On May 20, 1990, Pope John Paul II beatified the young Italian lay leader Pier Giorgio Frassati. It was a gratifying day for the Polish pope. Since his ordination as Father Karol Wotyla, in his intensive work with Polish Catholic youths, he had found Frassati’s approach to the youth apostolate singularly effective. At the beatification of this student of engineering he had praised Pier Giorgio for his countless personal charities, as a “Man of the Beatitudes”.
Surprisingly, perhaps, Frassati came from a family more prominent than pious. His father, Alfredo, was an agnostic, the founder and director of Turin’s liberal newspaper, “La Stampa”. Influential in the councils of the Kingdom of Italy, he held the appointive office of senator, and saw service as Italian ambassador to Germany. The mother, Adelaide Ametis, was a painter, hypersensitive, demanding, sarcastic and wary about being thought too Catholic. They had two children: Pier Giorgio, born in Turin April 6, 1901, and his sister Luciana, seventeen months younger. Luciana was, frankly, delighted by the “success” her family enjoyed. As the chief confidant of her brother, however, she would grow mightily in her appreciation of him as a man of wisdom.
The Frassati’s probably believed that they were providing Pier Giorgio and his young sister Luciana with the most suitable early instruction: primary, at home by tutors; secondary, in the public schools (and, fortunately for Giorgio, two residential years in a soundly devotional Jesuit school).
Typical of teenagers, Pier Giorgio developed athletic skills, especially in more “meditative” sports like horseback riding, skiing, and mountain climbing. Culturally, of course, he could scarcely have avoided the impact of Italian literature, art, theater and opera. But his elders seem never to have investigated how the conventional liberal arts program was affecting his personal maturation. Only when he was an adult did they discover that he evolved into a disciplined, deeply spiritual man with a gift for social leadership.
This sense of social compassion was fixed when he was still a child.
It first displayed itself in 1918 when he joined one of the local St. Vincent de Paul societies and started to devote his free time to serving, incognito, the needs of Turin’s poor. His contribution was minimally financial. (Alfredo gave him almost no money, and Giorgio personally gloried in poverty.) It was instead a total gift of self to complying with the eight beatitudes (Mt. 5:1-12), plus Jesus’ later assurance that what we give the poor we are giving to Jesus himself (Mt. 5:25).
Meanwhile, young Frassati was pondering what career would help him best to assist still more unfortunates. He decided to become a mining engineer: not because he had any special talents in that profession, but because miners’ livings and lives were at constant risk.
An energetic activist, Giorgio continued to enroll in various promising societies of social concern. Two such religious societies were the Catholic Student Federation and the Catholic Action (a lay apostolate). Politically, he joined the Partito Populare, a movement that promoted Catholic principles of social justice. “Charity is not enough,” he explained. “We also need social reform.”
After World War I, the Kingdom of Italy fell into political disarray. In 1922 Benito Mussolini, a socialist, newsman and agitator, offered King Victor Emmanuel III the aid of his new party, the Fascists, as a problem solver. For want of a better candidate, the king appointed Mussolini himself Prime Minister.
After a cautious beginning, Mussolini launched a revolutionary campaign to replace Italy’s many political parties with a single-party totalitarian regime. In the 1930s this “black shirt” dictator of Italy would form an “axis” (or alliance) with Adolf Hitler’s powerful Nazi party. In World War II, a global disaster, the Nazi-Fascist totalitarians, along with their affiliates and a totalitarian Japan, would battle against the democracies and another totalitarian bloc, the Soviet Union and its satellites.
Whatever their partisan differences, Alfredo Frassati and his son were staunch Italian patriots. From the start they rejected Fascism, as the “scourge of Italy” and the “foe of human liberty.” Mussolini would wreck Alfredo’s Liberal Party and necessitate his resignation as ambassador. Giorgio would scold his fellow Populari for gullibly switching to the wily Fascist “swine”.
