When the maid screamed, it only took seconds for 23-year-old Pier Giorgio Frassati to come to her defense. He quickly discovered that a group of Fascists had forced their way into the house to vandalize it. While some started to break furniture, another attempted to cut the telephone wires. “I threw myself at that scoundrel shouting ‘rascals, cowards, assassins,’ and delivered a punch,” wrote Pier Giorgio, who moments before had been enjoying a quiet meal with his mother.
Not only did his courage enable him to single-handedly chase away the home invaders that day, but his example enables us to cast off today’s sometimes distorted notion of holiness. There is a time for turning the other cheek and a time for standing your ground. The future “Blessed” Frassati understood and did both at a time when the culture was similarly toxic and intent on stripping away the masculinity of Catholic men.
His father, Alfredo, was influential in Italian politics, serving as a senator and later the ambassador to Germany during the era when Italy endured the rise of the dictator Benito Mussolini. Alfredo did not share Pier Giorgio’s profound love for the Church. Often described as agnostic, he was the classic fallen-away cradle Catholic. But he was a man of principle and honor and a true patriot. He resigned his ambassadorship and openly opposed loathsome politicians who made a habit of trampling on their consciences, as Pier Giorgio would say.
“Now the government is so corrupt that if it doesn’t intervene immediately to surgically remove the party that is becoming a cancer there will be no more hope for us not even a little bit.”
Although peace was a recurring theme in letters written by Pier Giorgio, and clearly his preference, he was never hesitant to participate in large processions and demonstrations, which sometimes turned violent and, on occasion, ended with his arrest. He boasted about the fact that he had “always been opposed to this party, made up of a union of delinquents or thieves or assassins or idiots, in short today’s Fascism.”
Pier Giorgio didn’t just complain about what the leaders of the country were doing. He tried to make a difference. For the seven years before his sudden death at the age of 24, he served the poor, sick, and less fortunate people of his hometown, Turin, without letting on that he was a member of one of the city’s most famous families. But he also knew that charity was not enough, and so he worked to bring about reforms where possible.
Handsome, robust, joyful, beloved, relatable. These are just a handful of descriptions of the “Man of the Eight Beatitudes”—a name given to him by Pope St. John Paul II at the beatification in 1990. Pier Giorgio was committed to his Faith, his family and his friends. Unusual for those times, he began receiving the Eucharist daily at the age of 12.
He was often seen praying the Rosary on his knees by his bed. He sang out of tune, enjoyed an occasional cigar, loved practical jokes, climbed mountains, swam in the sea, rode his bike long distances, fell in love, and literally gave away the coat off his back. When asked why he rode in third-class cabins on the train, he answered that there was no fourth class. The money he saved from this small sacrifice went to some poor person—one of the thousands who showed up on the day of his funeral to the astonishment of his parents.
Pier Giorgio’s life had meaning. He demanded that ours do, too. “To live without a Faith, without a patrimony to defend, without a steady struggle for the Truth, is not living,” he said. That kind of existence is just getting along. Even during periods when he felt his life was monotonous, he never lost sight of the fact that being a Catholic was a tremendous grace and demanded a response to that grace.
He considered his good health a gift from God and felt a duty to put it at the service of others. “To act otherwise,” he said, “would be to betray that gift.” A contagious virus, poliomyelitis, claimed Pier Giorgio’s life in one short week. It ravaged his body but not his spirit. How could it? He often reflected on death and his longed-for encounter with Christ, and he made it a point to live in such a way that death would not take him by surprise from the spiritual side. In the end, death exalted him, lifting him up as a model for us all.
Waxing philosophic about fixes for what is wrong in the Church and in the culture may satisfy some. For me, the solution is a simple one: men like Frassati.
Blessed Pier Giorgio, pray for us.
[Photo: © Associazione Pier Giorgio Frassati, Rome. Used with permission.]