July 4 is the Memorial (Feast Day) of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. The following is the homily of Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB preached on Monday, July 14, 2008 during WYD Sydney at the Prayer Vigil and Eucharistic Adoration with the body of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati in St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, Australia.
Dear Wanda, niece of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati,
What an honour and privilege it is to be here with you this evening in St. Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, Australia! Led by the young adults of Canada’s Catholic Christian Outreach [CCO], one of our nation’s outstanding movements for Catholic university students, we have gathered together to adore Jesus, gift of God for the life of the world. And young people of the entire world have also come here, to pray around the mortal remains of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati during World Youth Day 2008.
We have just listened to the blueprint for Christianity in that magnificent text of the Beatitudes from Matthew’s Gospel [5:1-12]. The Beatitudes in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount are a recipe for extreme holiness. Every crisis that the Church faces, every crisis that the world faces, is a crisis of holiness and a crisis of saints.
If there was ever an age when young men and women needed authentic heroes, it is our age. The Church understands that the saints and blesseds, their prayers, their lives, are for people on earth; that sainthood, as an earthly honor, is not coveted by the saints or blesseds themselves.
What was so unique and special about Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati? He was born in 1901, at the turn of the last century in Turin, Italy. July 4, 2008 marked the 83rd anniversary of Pier Giorgio Frassati’s entry into eternal life. Athletic, full of life, always surrounded by friends, whom he inspired with his life, Pier Giorgio chose not to become a priest or religious, preferring to give witness to the Gospel as a lay person. He never founded a religious order or started a new ecclesial movement. He led no armies, nor was he elected to public office. Death came even before he could complete his university degree (the degree was awarded to him posthumously in 2001). He never had a chance to begin a career; in fact, he hadn’t even worked out for sure what his vocation in life would be. He was simply a young man who was in love with his family and friends, in love with the mountains and the sea, but especially in love with God.
Through World Youth Days, Pier Giorgio Frassati has become a special patron to millions of young people around the world, and most especially to the movement “Catholic Christian Outreach” in Canada. Let us consider three highlights of this young Blessed’s life that combined in a remarkable way political activism, solidarity, work for social justice, piety and devotion, humanity and goodness, holiness and ordinariness, faith and life.
Pier Giorgio’s Devotional Life and Love of the Eucharist
Pier Giorgio Frassati developed a deep spiritual life which he never hesitated to share with his friends. His friends remember him saying: “To live without faith, without a heritage to defend, without battling constantly for truth, is not to live, but to ‘plod along’; we must never just ‘plod along.’ ”
The Eucharist and the Blessed Mother were the two poles of his world of prayer. He felt a strong mysterious urge to be near the Blessed Sacrament. He followed Him in the processions, took part enthusiastically in the Eucharistic Congresses, but above everything he loved to spend long hours in nocturnal adoration. And his joy was so much greater when he managed to bring in front of the Blessed Sacrament, his friends, young people he knew, and the poor he looked after. During some Eucharistic vigils, the face of Pier Giorgio would be transfigured with joy and consolation at seeing hundreds of young men and women who were coming to communion.
His spiritual life, like ours, was based on the sacraments. But he went beyond simply doing what is “required”: Sunday Mass, the perfunctory confession before Christmas and/or Easter, and perhaps a small Lenten penance like giving up candy.
The Rosary, the Liturgy of the Hours, Lectio Divina and annual retreats were as much a part of his life as skiing, mountain-climbing or cycling. His life of prayer was his “daily bread,” as it should be for anyone who desires to become a saint. He was an athlete, and he knew well that in order to “reach the goal,” as he was fond of saying, he had to push himself beyond the ordinary if he wanted to be a champion.
In a letter he wrote [July 29, 1923] to the Members of “Catholic Youth” of Pollone, the mountain town north of Turin, Pier Giorgio said:
“…I urge you with all the strength of my soul to approach the Eucharistic Table as often as possible. Feed on this Bread of the Angels from which you will draw the strength to fight inner struggles, the struggles against passions and against all adversities, because Jesus Christ has promised to those who feed themselves with the most Holy Eucharist, eternal life and the necessary graces to obtain it.
And when you become totally consumed by this Eucharistic Fire, then you will be able to thank with greater awareness the Lord God who has called you to be part of his flock and you will enjoy that peace which those who are happy according to the world have never tasted. Because true happiness, young people, does not consist in the pleasures of the world and in earthly things, but in peace of conscience which we can have only if we are pure in heart and in mind.”