During the early 1920s various other Italian pressure groups had staged public demonstrations against the Catholic Church. Young Frassati was always opposed to physical violence. Nevertheless, as a devoted son of the Church he did not hesitate to challenge the demonstrators, whether anticlerical, Fascist or Communist
Towards the end of his university studies, Pier Giorgio joined two other organizations that augured well. In 1921 he was a major planner of the first convention of Pax Romana (the International Catholic Movement for Peace). A year later he was received into the Third Order of St. Dominic. As his “religious” name he chose “Girolamo”, in memory of Friar Girolamo Savonarola, the great Dominican reformer (1452-1498).
Lay tertiary of the Order of Preachers was the closest Giorgio would come to embracing the clerical state or joining a missionary order. To a person who once questioned him on this point, he replied “The Lord’s will was not that.”
Clearly, Pier Giorgio was a charismatic apostle of Christian good works. His personal gifts – good looks, gracious personality, and family prestige – would in themselves have attracted many to himself, but he aimed at communicating his love for the beatitudes. In this cause he became the warm and feeling friend and confidant of all the sincere people he met. But he always moved on two levels, activist in the public sphere, mystic in the mountains. His favorite motto was Alpine: “Verso l’alto” (“To the summit”). Alfredo Frassati himself once admitted to the editor of La Stampa that his son sometimes filled him with awe. It was, he said, “as if I were talking to someone older than myself.”
Did this dynamic young man ever relax with his equals?
Yes, often with different groups. One group he founded was made up of like-minded young men and women whom he used to take with him on mountain-climbing outings. They called themselves, tongue-in-cheek, “The Sinister Ones” Society. These “Shady Characters” (to give the name a loose English translation) were anything but sanctimonious. Laughter, song, joking and picnicking were the bulk of their doings. Even so, Pier Giorgio blended the climbing and the fun with breaks of reflection and prayer. Well-versed himself in adoration, he had much to share with his companions, and they appreciated the blending.
Giorgio was scheduled to finish his engineering course at Turin’s Royal Polytechnic University in July 1925. In order to qualify for the degree he was required to pass final examinations. After that he planned to leave home and settle in some mining locale where he could establish a central office available to both needy miners and the poor and afflicted in general.
Then his plans for the future suddenly fell apart.
First, aware that his parents were now estranged to the point of an embarrassing legal separation, he believed he should make concessions to their worldly hopes for him even though it would mean forgetting his own dreams. Only this, he thought, could keep Alfredo and Adelaide together. The concession he made to his mother was to forgo marriage with Miss Laura Hidalgo. For his father, he agreed to take up a post at La Stampa after graduation.
Second, illness prevented his writing the last two Polytechnico examinations. Consequently, he never did earn his crucial engineering degree. (In 2001, however, he was awarded an engineering degree for the 100th anniversary of his birth. – ed.)
Pier Giorgio was stricken by poliomyelitis. After six days of paralyzing pain, he died, aged 24, on July 4, 1925. Even during those six days he was thinking of others. Out of concern for his dying grandmother he apparently delayed attending to his own health. His very last act was to scribble with crippled hand a note about the medication that one of his sick poor needed.
Normally, the funeral of a young man, even one of distinguished parentage, will be only moderately attended. Thousands lined the streets of Turin to pay tribute to Pier Giorgio. The senior Frassatis recognized few faces along the way, for these were the citizens of their son’s other world, the sick and down-and-out of Turin.
Pier Giorgio’s canonization was the ardent aim of these grateful Turinese. The youths of Italian Catholic Action would now join forces with them to advance the cause. At length a biography of him as a model of Catholic Action would appear on the market and sell over 120,000 copies. It was subsequently translated into 19 other languages. Beatification followed. Canonization is anticipated.
Perhaps God’s intention has been to give young Catholics everywhere a new lay patron saint. St. Pier Giorgio would surely challenge them to heroic self-giving. As he once said, “we have a duty of putting our health at the service of those who do not have it. To act otherwise would be to betray that gift of God.”
— Father Robert F. McNamara
(After publishing the first article about Pier Giorgio, Father received new information from his niece and began to re-write his biographical sketch. However, he did not finish it before his death. We have done our best to correct the original version.)