Frassati: this everlastingly young man

28 Jul 2008

By The Record

Record columnist Anna Krohn has been busy in Sydney during WYD giving catecheses at venues like Sydney’s UNDA Darlinghurst campus. And she knows a strikingly handsome, practical-joking, party-going young man when she sees one….

World Youth Day pilgrim Michelle Zelinksi, 16, from Ixonia, Wis., wears a U.S. flag as she visits an exhibit on Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, Australia, July 16. Blessed Pier Giorgio, an Italian social activist who died in 1925 at the age of 24, is one of several patrons of World Youth Day 2008. Photo: CNS

“They don’t get it do they?” laughed a young pilgrim from Scotland as he watched the predictable TV news featuring 50 and 60 year olds waving about condoms and anti-Catholic grievances.
What they don’t get, and what Pope Benedict XVI and many of the young pilgrims at World Youth Day do, is that the Christian life is not a passionless and dour moral “effort” eked out with tepidity and mediocrity.
Pope Benedict XVI in his many speeches to the young and in his first encyclical, targets the lazy secular assumption that joy and holiness for Christians are a drag.  Still less is it the gawky optimism of the The Simpsons’ Ned Flanders.
However, this generation of pilgrims, more than any other also knows exactly how much sacrifice and courage it takes to challenge the push-button ease with which the “sexy”, the vapid and the intoxicating can be had.
These young pilgrims also know that most of their peers, both baptised and non-baptised, still struggle to see why they are so full of cheer and camaraderie while they sleep on concrete floors, trudge through crowded airports and wait in queues this week in Sydney.
That is why a rising star amongst the pilgrims is a strikingly handsome, party-going, practical joking young man who is also a blessed of the Church and by popular demand, is a leader of the World Youth Day pilgrims.
The fact that he died in 1924 does not cool their devotion to him.
His body and sealed coffin take pride of place this week at Saint Mary’s Cathedral while young people around the world say they want to “spend time with him” in prayer.
One person who wants to live in Pier Giorgio’s presence, is Joanne Grainger, Nursing Lecturer at Australian Catholic University, Melbourne.
Near her desk hangs an enormous sepia photograph of the striking Blessed. Jo talks of rediscovering her own faith inspired by Piero Giorgio while co-ordinating a massive Vocations Conference in Melbourne in 2003.
Later as Director of the Melbourne Archdiocesan World Youth Day pilgrimage she found how many organisations of young people and students had taken “Frassati” as their patron and guide.
She feels that the handsome and fun-filled young man inspires and accompanies her professional and personal life.
“Sometimes my students ask me if he is my boy-friend!  But I do find myself praying for his intervention when I am dealing with a struggling student or when I interview a young person with personal problems.”
“He is so attractive and so accessible.  It is possible to emulate him.  His parents had a strained marriage.  He fell in love with a girl, Laura Hidalgo, who was from the wrong side of the tracks.  He knew what it was like to fail his exams.  And yet his love of God was so evident” says Jo.
What is it about this everlastingly young man?
Pier Giorgio Frassati was born in the northern Italian city of Turin (Torino) on Holy Saturday 1901 into a well-educated, well-to-do and socially influential family. 
His father Alfredo was the founder and director of the national Italian newspaper La Stampa.  His father was an agnostic, a strict liberal – who permitted his children to receive the sacraments and catechesis as long as they also upheld the principles of business ambition. 
Pier Giorgio was considered by his father in this last matter to be a waster.
His wife, Adelaide was a well known painter who brought into the house access to high culture and the life of the era.
Like many households of the time, the Frassati home was ruled by strict discipline and rules.  His father refused to hand out easy money to either Pier Giorgio or to his sister Luciana.
Despite his father’s complaints, Pier Giorgio saved up pocket money to give to others less fortunate than himself, several times handing over his own clothes or shoes. Even at an early age Frassati displayed an incredible determination to go beyond his mother’s simply socially-respectable involvement in the faith. 
He joined and often lead every sodality and pious association he would find. He had a particular energy in dedicating himself to prayer and to Eucharistic devotion.  He was an invigorator and stirrer up in many of these little groups.
He was not a brilliant student at any stage – not so much because he was not intelligent, but because he seems to have been involved in so many other activities which he combined with secret visits to the needy.
When he began his tertiary studies at the Torino Polytechnic in mining engineering he immediately plunged himself into the devotional and social activities outside the class-room.
His rowdy good humour and courage angered the many violent anti-Catholic groups and several times he was threatened by gangs of thugs and by the police.  His group of friends were jokingly dubbed “the Seedy Fellows”, an impressive mixture of political activists, hikers, writers – but above all, prayers.
He could see that students then, as now, were driven by ennui to seek in sexual experimentation and selfishness passing excitement and intimacy.  He countered this by introducing them to the core of the faith. 
He used his famously hand-printed flyers to rally the young to excellence and lasting fun.
One of was addressed to the Student Association: Students!
Do you want to modernise and give new blood to the circle?
Do you want to live above all its life as an audacious Christian!
In 1919 he signed up for and revived the Italian Catholic Students association and the Federation and continued his work with St Vincent de Paul.  He also became a Tertiary (Lay Member) of the Dominican Order.  He prompted his peers to all night Eucharistic Adoration and then to take Christ to the poorest of the poor.
He began Catholic organisations with industrial workers.  He began a group called the Savarola Club with the metal workers at the Fiat factory.  He opposed the way the Catholic workers in Germany were being treated after the humiliating defeat of the Great War. He protested about the treatment of the Irish people who were seeking independence from Britain.
With some of his father’s entreprenurial talents in evidence, he began a daily Catholic paper called Momento – in which the social teachings of the Church, especially those of the great document Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII, were re-printed and analysed.
When he died of polio, caught from his regular visits to the poor sick – his family could not understand what he had been doing with his life.  His funeral procession was halted by the thousands who lined the streets of Turin who had been touched by his presence.
• "We who by the grace of God are Catholics… must steel ourselves for the battle we shall certainly have to fight to fulfill our program and give our country in the not too distant future, happier days and a morally healthy society, but to achieve this we need constant prayer to obtain from God that grace without which all our prayers are useless; organisation and discipline to be ready for action at the right time; and finally the sacrifice of our passion and of ourselves, because without that we cannot achieve our aim".
– Pier Giorgio Frassati, Turin 1922