These words demonstrate a remarkable spiritual maturity and love for the Eucharist, especially considering the fact that they were coming from a young man who was only twenty-two years old.
Pier Giorgio’s respect for life and sense of social justice
In his own life and times, Pier Giorgio dealt with some of our own contemporary problems and struggles. His love of God and his tremendous sense of human solidarity bonded him with the poor, the needy, the sick, the hungry and the homeless. Frassati had a tremendous respect for human life: all life, from the earliest moments to the final moments. He was constantly defending life wherever it was diminished and under siege.
At the age of 17, in 1918, he joined the St. Vincent de Paul Society and dedicated much of his spare time to serving the sick and the needy, caring for orphans, and assisting the demobilized servicemen returning from World War I. What little he did have, Pier Giorgio gave to help the poor, even using his bus fare for charity and then running home to be on time for meals. The poor and the suffering were his masters, and he was literally their servant, which he considered a privilege. He often sacrificed vacations at the Frassati summer home in Pollone because, as he said, “If everybody leaves Turin, who will take care of the poor?”
Pier Giorgio loved the poor. It was not simply a matter of giving something to the lonely, the poor, the sick – but rather, giving his whole self. He saw Jesus in them and to a friend who asked him how he could bear to enter the dirty and smelly places where the poor lived, he answered: “Remember always that it is to Jesus that you go: I see a special light that we do not have around the, sick, the poor, the unfortunate.”
A German news reporter who observed Frassati at the Italian Embassy wrote, “One night in Berlin, with the temperature at twelve degrees below zero, he gave his overcoat to a poor old man shivering in the cold. His father, the Ambassador scolded him, and he replied simply and matter-of-factly, ‘But you see, Papa, it was cold.’”
In that same letter written to the Members of “Catholic Youth” of Pollone, Pier Giorgio urged his peers with these words:
“The Apostle St. Paul says, “The charity of Christ needs us,” and without this fire, which little by little must destroy our personality so that our heart beats only for the sorrows of others, we would not be Christians, much less Catholics.
Finally there is the apostolate of persuasion. This is one of the most beautiful and necessary. Young people, approach your colleagues at work who live their lives away from the Church and spend their free time not in healthy pastimes, but in vices. Persuade those unfortunate people to follow the ways of God, strewn with many thorns, but also many roses.
But if every one of you were to possess these gifts to the highest degree, and did not have the spirit of sacrifice in abundance, you would not be a good Catholic. We must sacrifice everything for everything: our ambitions, indeed our entire selves, for the cause of the Faith.”
Beneath the smiling exterior of the restless young man was concealed the amazing life of a mystic. Love for Jesus motivated his actions.
Pier Giorgio’s suffering and death
Just before receiving his university degree in mining engineering, he contracted poliomyelitis, which doctors later speculated he caught from the sick for whom he cared. His sickness was not understood. His parents, totally taken up by the agony, death and burial of his grandmother, had not even suspected the paralysis. Two days before the end, his mother kept on scolding him for not helping her in difficult moments.
Not even in those desperate final days could he ever forget his closest friends, the poor. While lying on his death bed he wanted the usual material assistance to be brought to them. It was Friday, the day he visited them. On July 3, 1925, a day before his death, his hand already paralyzed from polio, Pier Giorgio asked his sister Luciana to take a small packet from his jacket and with a semi-paralyzed hand he wrote the following note to Grimaldi: “Here are the injections for Converso. The pawn ticket is Sappa’s. I had forgotten it; renew it on my behalf”.
We know that Pier Giorgio wanted to see Jesus so much that he used to say: “The day of my death will be the most beautiful day of my life.” Pier Giorgio’s sacrifice was fulfilled at seven o’clock in the evening of July 4, 1925. His funeral was a triumph. The streets of Turin were lined with a multitude of mourners who were unknown to his family: clergy and students, and the poor and the needy whom he had served so unselfishly for seven years.
God gave Pier Giorgio all the external attributes that could have led him to make the wrong choices: a wealthy family, very good looks, manhood, health, being the only heir of a powerful family. But Pier Giorgio listened to the invitation of Christ: “Come and follow me.” He anticipated by at least 50 years the Church’s understanding and new direction on the role of the laity.
