Pier Giorgio Frassati: Zealous for God’s World

Br. R. F. King, O.P.


Like so many saints before him, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati’s life was a matter of keeping his priorities straight. His goal was to live life to the fullest, and that meant unswerving devotion to the source of all life, Jesus Christ.


Without understanding his priorities, his life seems a mass of contradictions. Here is a man who loved ski vacations to the Alps, the arts, poetry and opera, and international travelling, all of which he tasted fully thanks to his father’s journalistic and later diplomatic career. Yet at every opportunity he gave to the poor, even so far as giving away his train fare so that he had to return home on foot.  He visited the aged and sick, giving his strength as well as his possessions to help them. He could easily have followed his father into political journalism or politics itself, but he preferred to study engineering and mineralogy so that he could, in his own words, ‘serve Christ better among the miners.’ His desire was to work among fellow workers, yet he never ceased to be politically active. He attended rallies, aided a Catholic political party, and organized his fellow students and workers. He attended daily mass and spent entire nights on his knees before the Blessed Sacrament, and held the greatest esteem for priests and religious—especially the Dominican reformer Girolamo Savonarola—but he knew that God’s call for him was to the secular world of students and workers, families and governments. He kept his eyes on the promise of heaven, but he found God most immediately in the world around him.


He was born in Turin, Italy, in 1901 and grew up during one of the most violent wars the world has ever known. He watched with dismay the rise of the Fascist party in his country after World War I. He observed firsthand the wretched poverty, not only of Italy but also of Germany where his father was made ambassador. Because of his participation in political and religious demonstrations, Pier Giorgio was beaten and imprisoned. Because of his and his father’s involvement in religious and political organizations, their home was raided by Fascists. But amid this jumble of adversity and activity, he found peace and joy.


His first priority, in every case, was to emulate the spirit of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12), to be poor and meek, to mourn his own sins and those of the world, to hunger and thirst for justice, to show mercy, to keep his heart pure, and to make peace wherever he could. He did not attempt to draw attention to himself, but his quiet persistence at helping the poor, at promoting peace through justice, and at encouraging his fellow students to greater devotion to God left its mark. When anti-clerical activists attacked priests and religious, he defended them with his own body. If asked to speak, he would note that the basis of all true social reform was the supernatural charity which is a gift from God. Prayer and the sacraments formed the foundation for the threefold apostolic work which he saw as the calling of laypeople: first, to give an example of faith and virtue in our lives; second, to serve those in need, especially the poor, the grieving and the suffering; and third, to persuade those we meet every day at work or at play of the truth and beauty of Christ’s Gospel. He encouraged his listeners, ‘It is not those who suffer violence that should fear, but those who practice it. When God is with us, we do not need to be afraid.’


He kept most of his actions small and inconspicuous. He would give his money or time here one day, there another. He would work to keep organizations like the Catholic Worker or the Federation of Italian Catholic University Students running. He would pray both inside and outside the church building. But most of all, he devoted his whole energy to living each moment. When he worked, he put his whole energy into the work. When he played, again he threw himself into it with delight, discovering God’s glory in the mines as well as in the mountains, in his schoolbooks and in the streets. His brand of heroic virtue was the everyday sort of getting up each morning and holding nothing back, but giving each moment and each action totally to the service of God and neighbor.


It was most likely from his frequent visits to the sick, giving them money or medicine or simply his prayer and company, that he contracted polio in the summer of 1925. In just five days he descended from vibrant health to death. But even on his deathbed, he gave instructions to continue his work, especially in the service of the poor. He died on July 4, 1925, soon after his twenty-fourth birthday. It was not until his funeral that his family realized the extent of his charitable activities: thousands of mourners turned out, many of whom were the poor and sick whom he had spent his short life serving. It was the poor of Turin who asked their archbishop to open the cause for Pier Giorgio’s canonization. In 1990, Pope John Paul II beatified him.


As far as I know, Pier Giorgio never worked a miracle during his lifetime. He never founded a religious order or started a new reform movement. But he had his priorities straight. He said, ‘In this trying time that our country is going through, we Catholics and especially we students have a serious duty to fulfill: our self-formation.’ These words ring true for laypeople in this country today. God calls each of us who have been baptized to a continual preparation to serve him so that when he gives us the opportunity we are ready. Pier Giorgio lived his life on this model. He simply set Jesus Christ as his first priority, and sought him in every situation, in every person, in every task set before him. And it was there, in the everyday business of life, that he found his God and the fullness of life.