My brother Pier Giorgio: His Faith
19th November 2018
Marco Beltramo was Pier Giorgio’s best friend. Here is part of a commemorative speech he gave in 1955, thirty years after PG’s death. It is included in the draft English translation of the book by Luciana Frassati, sister of Blessed Pier Giorgio, My Brother Pier Giorgio: His Faith. I hope it will one day be published in English as it contains dozens and dozens of testimonies and personal memories of Pier Giorgio by those who met him or who knew him.Meanwhile, in the picture we see Pier Giorgio as a child, and Luciana his sister, in their father’s arms.
Thinking about Pier Giorgio thirty years after he left us, a question comes to mind: what was the secret of his young life, cut short so prematurely, that it still seems relevant to so many young people so long after his death? What extraordinary deeds marked the life of this twenty-four year-old, so that young people today feel a pressing need to join together in his name, three decades after his death?
The extraordinary element that marked the life of Pier Giorgio Frassati was precisely the fact that there were no extraordinary deeds. Pier Giorgio was a normal young man who lived a completely normal life, who followed a series of perfectly normal activities: as a family member, student, and Catholic Action member. He did what he had to do, simply, steadily, and faithfully. And he continually adjusted his life to the divine will as it manifested itself in that precise moment. This was the secret of his holiness (and it is the same secret that marked the life of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus) and this is the sign of the heroism of the Christian who accepts Jesus’ message every day, every minute, and models his life on His example.
What, then, was so special about Pier Giorgio’s life that makes his example of virtue so powerful and relevant even today?
I think that the essential characteristic of his spiritual perfection can be seen in this: he was a Christian who lived his faith in a positive way. What do I mean by this? I mean to say that all of us, or at least most of us, live our faith in an exclusively negative way – and that is proven by the way we live it. This type of religion is completely based upon a set of prohibitions and inhibitions. The soul prowls around like a caged animal, and behind every bar are the threats of even harsher sanctions. It is an austere theology populated by terrifying ghosts: sins, temptations, passions, impending punishments, divine justice (or, to use a blasphemous expression, ‘divine vengeance’) and, on top of all this, the ultimate tragic catharsis: hell!
Pier Giorgio’s spirituality certainly wasn’t based on these things. We always saw in him the truth of St. Augustine’s advice: “Love, and do what you will.” This is what I think was the positive aspect of the way he lived his faith: he understood that our relationship with God is not a relationship of fear, but of love, and this conviction was the theme song of his whole life.b The light that constantly illuminated his way had two complimentary characteristics: love of God, exemplified by his zeal for God’s glory; and love of neighbor, shown by his continual and zealous works of charity.
He expressed his love for God through his devotion to Jesus in the Eucharist, his regular reception of the sacraments, and his fidelity to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. His self-surrender to God was always animated by his limitless generosity that knew no compromise. I remember one time when there was a discussion during a FUCI meeting about the subtle distinctions of interpretation of one of the Church’s fasting requirements. At one point, Pier Giorgio was visibly annoyed and he exclaimed, “Let’s not nit-pick like this! Jesus never said that he was a nit-picker!”
That’s how he lived: he was a model of fidelity and consistency, a steadfast witness of how to apply religion’s principles with great courage and determination in everyday life. Who could describe how seriously he observed the Lenten fast? He allowed no mitigation of the Church’s precept. The normal dispensations given to travelers or those for whom fasting would be a hardship did not exist for him, as far as he was concerned. We would see him wasting away during the forty days of strict observance, and we understood what a great sacrifice it was for him, and how much this long period of penance meant to him.
Who could forget his exemplary devotion as he regularly took part in night-time adoration? Everyone recalls that night in La Consolata Shrine in Turin when he was absorbed in fervent prayer in a corner apart from the rest of us. He didn’t notice that a candlestick above him was dripping hot wax onto his head and shoulders until he left the church and discovered that his hair and his jacket were completely covered with wax. And yet such significant events about his devout, and at times heroic, attachment to Jesus in the Eucharist were missed even by us who were closest to him. For example, he had been my mountain-climbing companion every Sunday, and yet it was only after his death that I myself understood that sometimes he had spent the entire Saturday night in adoration before Our Lord.
