The Wild One: Blessed Pier Giorgio
Pier Giorgio Frassati was young, handsome, cultured, athletic, practical-joking -- and Blessed. Beatified by the Catholic Church in 1990, he was named the Patron Saint of World Youth Day 2000.
by John Zmirak | Source:
Are young men who smoke, play "extreme" sports, get into fist-fights, and play pranks on others worthy models for Christian boys to imitate? They are if their wild spirits flow from a generous devotion to God-like Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati of Turin, Italy.
He was born 100 years ago, on April 6, 1901, to wealthy secularists in Turin, Italy. His mother was a painter, his father a prominent liberal journalist. Pier had trouble in school, failing test after test until he entered a Jesuit academy-where extra help got him through. Young Pier wasn´t a "brain." If anything, he was a jock.
Athletic, handsome, and bounding with charisma, young Frassati gained a reputation as a practical joker. His pranks included short-sheeting priests´ beds. He would sign letters to his friends as the murderous French revolutionary "Robespierre," adding the motto "Terror conquers all."
The Sinister Ones
Pier organized expeditions in the Alps for a band of boys he dubbed I Sinistri "(the Sinister Ones"), adopting the slogan: "Pochi ma buoni come macaroni" (roughly translated, that´s: "The Few, the Proud, the Macaroni"). Frassati led his Sinister Ones on arduous mountain-climbing expeditions, leading them in the Rosary as they ascended. He urged them upward with the cry: "Higher and higher-there you can hear the voice of Christ!" For every climber who prayed, Pier agreed to grease his boots (a nasty but necessary mountaineers´ chore). The climb would be followed by a wild ski-race down the mountainside.
When he wasn´t risking life and limb, Frassati enjoyed theaters, museums and the opera, delighting in Italian, Christian culture. Widely read, with literary flair, Pier engaged his friends in long, lively discussions about Jesus, Heaven and hell-enriched with passages he´d memorized from Dante´s Divine Comedy and St. Paul´s letters.
"Around the Poor I See a Special Light"
Each day, Pier received Communion; many nights he spent sleepless in silent Adoration-with his skis at the ready for dawn adventures. Pier filled his life with little sacrifices for the poor, whom he saw every day.
When friends asked how he could stomach the smelly environs of Turin´s slums, Pier said: "It´s to Jesus I go. Jesus comes to me every morning in Holy Communion and I repay Him in a very small way by visiting the poor. All around the sick and all around the poor I see a special light which we do not have."
His frugal father gave Pier a small allowance-which the boy promptly passed on to the needy. This usually included his bus fare, reports Frassati´s niece, Wanda Gawronska. "My grandfather was very stern about punctuality at meals, so Pier had to run all the way home, if he wanted to eat."
Pier would often skip family vacations, so as not to leave behind his friends among the poor. When asked why he rode third class on trains, he´d answer, smiling, "Because there is not a fourth." Although his father owned a major newspaper, La Stampa, Frassati studied to work as a mining engineer, so he could "serve Christ better among the miners."
As Domenico Bettinelli, Jr., writes: "When [Pier] was a child, a poor mother with a boy in tow came begging to the Frassati home. Pier Giorgio answered the door, and seeing the boy´s shoeless feet, gave him his own shoes. At graduation, given the choice of money or a car, [Pier] chose the money and gave it to the poor. He obtained a room for an old woman evicted from her tenement, provided a bed for a consumptive invalid, and supported three children of a sick and grieving widow... Only God knew of these charities; he never mentioned them to others." (from "Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati-a Saint for the Youth of the ´90s" (see related link below).
Frassati didn´t just dispense pocket money to the poor, reports Wanda Gawronska: "He would do everything for those families-carry them coal on his back to them, find the men jobs, buy them all shoes. Above all he gave them himself."
Charity is Not Enough
Pier also acted to challenge the system that had neglected the poor. "Charity is not enough: we need social reform," he liked to say. In 1919, he entered the Catholic Student Federation and Catholic Action-two organizations that would soon be suppressed by Mussolini´s regime. Frassati also joined Italy´s pro-Catholic Popular Party. Later, Pier Giorgio helped found a Catholic daily newspaper Momento, devoted to spreading Catholic social teaching-especially the principles of Leo XIII´s encyclical Rerum Novarum.
Pier helped lead marches of Catholic youth-a dangerous task in the wild streets of 1920s Italy. The Catholics were attacked by leftist Reds, by the anti-clerical Royal Police, and then by Mussolini´s blackshirts. Frassati fought back in self-defense, landing several times in jail.
When his father´s liberal politics antagonized Mussolini, Fascist "squadristi" raided the Frassati home. Pier single-handedly ejected the thugs and chased them down the street. Pier reassured his friends, "It is not those who suffer violence who should fear, but those who practice it. When God is with us, we do not need to be afraid.´"
Frassati used to say that "God gives us health so that we may serve the sick." He visited invalids in hospitals and at home, bringing medicine and food. In 1925, he contracted polio, which struck him swiftly. He would die in only five days, at the age of 24. As Pier lay on his death-bed, he handed his sister Luciana some pawn tickets to redeem for some poor people. His last note, written with a nearly paralyzed hand, concerned the Converso family, who depended on him to pay for shots.
At Frassati´s funeral, his family was shocked to see more than 1,000 mourners from Turin´s lower classes. These poor, in turn, were amazed to discover the true identity of their long-time benefactor. As Frassati´s story became well-known, it inspired Catholics across the world-including a young Polish student, Karol Woytjla-now Pope John Paul II.
To this day, Frassati´s body remains incorrupt: "When they opened Pier Giorgio´s tomb in 1981, his body was perfectly preserved," recalled one witness. "He had a smile on his face and a rosary in his hands. It was like meeting him for the first time."
Pier Giorgio Frassati was not the son his worldly parents expected-nor was he the somber contemplative many Catholics expect in one called "blessed." Among the mildest of his adventurous habits was smoking a pipe. As the public announcement of his beatification was being prepared, some well-meaning devotees had the pipe airbrushed out of the official Vatican photo. (We reproduce the original, unretouched picture above.)
The truth is that the man Pope John Paul beatified on May 20, 1990, calling him, "a man of the eight Beatitudes," was a pipe-smoker, prankster, daredevil, and lover of God.
It is hard to imagine that He did not approve.
To learn more about Frassati, see his sister Luciana´s book, A Man of the Beatitudes from Novalis Press (see related link below).
Pier Giorgio´s motto: "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.´"
Reprinted with permission from the February 2001 issue of Faith & Family - The Magazine of Catholic Living. All rights reserved.