Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A Saint and a Prankster?

Those who think of saints as shy and reclusive people who disdain this life while pining for the next world will be surprised by the figure of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. A practical joker, known as “Robespierre” or the “Terror” by his friends, whom he united in an association called “The Shady Characters”, Frassati was a friend to the poor, in whom he saw Christ. And today’s laity, especially young people, who are looking for a role model, find someone to identify with in this strapping young outdoorsman who combined political activism and work for social justice, who lived his short life “to the full”.

Pier Giorgio Frassati was born in Turin, Italy on April 6, 1901. His mother, Adelaide Ametis, was a painter. His father Alfredo, an agnostic, was the founder and editor-in-chief of the liberal newspaper “La Stampa”, and was influential in Italian politics as a Senator and as well as Ambassador to Germany.

He was educated at home with his sister Luciana, who was one year younger, before attending with her a state school and finally a school run by the Jesuits. There he joined a Marian sodality and the Apostleship of Prayer and obtained permission for daily Communion, a practise which he kept till the end of his life.

Pier Giorgio developed a deep spiritual life which he never hesitated to share with his friends. The Holy Eucharist and the Blessed Virgin 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 the demobilised servicemen returning from World War I. He decided to become a mining engineer studying at the Royal Polytechnic University of Turin, so he could “serve Christ better among the miners”, as he told a friend.

Although he considered his studies to be his first duty, they did not keep him from social and political activism. In 1919 he joined the Catholic Student Federation and Catholic Action. Participating in a Church-organized demonstration in Rome, he stood up to police violence and rallied the other young people by grabbing the banner which the Royal Guards had knocked out of someone else’s hands. He held it even higher while using the pole to fend off their blows. Like his father he was strongly anti-Fascist and did nothing to hide his political views. On several occasions he was involved in fights, first with anticlerical Reds and later with the Fascists. Independently of his father’s political ideas he became a very active member of the Popular Party which promoted the Catholic Church’s social teaching. He even thought about merging the Catholic Student Federation with the Catholic Workers Organization. “Charity is not enough: we need social reform,” he used to say as he worked for both.

What little he did have, Pier Giorgio gave to help the poor; even using his bus fare for charity and often running home to be on time for meals. The poor who were without God and those who were suffering were his masters; he was literally their servant, and he considered this a privilege. This charity did not involve just giving something to others but giving of himself completely, a self-giving that was nourished by daily Communion with Christ in the Holy Eucharist and by frequent nocturnal adoration, by recitation of the Rosary, by meditation on St. Paul’s “Hymn on Charity” (I Cor 13). He often sacrificed vacations at the Frassati summer home in Pollone because “If everybody leaves Turin, who will take care of the poor?” In 1921 he enthusiastically helped to organize in Ravenna the first congress of the “Pax Romana”, an association which has as its purpose the unification of all Catholic students throughout the world to work together towards world peace.

Mountain climbing was one of his favourite sports. These outings, which he organised with his friends -- The Shady Characters -- were also for him occasions for apostolate. He often went to theatres, operas and museums; he loved art and music and could quote whole chunks of the poet Dante. The fiery sermons of Savonarola and the writings of St. Catherine of Siena propelled him into the Third Order of St. Dominic in 1922; he chose the name Girolamo (Jerome), not after the Bible scholar, but rather after his personal hero, the Dominican preacher and reformer of Florence’s Renaissance, Girolamo Savonarola: “I am a fervent admirer of this friar, who died as a saint at the stake,” he wrote to a friend.

Just before receiving his university degree Pier Giorgio contracted poliomyelitis, which doctors later speculated he caught from the sick whom he tended. Neglecting his own health because his grandmother was dying, he died after six days of terrible suffering on July 4, 1925 at the age of 24. His last concern was for the poor. On the eve of his death, with a paralysed hand, he scribbled a message for a friend remembering the injections for Converso, a poor man he had been assisting.

His funeral was a triumph: the streets of the city were lined with a multitude of mourners, unknown to his family -- the poor and the needy whom he had served so unselfishly for seven years. Many of these poor people, in turn, had been surprised to learn that the saintly young man they knew was the heir of the Frassati family.

Bibliographic note: This brief biography of Blessed Pier Giorgio was published on the English page of the Italian website: Assocciazione Pier Giorgio Frassati. Please see http://www.piergiorgiofrassati.org/

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