January 15, 1998

[This letter in English]
[Dieser Brief auf deutsch]
[Esta carta en español]


January 15, 1998
Saints Maur and Placid, Disciples of Saint Benedict

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

It was Monday, July 6, 1925, in Turin, Italy. A large, pensive crowd was waiting in front of the entrance to the Crocetta Church. Crowded together were burghers and workers, ladies of the aristocracy and common women, university students and old men from the Hospice. Suddenly, there was a commotion. Then a great silence fell. A group of eight stocky, young men carrying a massive casket appeared on the steps of the church. The emotional strain could be read on the faces of the pallbearers. Weren't the mortal remains that they were carrying those of a wonderful friend? Nevertheless, in the depths of their gaze shone a flame of pride, as if their robust shoulders were triumphantly carrying the reliquary of a saint.

Well, just who was being carried in this way? On April 13, 1980, Pope John Paul II said of him: "All that it takes is a glance, however brief, at the life of Pier-Giorgio Frassati, who passed away at the age of barely twenty-four, to understand how he knew to answer Jesus Christ: It was the answer of a `modern' youth, open to cultural problems, to sports (he was a worthy alpinist!), to social questions, to the true values of life, and at the same time of a man who believed deeply, nourished by the Gospel message, with a solid and coherent character, passionate in the service of his brothers and burning with a bold charity which led him, by way of an order of absolute priority, in the midst of the poor and the sick  Christianity is joy. Pier-Giorgio was of a fascinating joy, a joy which overcame so many difficulties in his life, because youth is always a time of testing one's strength."

One for me, one for you

Pier-Giorgio Frassati, who would be called "the son of the Feast," was born in Turin on Holy Saturday evening, April 6, 1901. Coming from a well-off family of the Piedmontese bourgeoisie (for many years his father was ambassador in Berlin), the child inherited the good and bad qualities of his fellow countrymen. Energetic, willing, even stubborn and not terribly communicative, they are also thrifty, although not put off by family obligations, positive and realistic, with a somewhat adventurous spirit.

Pier-Giorgio's innate righteousness made him an enemy of lies, and he was slavishly loyal to his given word. No force on earth, not even a wolf's hunger, could make him touch a plate of food or a snack which was within an arm's length when his mother had formally forbidden him to take anything. A deep sense of compassion compelled him to alleviate any suffering. He instantly took the side of the weak. Once, when he was on his way to nursery school with his grandfather, at lunch time, Pier-Giorgio was fascinated by the long marble tables where places for soup bowls were hollowed out. Suddenly he glimpsed a child at the back of the room who had been separated out because of a skin disease. He went up to him, passing out "a spoon for me, a spoon for you," and the look of sadness and loneliness on the little boy's face disappeared.

One day, at home, when he was only five years old, his father sent away a poor drunkard from the front door of the house, because his breath smelled of alcohol. Pier-Giorgio went sobbing to his mother: "Mommy, there was a poor hungry man and Papa didn't give him anything to eat." His mother, who believed she heard an echo of the Gospel in this complaint, answered: "Run outside, make him come in and we will give him something to eat."

A strong box

But the beauty of such a temperament is not without its darker aspects. His vigorous physique and energetic personality were often exteriorized by violent reactions, above all when there were differences with his sister Luciana, who was 17 months younger than him. "Stubborn" is the term most often hung on him by the family. When he did not wish to speak, he closed up his mouth like a strong box to which he alone possessed the key. The tough education he received at home helped him correct these faults. Possessing a somewhat slow, but energetic, intelligence, he knew how to expand and refine himself, until he became little by little so supple and quick that he got over all his difficulties in his high school studies, and also later at the Engineering School at Turin. Thus, study became for him the first duty before which all other cares had to yield. This was a difficult battle for his effervescent temperament. What a torture to devote hours on end studying austere texts, when his passion for the mountains would have quickly taken him on a picturesque excursion! But difficulties were for him the occasion of moral uplifting. Facing a test, far from giving up, he gathered up his energy and put himself to the task with courage. But it was above all in faith and prayer that he found his strength. From earliest childhood, he faithfully recited his morning and evening prayers while kneeling. He quickly learned the Rosary. Later he could be seen everywhere reciting the decades, in the train, at the side of a sick person, while taking a walk, in town and in the mountains. He loved to converse in this way affectionately with his Mother in Heaven.

The direct relationship that he established with God endowed him with exceptional maturity. He also struck others by his unique manner, simple and resolute, of living out his Catholicism. Nothing showy, a tranquil security, a pride without ostentation, a kind intransigence. In a letter to an intimate friend, he wrote: "How unfortunate are those who live without the faith! To live without the faith, without this heritage to defend, without this truth to uphold by a struggle at every instant, is no longer to live but to waste one's life! For us, it is not permitted to `just manage'; to live is our duty! A truce then with all melancholy! Let's lift up our hearts and go forward, always, for the triumph of Christ in the world!" For Catholic students, who had problems because they believed themselves to be lesser beings and condemned to live on the fringe of modern society, he showed, less by his arguments than by his life, that there was nothing to that; he walked surefootedly, sure of his way. In a selfish and bitter world, he overflowed with joy and generosity. Indeed, the true happiness of earthly life consists in finding the sanctity to which we are all called. That is where we find the answer to the world's unceasing call: "Take advantage of life while you are young!"

