The Greek philosopher Aristotle once wrote, “Good habits formed at youth make all the difference.” Ancient wisdom, eternal truth! I like to think that truth applies to the lives of young saints. It is certainly true of the life of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, who was born and lived at the beginning of the 20th century. Rather than telling his story from birth, I’d like to start with his death.
When Pier Giorgio Frassati died of polio in his mother’s arms on July 4, 1925, his funeral was attended by thousands of people, his saintly reputation had spread so widely. He was only 24 years of age when he died, and his impact on the people of his native Turin, Italy, and the surrounding regions was incredible. They literally lined the streets leading to his funeral Mass. Who were these people and what brought them to pay their final respects to this young man? Quite simply, it was the life he lived and the way he lived it. That is what makes saints!
• Video: Bishop's essay on Blessed Pier George Frassati
Born on April 6, 1901, to socially active parents – his father was a newspaper owner (“La Stampa”) and involved in local politics, and his mother was an accomplished painter – young Frassati was not the best student. He was, however, considered naturally intelligent so his parents arranged private studies for him with the Jesuits. Later, he enrolled at the Royal Polytechnic University of Turin, where he had hoped to become a mining engineer.
Even as a young man, he was deeply religious – a trait quite obvious to his teachers as well as his schoolmates. Growing up, Pier Giorgio also exhibited an extraordinary concern for the poor. Both of these characteristics, his prayerful devotion to the Catholic faith as well as his attention to the needy of Turin, remained characteristic trademarks of his short life. He hoped, as an engineer, that he could bring the message of Christ to those working in the region’s mines.
Frassati enjoyed the company of a wide circle of friends and peers. He was a handsome, popular young man, well-known for playing all kinds of good-natured pranks on his friends. He was very athletic and loved mountain climbing in particular. He combined his sports interests with an active appreciation of the arts (remember, his Mom was a widely recognized painter) frequenting museums, theatre and the opera with his friends. He shied away from things vulgar or immoral. During university studies, Pier Giorgio was attracted to a young woman but hesitated to begin dating her because he felt his parents might not approve, feelings he confided to his sister.
Like his father, Frassati was interested in politics and social action. He was very involved in movements that opposed fascism taking root throughout Italy. Pier Giorgio’s deeply held convictions occasionally led to vigorous arguments. At the same time, he joined many Catholic organizations such as the Lay Dominicans and the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
While leading the normal life of other young men of his day, Frassati spent much time helping the poor. “All around the sick and all around the poor I see a special light, which we do not have,” he once said. Throughout his life, he exhibited extraordinary devotion to the Holy Eucharist, personal prayer and the Blessed Mother, “good habits formed at youth.” He once wrote, “In prayer, the soul rises above life’s sadness.”
During his final academic year, he contracted polio, probably from the impoverished sick whom he visited regularly. And yet, Pier Giorgio never lost his interest in athletics and adventure, especially climbing and hiking in the mountains. “Every day, my love for the mountains grows more and more,” he used to tell his friends. “Verso l’alto” – translated “toward the heights” – accurately captured his attitude; in fact, he once wrote it on the back of a photograph taken of him while climbing on the side of a mountain. It later became the phrase most often associated with his approach to life.
One summer day, while boating, Frassati was stricken with back pain, headache and fever, the result of his polio. Returning home, his condition worsened over the next few days, and a priest was summoned to administer the sacraments to him. With his mother embracing him, Pier Giorgio uttered his last words, “May I breathe forth my soul in peace with you,” and he died on the evening of July 4, 1925. His funeral was unlike any the city of Turin had ever witnessed.
The memory of Pier Giorgio Frassati was kept alive in the constant recollections of his friends and neighbors for years, stories of his love for the poor, his holiness, his sense of adventure, his good nature. By 1932, frequent talk of his canonization resulted in a petition to Turin’s Archbishop, Cardinal Maurilli Fossati. Interviews were conducted, witness testimony was presented, and his letters and writings were collected and evaluated. Within the year, a miraculous cure was attributed to Pier Giorgio’s intercession.
His cause proceeded but not without some temporary roadblocks during the investigations. Finally, he was declared “Venerable” in 1987 and “Blessed” in 1990. Pope St. John Paul II recognized his “good habits formed at youth,” calling him “a man of the Eight Beatitudes,” “a young man who was able to witness to Christ with singular effectiveness.” His feast day is July 4.
For young Catholics, the story of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati presents much to imitate and admire. He was a “normal guy,” fun-loving and good-natured, athletic, popular among his friends, interested in culture and society, prayerful and unapologetic about his faith, eager to reach out and help others especially the poor, a young man whose attention was always directed “toward the heights.”
Frassati is proof that sanctity does not require a long life or an early death – only a life, whatever its length, lived with and for the Lord. For young people in today’s world, the 24-year-old Pier Giorgio Frassati shows us that saints can and do look like them. Pray for his canonization. Blessed Pier Giorgio, pray for the youth of our Diocese and inspire them, like you, to love the Lord.
(Sources: Luciana Frassati, “A Man of the Beatitudes: Pier Giorgio Frassati,” Ignatius Press, 2001; Michael R. Heinlein, “Pier Giorgio Frassati: A Patron for World Youth Day” in “Our Sunday Visitor,” April 21, 2017; “Pier Giorgio Frassati,” Wikipedia; “Biography of Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati,” https://frassatiUSA.org.)