In beatifying Frassati alone in St. Peter’s Square on May 20, 1990, Pope John Paul II described Pier Giorgio as the “man of the eight Beatitudes” and said in his homily:
“By his example he proclaims that a life lived in Christ’s Spirit, the Spirit of the Beatitudes, is “blessed”, and that only the person who becomes a “man or woman of the Beatitudes” can succeed in communicating love and peace to others. He repeats that it is really worth giving up everything to serve the Lord. He testifies that holiness is possible for everyone, and that only the revolution of charity can enkindle the hope of a better future in the hearts of people. …He left this world rather young, but he made a mark upon our entire century, and not only on our century.”
Tonight, together with the Servant of God, John Paul II, the young mountain climber of Pollone stands at the window of the Father’s house and smiles upon us, as he intercedes for us and for the young people of the world who have come to Sydney to discover the Lord and his holy ones in the vast Communion of Saints and community of the Church. Let me conclude by speaking for a few moments directly to Pier Giorgio on your behalf.
Carissimo Pier Giorgio,
I never had the privilege of meeting you in life. Whoever has met you knows that in your eyes, in your gestures and in your actions, you always carried a little piece of heaven. You shared that with those who knew you in your lifetime, and now with those of us who have known you for the past century.
Since 1925 when you left this earth to return to the house of your father, you have continued your work on our behalf “dall’alto”, from above! In your lifetime you never had the privilege of coming to a World Youth Day. You have watched them from afar, and blessed them with countless graces.
For many years your mortal body remained hidden in the family tomb in Pollone, and then placed in a dark corner of Turin’s Cathedral. Many who visited didn’t even know you were there! I was one of those visitors several years ago. I simply couldn’t find where they had laid you to rest! Such a powerful witness and light must never be hidden, but held up for imitation and inspiration.
We Catholic Christians believe that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, the instrument of God’s work, the frame of God’s house in our midst. And we know, with St. Paul, that “if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling — if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” [II Corinthians 5:2-4]
Your presence among us this evening, both from your vantage point at the window of the Father’s home in heaven and through your mortal remains in this Cathedral, witnesses to your mortality that has been swallowed up by new life. Pier Giorgio, you almost didn’t make it to Sydney! Thank God that the Church in Australia, with the help of the Holy Spirit, prevailed over all those forces which tried to prevent you from attending your first World Youth Day down under!
As we venerate your mortal remains, we give thanks to the Lord Jesus who gave you life, inspiration, strength, hope and the crown of glory. As we reflect on your youthfulness, your simplicity, your beauty, goodness and humanity, we recognize the call given to each of us: to be men and women of the Beatitudes.
Thank you, Pier Giorgio, for listening to Jesus’ words and making them your own. Your example has moved me and hundreds of thousands of others to translate the Beatitudes into Good News with our very lives. Be with us on this great expedition to heaven!
Pier Giorgio, help us to strive for simple hearts, attentive to the needs of others, and friendships based on that pact which knows no earthly boundaries or limits of time: union in prayer. If we do not know the road, and if we often abandon the path, show us the way “verso l’alto” upward to heaven!
If by being superficial we have not put in our knapsack all that we need for the climb, and if we never lift up our gaze because we do not want to take the first demanding steps to set ourselves on the way, show us the way “verso l’alto” upward to heaven!
If we lack the strength to overcome the most difficult passes, and if we have the strength, but prefer to use it to turn back, show us the way “verso l’alto” upward to heaven!
If we never pause to be nourished by the bread of eternal life, and if we do not quench our thirst from the fountain of prayer, show us the way “verso l’alto” upward to heaven!
When we do not know how to contemplate the beauty of the gifts we have received, and when we do not know how to offer ourselves for others, show us the way “verso l’alto” upward to heaven!
If we have committed many sins, show us the way “verso l’alto” upward to heaven!
If we lost hope, show us the way “verso l’alto” upward to heaven!
Three years ago, at the opening ceremonies for World Youth Day 2005 in Cologne, Germany, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the throng of young people from the entire world:
“Dear young people, the Church needs genuine witnesses for the new evangelization: men and women whose lives have been transformed by meeting with Jesus, men and women who are capable of communicating this experience to others. The Church needs saints. All are called to holiness, and holy people alone can renew humanity. Many have gone before us along this path of Gospel heroism, and I urge you to turn often to them to pray for their intercession.”
That is why we have gathered together tonight in this great Cathedral down under! May all the young people who have journeyed to Sydney, and those of us who have been young for a while, find in Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati what Jesus’ Sermon on a Galilean hillside really meant.
Pray for us, Pier Giorgio Frassati. Show us the way “verso l’alto”, upward to heaven and deep in to the heart of God. Teach us how to be Saints for the Church and for the world!