The Church celebrates so many wonderful saints and feast days that it is easy for a holy person to slip below the radar on a particular day. For instance, last Thursday, 4th July, it was officially the Feast of St Elizabeth of Portugal, 1271-1336, known as “the Peacemaker.” I have no doubt she is worthy of mention in the Church’s liturgical calendar but she did live a long time ago. In contrast, there is another memorable personality who shares her feast-day and yet who is relatively unknown, at least in this country. This is Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, born on 6 April 1901 and who died on July 4 1925. Pope John Paul II, who beatified him in 1990, called him “man of the beatitudes”, because he seemed to exemplify so many of their virtues in his brief but intensely energetic life.
He was born into a well-known and influential family in Turin. His father, an agnostic, was the founder of the liberal newspaper La Stampa and later became the Italian ambassador to Germany. His mother, who was highly strung and very strict with her two children, was a painter. His parents were unhappily married and the household atmosphere was clouded by their silent antagonism, his father’s religious scepticism and his mother’s dominating personality. Pier Giorgio, a lively, imaginative and generous-hearted boy, disappointed them; for his mother he was too pious and for his father not sufficiently ambitious or academically outstanding.
In the company of his friends, Pier Giorgio was the life and soul of the party, a keen mountain climber and hiker, who involved himself in Catholic social programmes and vigorously opposed the rise of Fascism. Photos of his student days show a handsome, magnetic youth, always laughing in the centre of the group.
In private, he had an intense life of prayer and love for the Sacraments; what money he had he gave away among the poor of Turin, much to his parents’ chagrin. Pier Giorgio thought of the priesthood but decided his vocation was as a lay Catholic; among other activities he worked for Catholic Action and joined the Society of St Vincent de Paul. He also fell in love but in deference to his mother’s opposition, put thoughts of marriage aside. Helping the poor in the slums during a polio epidemic he contracted the disease, only disclosing the symptoms to his family when he was already dying. His parents were startled to see thousands of ordinary people following his funeral procession; he is buried in a side chapel in Turin Cathedral, which I have visited.
Why am I drawn to him? Because although he had a deep inner prayer life and devotion to his Faith, he does not conform to the conventional idea of a good person. He would have understood St Teresa of Avila’s remark, “God protect me from gloomy faced saints”. Pier Giorgio was in love with life, the mountains, singing, poetry – and at the same time and behind all these human passions, in love with Christ, especially as he discovered Him in the poor of Turin. He is a marvellous example to young people today, especially those who are trailing after false gods in the wastelands of postmodern life. He is also, with his social conscience and yet buoyant high spirits, a living refutation of those atheists who think Christians are bigoted, rule-bound and full of hate. Above all, Blessed Pier Giorgio reminds us what life is really about and how to live it to the full.