Wanda Gawronska has devoted much of her life to spreading devotion to her uncle, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. The beloved brother of Wanda’s mother, Luciana, Pier Giorgio died at the young age of 24 after having been struck with polio, contracted during his regular service to the poor. After her brother’s death, Luciana devoted the following decades to committing to paper her intimate recollections of Pier Giorgio, so that subsequent generations of young people would know him as someone to whom they might relate and who they might follow.
Wanda currently lives in Rome, where she has an office from which she responds to a seemingly non-stop flow of letters inquiring about Pier Giorgio. She also sends information about him to the four corners of the globe. At a dinner party held at her apartment one evening, she invited an international group of young students, myself among them, to share our experiences and thoughts about the life of Pier Giorgio. The group was mixed in every sense of the word, composed of both religious and laity and as diverse as one would expect to find in the cosmopolitan city of Rome. At every moment a symphony of different languages could be heard as we engaged in friendly small talk and easily got to know one another.
When dinner was served, we made our way into the cozy dinning room and divided up into groups of about five to sit down at one of the four small tables scattered throughout the room. The only thing more impressive than the food and the charming apartment was Wanda herself. Radiating happiness, dressed in black and wearing an elegant string of pearls, she mingled comfortably with the group at each table. Fluent in Polish, Italian, English, French and Spanish, she was able to engage each of us personally, peppering us with incisive questions about a host of topics, ranging from international politics and culture to, of course, food. A spirit of warmth and camaraderie permeated the dinner as new friends traded stories over pasta, salad and wine. After dessert, Wanda invited us into the living room to continue the conversation.
Once we had taken our seats, Wanda asked each guest to elaborate on how and when we had first learned about Pier Giorgio and then discuss why he remains important to us today. The answers varied: Some had known about Pier Giorgio for years, others for just days while some had learned about him for the first time this night, as the evening became a sort of introductory crash-course on his life. But there was a silver thread that wove all of our responses together. For each of us, Pier Giorgio embodied the highly sought-after answer to the unique challenges faced universally by young people today. Here was a young man who was athletic, cultured, fun-loving, even deeply engaged in the particular, sometimes messy, political and social issues of the day, but who all the while remained completely devoted to Jesus Christ. He represented to us the definitive “yes” to the questions commonly dogging contemporary youths: “Is it really possible to be a ‘“normal’ young person while at the same time living a life of authentic faith?” “What’s the connection between my life and the ‘big picture’?” Pier Giorgio’s example echoes down through the years, just like his famously contagious laugh, reassuring youths that by choosing to live a life of faith, they will indeed be living a more truly human existence.
For those of us who attended Wanda’s dinner party, and for thousands more around the world, Pier Giorgio stands as a lifeline to be clung to in the tumult and storms of life when battered by the waves of human weakness and threatening to sink into mediocrity. Perhaps his most memorable quote remains as relevant for youth today as ever before: “To live a life without faith, without a patrimony to defend, without a constant struggle for the truth, that is not living but getting along; we must never just get along.” The greatest threat to modern society is the temptation to live life in the manner of simply “getting along.” This is the “metaphysical boredom” to which George Weigel and others so often refer. The central premise of this “getting along” vision of the world is that, since we simply cannot know the truth, there is, ultimately, no transcendent meaning to our own existence in particular and reality in general.
“What’s the point in life?” “Why attend Church?” “Why become committed to a family?” These become inescapable and unanswerable questions for adherents to such a nihilistic worldview. In response to the metaphysical boredom that has been accepted by a substantial percentage of the Western world, Pier Giorgio’s life offers a more refreshing view of reality and human existence. In fact, Wanda’s dinner party seemed to be an appropriate image of Pier Giorgio’s life. Buoyant and animated conversation touching on politics and culture was intertwined naturally and effortlessly with discussions of faith and studies all over a fabulous meal. The regular and ordinary blended harmoniously with the exciting and exceptional, just like Pier Giorgio himself.
© Copyright 2006 Catholic Exchange
Maldonado-Berry is currently studying Social Communication at the University of Santa Croce in Rome. He also works for Vatican Information Service (VIS).