A correct joke

The virtue of purity illuminated the seductive physical features of Pier-Giorgio in a marvelous light. It was known that he did not kid around with love. So when his friends wanted to play a joke on some female students, they came to ask his opinion about whether the joke was morally correct. Frequently his mere presence was enough to prevent indecent or inappropriate actions. Sometimes, his friends teased him concerning his sternness about certain improprieties of modern art. He smiled but didn't change his conduct one iota. He had a permanent card to gain entry to all the museums and theaters in town. In museums, he only looked at decent works which were in good taste; as for the theater and the cinema, he would go to a show only after finding out about its moral qualities.

He was not ignorant of the realities of life and appropriate moods of nature deeply moved him. In order to keep his purity, it took many hours of fierce and laborious struggle, which nobody knew about, except for a few close friends. Here is what one of them wrote: "These struggles, which were imprinted upon the physical character of our friend, lasted quite a while and required of him an energy of exceptional quality. He scrupulously controlled his actions in order to multiply his austerities and avoid occasions which could have shaken his resolutions. The words of Saint Paul fitted him quite well: I have fought the good fight. Those of us who received the grace to live close to him, during such a brief lifetime, and yet so full of light, we know with certainty that virtue and sanctity and meeting God are the fruits of a difficult and ceaseless combat."

During his time at the University, his attention was attracted to a girl who had been sorely tested by recent difficulties. Her candor, her exquisite goodness, her lively faith, enlightened and active, impressed him. Little by little a sentiment welled up in him that could indeed have led to marriage. As this affection grew in him, he was overtaken by apprehension: Would his parents ever accept this union? It seemed to him that approaching his family would only end in a failure  and he was not mistaken. Thus, renouncing the undertaking and, above all, a very deep natural affection, Pier-Giorgio gave priority to the love of his parents. He wished to avoid introducing a new source of tension in the household, which was already seriously threatened by a lack of understanding. Heroic virtue, fruit of a love that would "lay down his life" for those whom he loved. He said to his sister: "I will sacrifice myself, even if that must be the sacrifice of my entire life on earth."

"In this bar"

The putting aside of oneself shown by Pier-Giorgio also appeared in his social engagements. As Pope John Paul II put it, at his beatification on May 20, 1990: for him "faith and the events of daily life come together harmoniously, so much so that adherence to the Gospel is translated into loving attention towards the poor and the needy  His lay Christian vocation was realized through multiple political and societal engagements, in a society in total flux, which was indifferent and even hostile to the Church."

Starting at the age of 17, he enrolled in the Conferences of Saint Vincent de Paul and it is here above all that he learned supernatural compassion. He loved to visit the poor in order to relieve their miseries by giving them money and clothing that he kept for them at his home. Being resourceful, he knew how to economize; he collected and sold stamps and tramway tickets, and went door to door asking for donations to help the poor. One day, a friend ran into him on the streets of Turin and invited him to take some refreshment. "If we went and took it in that bar," Pier-Giorgio said cleverly while he pointed out the Church of Saint Dominic. How could anyone resist that smile? After a few moments of reflection in the church, as they were leaving, young Frassati, seeing a poor-box, whispered in a low voice: "And the refreshment, do we get that here?" The friend understood and put in a coin, smiling himself. "And I'll meet that," added Pier-Giorgio, slipping in his own donation.

God alone knows all of the sacrifices that the young student imposed upon himself. Even in the heat of summer he stayed in Turin to continue helping the poor, when he could have worked in the coolness of the countryside. Indeed, at this time of year everyone left town, and nobody cared to stay around to visit the unfortunate.

The greatest social commandment

In addition, his apostolic zeal pushed him to strive to "infuse the Christian spirit into the mentality and behavior, laws and structures of the community" (Vatican II, Apostolicam actuositatem, 13). In a very tense political and social situation, Pier-Giorgio felt the need to go to meet the people's needs and he participated in several social or political groups, within which he was not afraid to show that he was a convinced Catholic. He believed it necessary to work for needful reforms on the behalf of workers so that misery would disappear, and to offer an acceptable level of life to all. He understood that "the acknowledged priority of the conversion of heart in no way eliminates but on the contrary imposes the obligation of bringing the appropriate remedies to institutions and living conditions when they are an inducement to sin, so that they conform to the norms of justice and advance the good rather than hinder it (Catechism of the Catholic Church, CCC, 1888).

