Saint John Paul II would call Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati “a man of the beatitudes,” and one of the Beatitudes that blossomed early in Pier Giorgio’s life was poverty of spirit. Although he was born into a life of wealth, as a son of a diplomat, he never cherished material things, and his heart and his hands went out to those who were truly in need. His sister reports that when he was a very young child, a poor woman came to the door of their house carrying a child without shoes. Young Pier Giorgio quickly took off his own socks and shoes, gave them to the poor child, and slammed the door shut so no one in the house would stop him! Luciana would report that by the age of eleven, her brother had become increasingly aware of the prevalence of poverty and began to do what he could to alleviate it by collecting things such as silver paper, tram tickets, and stamps for missionaries and giving away whatever small gifts of money family members would give him.
Pier Giorgio would not cease to perform those little acts of selfless kindness for the poor for the remainder of his life, but as he reached his late teens and early twenties, he also did what he could as a doer on a broad scale, joining and actively participating in religious and political organizations, not the least of which would be the Third Order Dominicans!
He became involved in the Italian Catholic Youth Society and in the Federation of Catholic University Students (FUCI). The first group consisted of mostly peasants and workers, and the second consisted mostly of the children of the wealthy. Pier Giorgio, the son of a rich father, with a heart that belonged to the poor, strove without success to fuse these two groups and unite them in a common cause. In a time and a nation fraught with conflicts between social classes, and between Church and state, Pier Giorgio had taken to heart Pope Leo XIII’s call for “revolutionary change” in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, which championed the rights of workers to negotiate for dignified working conditions and living wages, while balancing them with the rights and the duties of property owners. Pier Giorgio particularly championed agrarian reform in restoring land to those who farmed it, believing it unjust for a relatively few landholders, including his own father, to own such vast expanses of lands that provided such meager sustenance to those who with their own hands had produced the produce.
In 1917 Pier Giorgio marched in Rome with fifty thousand youths in the fiftieth-anniversary celebration of the founding of Catholic Youth. A group of Italian royal guards including mounted cavalry charged the group and attempted to disperse them and to confiscate the flags they were carrying. The group with Pier Giorgio resisted bravely, grabbing and relentlessly holding the flag that a guard had wrenched from the standard-bearer. When a companion was threatened with a bayonet to give up his flag, Pier Giorgio ran to the officer of the guards and at the top of his lungs shouted the name of his father. Upon hearing the name of the ambassador, the officer rebuked the soldier and politely asked Pier Giorgio to leave. Pier Giorgio refused, though, and would not leave the company of his friends who had been assaulted. Luciana reported that he took up the Catholic Youth banner in one hand and his rosary in the other and invited the group to pray, “for us and for those who have hit us.”
The year 1922 was monumental for Pier Giorgio, and for all the people of Italy, with a blessed event on May 22 and a diabolical one on October 28. The first would set Pier Giorgio’s heart on fire, and the second would, in his own words, make his blood boil.
On May 22, 1922, Pier Giorgio would add the initials T .O .S .D . to his name and change it to Fra Gerolamo. T.O.S.D. stands for Third Order of Saint Dominic, and Fra Gerolamo was the name he chose for himself within the order, the first name of the controversial Dominican martyr Savonarola (1452–1498). He described himself as a fervent admirer of that friar, who had fought boldly against spiritual and political corruption and ended up burned at the stake. Pier Giorgio’s choice of lay orders and of his spiritual namesake revealed that by age twenty-one he was ready to preach Christ’s good news and to give his very life to do so, if need be.
On October 28, 1922, Pier Giorgio would no longer be the son of the ambassador, for that is the day when Benito Mussolini and his Fascist Party came to power and the day that Alfredo Frassati, his father, resigned his ambassadorship to Germany. Pier Giorgio would write a few weeks later that his “blood boiled” when he glanced at Mussolini’s speech. He saw the violence and oppression that the Fascists brought with them. Indeed, he once fought off with his own hands a small group of young Fascists who had broken into his father’s home. He foresaw, but did not live to see, the extent of the brutality a few years later when the prime minister became the dictator. As a member of Italy’s Popular Party, a party of many Catholics, Pier Giorgio spoke out, and for a time resigned, when some of their leaders collaborated with Mussolini’s Fascists.
