I’ve run into the name and photo of Pier Giorgio Frassati several times recently. It seems that God is up to something when he introduces me to a pipe-smoking man with drop-dead good looks. Since the man in question died in 1925, it means I’ve had to seek him out via books and the internet. As I check into his life, I find that he is in many ways a charming resource for Lent.
One of the few things Frassati penned was the phrase “Verso l’alto!” It has fittingly caught on with students in schools from Texas to Toronto which bear his name. He was a hiker and mountain climber, and his signature phrase is translatable as “To the top” or, more loosely, “Strive for the heights.” Pier Giorgio wrote it in early June of the year he died, when he was still in top form. Less than a month later he was dying, paralyzed and struggling for breath as a result of polio.
In his photos, Pier Giorgio looks like a playboy. In real life, however, he was found worthy of beatification and was, by St. John Paul II in 1990. How does someone who was a party-goer and prankster with rowdy friends achieve sanctity at the same age that the Little Flower, the cloistered Thérèse of Lisieux, did? The answer has much to do with the three classic Lenten practices — prayer, fasting, and almsgiving — and how we can step our own practices up.
A relatively small circle of friends and family knew that, by age 21, Pier Giorgio had become active in the Legion of Mary, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, and the Third Order Dominicans. Behind the scenes, he had long been devoted to the rosary and Eucharistic adoration and calculated his activities to assure that he could get to daily Mass. His mother had caught onto the fact that he spent many quiet hours of the night in meditation. While continuing to be an outgoing and occasionally outspoken so-so student, he was developing a deep prayer life.
When thousands of poor people shocked his family and friends by showing up at his funeral, they learned more about his fasting and almsgiving. He had given up and given away his socks and shoes, overcoats, and train tickets when he met others with less access to cash and goods. He often walked home, chilled.
As far as alms are concerned, the story is told that Pier Giorgio had on more than one occasion asked for lira instead of a fancy gift, just so he could give the cash away. Frassati also insisted on getting to know those he was helping — indigent young mothers, the sick, and street people. Aside from helping them materially, he advocated for them by pamphleteering and protesting on behalf of the poor and in opposition to Communism and Fascism.
What I’ve learned about the attractive Frassati is that he did holy things that we too can do: pray more, eschew excess, and give in a deeply interpersonal way. Best of all, Blessed Pier Giorgio knew how to have a good time while also doing great good.
Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM, is the Secretary for Education and Faith Formation at the Diocese of Charleston. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.