Without a doubt it's difficult to be a faithful Christian, a faithful Catholic in the world today. It's even more difficult to be a young Christian, a young Catholic. There are so many pressures and temptations; so many alternate voices that lead young people away from Christ and His Church. We need to pray for our youth, encourage them and support them in the practice of their faith.
We also need to provide role models for them, examples of other young Catholics who remained faithful and made great contributions to the Church and the world despite the challenges of their time. To that end Id like to tell you about a young Italian of the last century, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati.
Pier Giorgio Frassati was born in Turin, Italy on April 6, 1901, the son of Alfredo and Adelaide Frassati. Although his parents were not particularly devout, he and his younger sister, Luciana, were educated in the faith. His father, an agnostic, was a politician and the founder of an influential newspaper, La Stampa.
As a youth Pier Giorgio developed an intense spiritual life that moved him to action. At 17 he joined the St. Vincent de Paul Society so that he could serve the sick and needy. He also became a political activist. "Charity is not enough; we need social reform," he said.
Although the Frassati family was wealthy, Pier Giorgio's father was very frugal and never gave his children much money. Nonetheless, Pier Giorgio shared what he had with the poor, even using his train fare for charity and then running home to be on time for dinner. When asked by his friends why he often rode third class on the trains he replied simply, "Because there is no fourth class."
There are many examples of Pier Giorgio's extraordinary charity.
When he was a child, a poor mother with a little boy beside her came begging to the Frassati home. Pier Giorgio answered the door and gave him his own shoes. At graduation, his father offered him a new car or money. He chose the money and gave it to the poor. He managed to obtain a room for a poor old woman evicted from her apartment and he helped to support the three children of another poor widow. He kept a small ledger of his charitable transactions and while he lay on his death bed, gave instructions to his sister to care for the families who depended on his assistance, even after his death.
Pier Giorgio enjoyed a more typical life too. He was athletic, outgoing and charming. He spent time in the countryside with his friends and mountain climbing was his favorite sport. But even on these outings the university student led the group in discussing their religious experience and commitments.
Pier Giorgio continued to grow in the spiritual life and his love for Jesus. He assisted at daily Mass, received Holy Communion, and spent much time in intense personal prayer after Mass. He also had special devotion to the Blessed Mother.
He understood the intimate connection between his spiritual life and his apostolic work. When asked why he performed so many acts of charity, Pier Giorgio replied: "Jesus comes to visit me each morning in Holy Communion. I return his visit to Him in the poor."
His political involvement also continued unabated. While participating in one Church-organized demonstration in Rome, he withstood police violence and rallied other young people, grabbing the banner which the police had knocked down and holding it even higher. When arrested he refused special treatment that might have been afforded him because of his father's prominence.
Pier Giorgio's active and heroic life was cut short by poliomyelitis which he contracted in June of 1925. Doctors speculated that he might have caught the deadly disease from the poor and sick to whom he ministered. But even his illness became an opportunity for faith. Just before his death he wrote that "We should always be cheerful. Sadness should be banished from all Christian souls." Pier Giorgio died on July 4, 1925 at the age of 24.
Pier Giorgio's family expected Turin's elite and leading political figures, as well as his large circle of friends to turn out for his funeral and they did. But they were surprised to find the streets of the city lined with thousands of mourners as the funeral procession passed by. This was Pier Giorgio's "extended family," the poor, the sick and the needy whom he had served so generously for seven years.
Pier Giorgio Frassati was beatified by Pope John Paul II on May 20, 1990. In his homily that day, the Holy Father said that Pier Giorgio: "became a living witness and courageous defender of hope in the name of the Christian youth of the twentieth century." Pier Giorgio's feast day is July 4.
You can see how Pier Giorgio Frassati serves as a wonderful role model for young Catholics today. In his commitment to Christ, his involvement with the Church, his love for the poor and his desire to build a better society, he incorporates all the ingredients of a vibrant Catholic life. Neither the allurements of the world nor his own youthfulness prevented him from living his faith to the full.
Blessed Pier Giorgio, pray for us.
(This column originally appeared in The Providence Visitor)