Pier Giorgio was always a man of heroic virtue and uncompromising principles. He saw the need to strive to promote social change, but unlike some great political reformers espousing social justice who would make the entire world into a utopia while treating those around them with little compassion and respect, Pier Giorgio knew that true charity begins at home and with each and every individual we meet, each person being truly our brother or sister in Christ. It is for this attitude, bathed in each and every beatitude, that Pier Giorgio is known best, so let’s take a look at how this most blessed young man lived out the life of his favorite scriptural passage, one that he copied out by hand, read, and lived, Saint Paul’s hymn to love (1 Cor . 13).
Greater Love Has No Man Than This
It is in his role as a lover that this young hound of the Lord barks out his preaching in words and in deeds that we’d all do well to hear — and we’d also do well to add our own voices to his chorus of barking, whether or not we’re afraid to bark off key! Pier Giorgio studied so hard, was frustrated in so many desires, and died at such a young age. Read his letters, and you will relive his struggle to complete his engineering degree, only to die so close to the end. You will read of his wistful love for a young orphaned woman named Laura Hidalgo, a love that he could not proclaim to her or pursue because his parents did not deem her kind worthy of their son, and he feared such an espousal would quickly push his parents’ rocky marriage over the cliff of divorce. You will read of the devastation he felt when his sister Luciana got married and left the country, leaving him alone in the house where his beloved mother and father treated each other with less and less love.
Nonetheless, despite all the hardships Pier Giorgio endured, you will see that as an aunt once said of him, “He is always happy with everything.” Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote that joy is one of the “effects” of the virtue of charity, because it makes us happy when we are enjoined with what we love. Pier Giorgio showed that a life of thinking, doing, and loving for Christ, and especially one lived in the Dominican spirit, can be, in spite of all the heavy crosses, a yoke that is light and most joyful.
We see this joy too in the pleasure Pier Giorgio took in using the physical body that God gave him. Dominicans are champions of Christ’s Incarnation. Christ took on human flesh, and human flesh is not evil. Saint Dominic’s earliest preaching was against the Albigensian heresy that proclaimed that the flesh was evil and only the spirit good. Pier Giorgio never hesitated to put his healthy young body to the test in helping others. Even as the ambassador’s son, he would often appear at events somewhat sweaty since he preferred to ride his bike to events and save the tram fare to share with the poor.
When his cherished bike was stolen one day, he merely said that he supposed someone needed it more than he did.
Few things gave Pier Giorgio more joy than the climbing of mountains. He thrived on the physical exertion, and the activity provided him fellowship with the beloved friends who climbed with him. He also derived spiritual benefits from the beautiful views of God’s creation that the peaks provided, and some of their mountain trips included trips to Mass in chapels in the hills.
Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote that the love of charity is a kind of friendship, and Pier Giorgio Frassati always deeply loved his friends. His sister reports that one teacher gave him the nickname bifronte (two faces) because he so often turned back to the students behind him, sharing a smile and a laugh. In 1924, the year before his death, he formed a tightly knit group of friends who called themselves the Tipi Lochsi, which has been translated as the “Sinister Ones,” “Shady Characters,” and even “Swindlers and Swindlerettes.” They assigned each other humorous names, Pier Giorgio himself becoming “Robespierre,” the heartless leader of the French Reign of Terror, who could hardly have been more his opposite. Many of these amusing letters are still extant, often ending with tongue-in-cheek cannon salutes and even with the words “Boom! Boom! Boom!”
Pier Giorgio was, then, a wonderful example of a perfectly normal and healthy young man who loved the simple joys of life with no thought of rebelling against the generous God who provides them. He is widely recognized as a tremendous model for youth in our time, and indeed, this is why Pier Giorgio’s body was transported all the way to Sydney, Australia, in 2008, so that on World Youth Day, gathered around his remains, youth from all over the world could be inspired by his story to strive to love as he did.