Why should we have been surprised, then, that he would not in any way disregard the precept of Sunday Mass attendance just to take part in one of those mountain climbs, when it was God Who gave him the physical and moral strength to climb in the first place? He always vehemently refused to request any kind of dispensation. On the contrary, I remember that he would often risk missing the morning train to the mountains rather than omit receiving Holy Communion at the end of Mass.
I said that he refused to go on any outing without hesitation, as much as he may have longed to go, rather than miss attending Sunday Mass. But I also recall one time, on Pentecost Sunday, when all of us were waiting for him on the train that was leaving for the mountains. He arrived dressed in his suit and told us that he was skipping the trip so that he could remain amid the poor from his parish who were fulfilling their Easter duty that day.
Indeed, that was the second relevant aspect of his spirituality: his love for neighbour.
Who was his neighbour, in his opinion? The Scribes had already asked Jesus this question, and He responded with that moving parable in which only an unnamed Samaritan, unlike the Levite and the priest, showed consideration for his unfortunate neighbour who had been injured by robbers. Pier Giorgio didn’t try to love his neighbour in a way that was abstract, or that held his neighbour at arm’s length. Instead, he discovered him every day in those who were already close at hand: in his family circle, among his classmates, and among those friends with whom he shared fun times, just as much as he discovered his neighbour among the poor whom he visited and assisted.
So many people received that exquisite gift of charity from him! Charity doesn’t express itself by special actions, but makes itself known with a smile, a kind word, a nod of sincere goodwill.
There were many times when a group of people’s conversation suddenly slipped into malicious gossip. Pier Giorgio would quietly move away, suffering in a way from the unexpected lack of love unmasked by their words.
There were many times when we admired the frank, spontaneous, friendly way he approached students who were new to the city and were coming to our Cesare Balbo headquarters for the first time. He would meet them with a handshake and a big smile. Perhaps those new students were nervous about things they had heard through the rumour mill that would be problems in university life; in Pier Giorgio they saw the real face of authentic fraternity.
And who could ever adequately sing the sublime elegy for Pier Giorgio’s rapport with the poor? To all of them he was considerate, affectionate, brotherly, understanding. Along with material assistance from the St. Vincent de Paul Society, he brought to all of them a word of comfort, support and tranquility. He hid his relationship with this multitude of the poor from us, and he hid his true identity from them, so that the aura of his father’s illustrious name would not embarrass them.
And so, when death snatched him from us and the newspapers wrote about him, the poor recognized right away the face of that good and loving young man who had given great assistance and consolation to everyone. They flocked to the funeral, mobs of them, brought together spontaneously and impulsively in an act of gratitude, and they surrounded his bier to form a cortege of such stately majesty that no earthly power could ever hope to equal. I remember that while we were moving forward, carrying him amid the crush of the multitude, one of the poor people he had helped approached us with halting steps, supported by a girl who looked to be about twelve years old. He was blind, and with a trembling hand he touched the wooden coffin, and then he made a large Sign of the Cross. In the painful gloom of that terrible moment of the funeral, that act was like a sudden beam of light for us: the poor, those who are specially favoured by Jesus, were the first ones to proclaim Pier Giorgio’s holiness.
This constant search for Jesus in his neighbour, this persistent preoccupation with the advancement of God’s glory, produced in Pier Giorgio a continual ascent to the divine will. This was the secret of his unending serenity, his sincere joy, his heroism in the practice of virtue, and his holiness as a young, modern layman. We would see this obedience to the divine will shining with glowing light when an unexpected conflict could otherwise have disturbed his soul. He would accept the test that he was offered with steadfastness and humility. Sometimes this test came by means of some ordinary inconvenience, or a failure in an exam. At other times, however, it was revealed in an injustice that he suffered, or in his sorrowful renunciation of the dream of marriage.
