of his personal prayer life were the Holy Eucharist and the Blessed Virgin Mary. He lived at a time when it was still rare for anyone to go to Holy Communion frequently, particularly children. And yet, permission had been granted him to receive his first Holy Communion at the age of 10 and to be admitted daily thereafter, if he wished. Therefore, attending the weekday Mass became common for him, and this would spill over into time spent in prayer before our Lord reserved in the Tabernacle. This devotion of his was something he shared with his friends. It eventually came to be expected that before they set out on any expeditions, they would at least make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament in La Crocetta (the church across from his house) if they weren’t able to attend the Holy Mass.
While together on an excursion, he would often recommend that they entrust the time to our Lady by praying the rosary together. Even from before he received his first Communion, Pier Giorgio had enrolled himself in the Marian Sodality- a confraternity of devotion to the Blessed Virgin- and therefore was committed to the daily rosary. If he didn’t get the chance to pray earlier in the day with others, it would not be uncommon for his father to find him asleep on his knees, next to his bed with rosary in hand, late at night. None of this should suggest, however, that he acted like some angel, far removed from the normal interests and dispositions of little boys. On the contrary, he found it easy to make and keep friends, but he had an extraordinary capacity for making prayer and devotion simply seem normal.
When he began to show signs of struggle with his academics, his parents decided to send him off to a Jesuit boarding school. Under their care and instruction, he persevered- though never becoming an exemplary student- and in 1918, having graduated from his secondary studies, he enrolled in the Royal Polytechnic of Turin to begin training as a mining engineer. He once told a friend that he had specifically chosen mining so as to “better serve Christ among the miners.”
His social conscience was very strong and he had already been moved by the plight of labourers in his day. He was deeply influenced by Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical letter Rerum Novarum (Rights and Duties of Capital and Labour), published in 1891. Pope Leo was still the pope for the first two years of Pier Giorgio’s life, and therefore not very far removed from the young man’s experience. Opposing the spread of fascism and defending the rights of the Church and workers became a strong preoccupation of his during university. His sister Luciana commented later in life, “Catholic social teaching could never remain simply a theory with him.” It was because of this that he literally took matters into his own hands when he saw people needing to be defended during public rallies or demonstrations where the right to freedom of speech was being attacked. He was involved in multiple brawls between both anti-clerical communists as well as corrupt police, one time even being jailed overnight. Being a man of deep piety did not mean that he was not passionate.
To prove this point, one only needs to consider the man Pier Giorgio adopted as his personal hero. Fra Girolamo Savonarola was a 15th century Dominican friar whose zeal for the reform of corruption in government, theology and the Church hierarchy got him arrested, excommunicated and subsequently executed. He would not stand down from passionate outbursts against anyone who refused to see the filth of their times. Frassati once wrote in a letter to his friend, “I am a fervent admirer of this friar, who died as a saint at the stake.” This was why, when he joined as a third order Dominican in 1922, he took as a patronal name Girolamo (Jerome) – not after the renowned biblical scholar, but the disgraced preacher.
It was logical that Pier Giorgio’s passion for the less fortunate would eventually lead him into the service of Turin’s most poor. Early on in his post-secondary career, it is quite likely that he realized fighting for change on the large scale was only partially an effective use of his efforts. There were people hungry, shivering and dying in the slums of his very town who had no one to care for them. To this end, he enlisted in the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in 1919. In this capacity, he undertook making deliveries to the needy; but more importantly to them, he got to know them. His family’s wealth and prestige was never an obstacle in relating to these people. Instead, he used his bounteous resources to give away everything he possibly could. In fact, it was his frequent and close contact with these sick and dying poor which explains how he most likely fell ill.
Very shortly before he was to finish up his final courses and exams to complete the university degree, the otherwise robustly healthy young man became suddenly weak. Pier Giorgio tried valiantly to hide just how sick he was feeling, as at that same time, his beloved grandmother was dying and he did not want to unduly take attention away from her. Unfortunately, he had contracted severe poliomyelitis, which needed immediate treatment that he did not receive. His condition deteriorated dramatically and rapidly, and within six days of first feeling sick, he was on his deathbed. No matter to him, though; his thoughts were with his poor friends. Using his basically paralyzed hands, he scribbled a note asking someone to bring medicine to his friend, Converso, whom he had been administering it to formerly. On July 4th, 1925, at the age of 24, Pier Giorgio Frassati died.
It was only at his funeral that his devastated family realized the impact that the hidden life their son and brother had been living had on the poor of Turin. News of his death spread rapidly, and thousands of people congregated outside of their estate weeping, praying and wishing to pay their final respects. The throng of his friends was equally surprised to discover that their Pier Giorgio was the heir of the powerful Frassati family. Apparently, it had never needed to come up in conversation…
Pier Giorgio Frassati loved life and everything in it. Among his numerous passions, perhaps the greatest was his love for the outdoors. He was an avid alpinist who spent countless hours exploring the mountains. A photograph had once been snapped of him scaling up the sheer face of a mountain. When it had been developed and given to him, he wrote on it the inscription, Verso L’alto – “Toward the top.” Whether he realized it at the time or not, this phrase perfectly captured the example he showed with his life. Pier Giorgio always strove for the heights. He was not satisfied by mediocrity or the status quo. This is the classic hallmark of a saint. He is famously quoted as admonishing, “To live without faith, without a patrimony to defend, without a steady struggle for truth – that is not living, but existing.”
It was no surprise, therefore, that when his body was exhumed on March 31st, 1981, it was found entirely intact – perfectly incorrupt. His body was then moved from the family plot and entombed at the Cathedral of Turin where, eight years later, Pope John Paul II would travel to pray before Pier Giorgio’s remains. The one who was to become a saint himself one day offered an explanation as to why he traveled there: “I wanted to pay homage to a young man who was able to witness to Christ with singular effectiveness in this century of ours. When I was a young man, I, too, felt the beneficial influence of his example and, as a student, I was impressed by the force of his testimony.”
On the 20th of May the following year (1990), Pope John Paul II joyfully beatified Pier Giorgio Frassati, proposing him to the youth of the world as a Man of the Beatitudes. I have found in him repeated examples I am striving to follow, even now as a priest who has lived longer than he did. But for the soul in love with Christ, neither youth nor the lay state can hold one back from reaching Verso L’alto– towards the heights of sanctity.
-Fr. Cristino Bouvette
*For further biographical information and resources on the life of Bl. Pier Giorgio, please visit the official website for the postulation of his cause in America: http://www.frassatiusa.org/index.cfm.