Pier Giorgio followed Christ’s Great Commandments to love God with all his heart and to love his neighbor and self through that love of God. His love of Christ was evident from early childhood when he saw a woman with flowers headed for a chapel and gave her a rose that he insisted she give to Jesus. His devotion to Christ in the Eucharist grew when he attended the Jesuit school and received permission to receive daily Communion Indeed, his mother worried about such piety and even asked a parish priest to ask him to tone down his devotions! His devotion to Christ lasted throughout his life. At the time of his death, a book on the life of Saint Catherine of Siena sat on his nightstand. He felt a special devotion to her because she spoke to Christ while she lived on earth.
This mystical love of Christ never failed to overflow into loving actions for the least of those Pier Giorgio came across. As a child he visited a school with his grandfather and shared soup from the same bowl with an isolated young boy with a disfiguring skin condition. As a young student, he noticed that a janitor seemed particularly forlorn one day. He asked him why and learned that the janitor’s teenage son had recently died. Nearly a year later, he saw the janitor again, remembered the date of the boy’s death, and told him he would pray for him that day. Many people remarked how he was always loved by the porters. He was no respecter of titles alone, but treated every person with dignity.
Pier was blessed with above average height, remarkable good looks, an athletic build, and of course, he came from a respected, wealthy, aristocratic family. He could have “hobnobbed” with whomever he preferred, but, as his sister Luciana noted, he always seemed to gravitate toward the least attractive, most discouraged member of any group. He would say he could see a “special light around the poor,” a light imperceptible to most, and a light that drew him forth to the poor at night. Whether in Italy or in Germany, through organizations including the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, Pier Giorgio would venture out into the slums, befriending the sick, the poor, and the friendless, catering to their physical and spiritual needs.
Pier Giorgio did not hide his light under a bushel basket, yet ironically, most of his family would not perceive the radiance of that light and the warmth it provided for so many people until after his death. Oblivious to his son’s desires, talents, and years of study in the field of engineering, in June 1925, only a month before Pier Giorgio’s unexpected death, Alfredo arranged a job for him at his newspaper and, while he was gone, had an employee break the news to him and show him the office that had already been set up for him. In that same month, Pier Giorgio climbed his last mountain.
In the last days of June 1925, Pier Giorgio’s beloved grandmother Linda lay on her deathbed until her soul left her body on the first of July. Pier Giorgio, just down the hall, was lying in bed as well, but everyone assumed it was just a passing illness. He drew no attention to himself, and hobbled as best he could to visit his grandmother’s bedside. People had noticed that his clothing began to dangle from the once robust physique, but they had no idea that his illness would soon become terminal. Indeed, in his last days, his mother would chide him for being unable to help the family with her mother’s funeral.
It was not until the day before his death that the family would realize Pier Giorgio had become paralyzed from the waist down. Once the gravity of his condition was known, his family immediately sought medical attention. The doctor determined that Pier Giorgio had contracted a rare and devastating strain of poliomyelitis. A vaccine existed that could counter the disease, although possibly not at this late stage. Further, there was none available in all of Italy. The nearest available dose was in Paris, France. When the nearness of his death was evident, Pier Giorgio wrote a note to be delivered to Giuseppe Grimaldi, a friend from the Saint Vincent de Paul Society:
The injections are for Converso and the pawn ticket belongs to Sappa; I had forgotten it. Please renew it on my account.
Even on his deathbed, Pier Giorgio’s thoughts went out to others in need. The doctors concluded that his polio had probably been contracted through his interactions with the sick and the poor, but Pier Giorgio would not have had it any other way. Christ showed us and Saint John told us, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13). Pier Giorgio knew this, and he did this. Can his example inspire us, even in the smallest of daily deeds, at no risk to our health or possessions, to give unto others a little of that love that Christ and Pier Giorgio sacrificed so much to give?
Editor’s note: This article is from a chapter in Dr. Vost’s Hounds of the Lord: Great Dominican Saints Every Catholic Should Know, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.