It is a false, though widespread, assumption that the saints were very different than we are.
St. Maximilian Kolbe
Pier Giorgio Frassati was born in Turin, Italy on April 6, 1901, the son of Alfredo and Adelaide Frassati. His parents were talented and wealthy—Alfredo was the founder and editor of La Stampa, a newspaper selling three hundred thousand copies each day, and Adelaide was a noted artist—but deeply unhappy in their marriage and uncommitted in their faith. His sister Luciana was a close companion.
From his earliest days, Pier Giorgio was known as a cheery, loving, and ordinary boy. The earliest surviving letter from his hands, written in 1906 at the age of five, gives a taste of his personality:
Dear wonderful daddy, I love you so much so that you will be happy I will not hit Luciana any more. Happy feastday I will pray to Baby Jesus for you. He kisses you your Dodo
The impishness, playfulness, devotion, and extravagance of this toddler’s note would become hallmarks of Pier Giorgio’s entire life.
Pier Giorgio was known by a number of different nicknames through his life: “Dodo,” the innocent and nonsensical name he gave himself as a toddler; “Janus the Two-Faced” as a school-child because of his infectious tendency to whirl around in his seat and joke with the student behind him; “Comrade Robespierre” as a member of the Shady Characters Society, in recognition of his leading role in their joyful activities; “Our dear big oaf” in his mother’s words, signaling at once his family’s affection for him and lack of understanding of his way of life; “Fra Savonarola” as a Third Order Dominican, the name he took in honor of the fiery Florentine reformer; and “Man of the Beatitudes,” the name St. John Paul II gave him at his beatification mass, acknowledging the extraordinary ordinariness of Pier Giorgio’s way to sanctity.
Together, all of these nicknames indicate a joyous and joy-inducing but otherwise ordinary man. He was the life of the party and the life-giving center of his group of friends. He was an avid hiker, skier, and athlete. He attended school from the age of six until the day of his death in 1925. He was devout in his life of prayer—indeed, rather more devout than might be expected for a man of his age and time—and he was also strikingly attentive to the needs of the poor. But to the unobservant eye, there was nothing unusual about Pier Giorgio, other than a general sense that to be around him was to be alive with his joy.
But there was a tremendous secret to Pier Giorgio’s life: a love for God that spilled over uncontrollably into love for his neighbor. He would spend all night in Eucharistic adoration, then rush to classes all day, interspersed with an endless series of charitable missions to the poor and destitute. He used all the money that came into his hands for the service of the needy wherever he was, dropping off gift packages of necessities, unexpected windfalls of money for debtors, medicine and care for the sick, and much more. He was something of a stranger to his own family, who were only interested in the wealthy playboy they expected him to be, but was an intimate familiar to vast numbers of society’s most abandoned members.
His life was perpetually open to God’s call. During a sojourn in Germany he felt a passionate desire to be a priest, but realized that for the kind of work he wanted to do, a layman’s life would allow him to reach more people than would have been possible for an Italian priest of his day. His parents’ opposition is also not to be underestimated: his mother, on being asked by a friend whether she would be happy if Pier Giorgio entered the priesthood, said only, “ I would rather he graduate from the university and die.”
Likewise, he fell beautifully and secretly in love with Laura Hidalgo, a woman in the Shady Characters society who often joined him on his hikes. Although he longed to pursue her hand in marriage, he recognized his family’s disapproval of her and, for reasons only partially known, chose to renounce the glory of his love and “to transform that special feeling I had for her… to the end toward which we all must strive: a respectful bond of Christian friendship.”
Pier Giorgio is, in his own way, a model for Christian discernment, as he abandoned his life to Jesus Christ, willing to follow wherever his Lord would lead him. He knew the joy of the desire for the priesthood and the sweetness of the desire for marriage, and would have happily given his all to either. The fact that God joined him to the saints in heaven before his life had coalesced around one of those two decisions makes him all the more fitting as a patron for young adults seeking God’s guidance in their life.
Pier Giorgio’s death was sudden. Although some signs of an unwonted lethargy had snuck into his behavior in the spring months of 1925, no one noticed that anything was seriously amiss until July 1, when his grandmother died and Pier Giorgio was too feeble to attend her funeral. “You seem to be doing this on purpose,” his mother scolded, “You are never there when you are needed.” By July 3, Pier Giorgio was completely paralyzed. A doctor was called, and the family discovered that Pier Giorgio was dying of polio, which he likely caught from the poor and suffering whose needs he tended. At 7:00 P.M. on July 4, 1925, Pier Giorgio died. His last words were “Will you forgive me, Lord? Oh, Lord, please forgive me!”
The bereaved Frassati family prepared for a small and fast funeral. To their astonishment, the entire city of Turin turned out for his procession and funeral, thronging the streets. Churchmen, noted politicians, journalists, artists, and friends from his many societies were there in abundance, but what caught everyone’s attention was the poor: untold numbers of them appeared from nowhere, each one with a story of the young man’s love and generosity. Pier Giorgio’s hidden holiness was now visible for the world to see.
A cause for his canonization was begun soon after he died, and on March 31, 1981, after countless official reports of his unceasing holiness, Pier Giorgio’s body was exhumed and found to be completely incorrupt. He was beatified by John Paul II on May 20, 1990, who declared this glorious man of extraordinarily ordinary holiness to be the “Man of the Beatitudes.”