It was a difficult task, and Pier-Giorgio realized it. He wrote: "Everywhere in the world there are evil people who are Christian in name only, and not in spirit. That is why I believe it will be necessary to wait a long time before knowing true peace. Nevertheless, our faith teaches us that we must not lose hope of seeing this peace one day. Modern society is sinking in the pain of human passion far from any ideal of love and peace." For him, there was no solution to social questions outside of the Gospel. It really depends on grace in order to "discern the often narrow path between the cowardice which gives in to evil, and the violence which under the illusion of fighting evil only makes it worse. This is the path of charity, that is, of the love of God and of neighbor. Charity is the greatest social commandment. It respects others and their rights. It requires the practice of justice, and it alone makes us capable of it. Charity inspires a life of self-giving: Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it" (Lk 17: 33 - CCC, 1889).

"It's not a novel"

One day he surprised a friend about to start reading a book containing doubtful doctrine. He said, "This book is not suitable for you; do me the kindness of not continuing to read it. Even today I will bring you a better one." In fact, that same afternoon he offered him a Life of Jesus Christ: "It's not exactly a novel," he said, "but the ideas in it are magnificent: it will surely do you good." He thus put into practice the recommendation of Pope Saint Pius X: "Catholic doctrine teaches us that the first duty of charity  is not in the theoretical and practical indifference to error or vice when we see our brothers plunging into it, but in the zeal for their intellectual and moral betterment no less than for their material well-being" (Letter on Sillon, August 25, 1910).

Even though he was full of life, Pier-Giorgio did not lose sight of eternity. He wrote: "To live as a Christian is a continuous renunciation, continuous sacrifice which however does not weigh one down when we think that these few years passed in suffering count for little with regard to eternity, where joy will be without limit and without end and where we will enjoy a peace that is impossible to imagine. It is necessary to strongly adhere to the faith. Without it, what is our entire life worth? Nothing. We will have lived uselessly." He enjoyed thinking frequently about death, which he awaited as the meeting with Jesus Christ. When he had to go to the mountains, he made sure he was ready for everything. He often said: "It is always necessary to have your conscience at peace before leaving, because you never know " The death of a friend suggested these lines to him: "How does one prepare for the great trip? And when? Since no one knows the hour at which death will come for him, it is quite prudent to prepare every morning to die that day." After the passing away of another friend, he wrote, "Actually, he has reached the true goal of life: we should not mourn his loss, but we should envy him." He often astonished his close friends with this reflection: "I believe that the day of my death will be the most beautiful day of my life."

In four days

On Tuesday, June 30, 1925, he went boating on the Po River with two friends. It was a delightful outing, but after a while Pier-Giorgio complained of a sharp pain in his back muscles. Upon returning home, he had a severe headache. The next day, fever set in. Nobody paid any attention, since on the same day his maternal grandmother went to God. The day after, a doctor examined him. Suddenly he became quite serious. He asked Pier-Giorgio, who was lying on his back, to get up. "I can't!" he answered. His reflexes did not work, he couldn't feel the pinpricks in his legs 

Three eminent physicians were brought in by the family to examine the patient, and they all confirmed the fatal diagnosis: acute infectious poliomyelitis. Exhausted with fatigue, Pier-Giorgio asked for a shot of morphine so that he could sleep. But the doctor thought that would be imprudent. His mother told him: "Offer up your suffering to God for your sins, if you have any, and if not, for those of your mother and your father." He agreed by nodding his head.

On July 4, about three o'clock in the morning, a very serious crisis occurred. A priest came to administer the last rites to him. The paralysis had reached the respiratory organs little by little. At four o'clock in the afternoon, the final moments began. There was continuous prayer around the bed. The priest recited the prayers for the dying. Mrs. Frassati held her son in her arms, helping him to die at the names of Jesus, Mary Joseph  With the words: "May I breathe forth my soul in peace with you," he breathed his last. It was about seven o'clock in the evening. An unearthly atmosphere reigned over the bedroom where death had just passed. Everyone, on their knees, overwhelmed with grief, watched the eyes of the dead young man, as if to follow his very pure soul to its meeting with God. True life had started for him!

Interior strength

Jesus promised: He that eateth My flesh, and drinketh My blood, hath everlasting life: and I will raise him up in the last day (Jn 6: 55). Daily Mass and Holy Communion gave Pier-Giorgio the necessary wherewithal to confront all the difficulties of life. He wrote to some children: "Eat this Bread of Angels and there you will find strength for the interior struggles, the combat against the passions and trials, because Jesus Christ has promised eternal life and the grace necessary to obtain it to those who receive the Holy Eucharist. When you are completely consumed by this Eucharistic fire, then you will be able, in good conscience, to thank God that he called you to take part in His struggle and you will know a peace the fortunate ones of this earth have never known. Because true happiness, my young friends, is not found in the pleasures of this world, nor in earthly things, but in the peace of conscience: it is only given to those who have a pure heart and mind."

Such is the grace we ask on your behalf from the Blessed Virgin, Saint Joseph and Blessed Pier-Giorgio Frassati. We also pray for all of your dearly departed.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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