You may ask me what he relied on in order to live a life that became such a masterpiece of intimate union with God. I won’t hesitate to tell you that the secret of Pier Giorgio’s spiritual perfection is to be found especially in his tireless devotion to the Mother of us all, a devotion that was sincere, profound, and very affectionate. We who lived close to Pier Giorgio for some years can’t separate our memories of him from our memories of his filial love for Mary.
First of all, we remember his devotion to the Rosary. A day never passed that he didn’t weave at the feet of his heavenly Mother the crown of her favourite prayer. We’re sure that his faithfulness to this pious practice wasn’t only evident in the last years of his life, because a long time before his death his family often found him in his room, asleep on his knees next to his bed, with his rosary beads in his hands.
There was a plant that he grew in his garden. He would collect the seeds, which were very hard, and give them to the sisters, who would make rosaries out of them. Then he would give these rosaries to his friends. Sometimes we made fun of him because of these rosaries, with their big fat beads, and we said that some old mother abbess had left them. But I’m sure that we carried those rosaries then, as we still do now, as the most beautiful and precious gift that he gave us.
And who can’t recall his simple yet moving devotion to his dear ‘Black Madonna’, the Virgin of Oropa? When he went to Pollone, whether for a few days or for some months’ stay, his first ‘social call’ was to the Shrine of Oropa. He’d make the six kilometre trip up there on foot, carrying a big bouquet of flowers to his Mother with the tenderness of a son who was full of love. And he never left his Biellese neighbourhood to return to the city without first taking his leave of his Madonna, like a devoted subject who would never forget to offer homage to the lady of the castle.
When he was in Turin, his filial devotion constantly brought him to La Consolata Shrine. He never missed services there, day or night, and he was always present for the processions. His fidelity to these places of devotion was something simple and sincere for him. It was so consistent with everything else he did in life, that I don’t think anyone ever said, even privately, that his devotion was like that of the arch-conservatives or people who went through the formalities of religion for sentiment’s sake without having an authentic religious spirit.
And that’s because Pier Giorgio’s foremost, essential, and fundamental characteristic was the constant consistency between his faith and his action, between his spiritual activity and all of his other daily activity, no matter how insignificant the action might seem. This example was the most beautiful heritage that he left us.
What conclusion should we draw from this quick survey of an exemplary life? What advice should I entrust to you so that Pier Giorgio Frassati’s name, with which you have adorned your organization, won’t become empty words but will remain as a perpetual incentive to imitate him, so that you can be worthy of him?
I want to show you today a three-fold way to be worthy followers and imitators of Pier Giorgio.
Before all else, be faithful to Mary. Always have in your heart a tender and child-like devotion to our heavenly Mother. Remain united to her with the simplicity of a child, but with the attachment of a warrior of old, as Pier Giorgio has shown us. Don’t think that the daily praying of the Rosary is a sign of weakness or sentimentalism that is best left to the arch-conservatives or people with weak minds. We know that Mary is very pleased with the homage of this prayer. When she appeared to little Bernadette in Lourdes, she was fingering the beads of the Rosary. And when she appeared to the three little shepherds of Fatima, she didn’t stop recommending this prayer.
Also, be on fire for God’s glory, as Pier Giorgio always was. Show this in your active and conscious participation in the sacrifice that Jesus renews each day on our altars. Show this in your constant fidelity to the Eucharistic encounter with Jesus. This should be revealed in devout respect for the Bride of Christ: the Church and her hierarchy.
Let us recall that the first Christians were pointed out by amazed pagans, not only for their ability to miraculously heal the sick, but especially for the mutual love that bound them one to another. Let us recall those overwhelming words of St. Paul, which Pier Giorgio particularly loved to quote: If I give away all my goods to the poor, and hand over my body to be burnt, but have not love, I gain nothing (I Cor 13:3). Finally, let us recall that the testament of Jesus is synthesized for us in a single and irrefutable command: that we should love one another as He Himself has loved us.
If we have been faithful in living according to this reality, if the divine law of love has been the norm of our life, then we can say that we have learned well from Pier Giorgio how we can be authentic Christians with fidelity and consistency.