Looking at Pier Giorgio’s biography, we can see that his life of holiness rests on four pillars: study, prayer, service, and love of the outdoors. Together those four loves enabled him to dedicate his whole life to God in freedom and joy, which is why the Cincinnati Frassati Fellowship structures its activities according to those four pillars. Here we’ll look briefly at each of these pillars in turn, as they were realized in Pier Giorgio’s life.
He began to be homeschooled at the age of six, and was in and out of public and private schooling for the rest of his life. He was bright, but far from the keenest student, flunking occasional classes (and Latin twice) and often turning away from his academics to more engaging pursuits on mountaintops. But he took his studies seriously enough to take from them what he needed to help himself and help others: he studied agriculture in his teens so that he could help the wife of the Frassati gardener who was off in World War I; he studied mining engineering in his early twenties so that he would be able to bring decent standards of work and living to Italy’s neglected and abused miners; and he undertook endless reading projects of his own for his spiritual strength—his plan for 1925 alone included Augustine, philosophy, and the works of Thomas Aquinas.
In some ways Pier Giorgio is a student saint. Out of the twenty-four years of his life, eighteen were spent in formal academic training, and he died shortly before he was scheduled to finish his studies. But for Pier Giorgio study was never the occasion for social advancement, the exercise of pride, or snobbery of any kind. He studied for one purpose only: to fulfill Christ’s commandment to love God and love neighbor.
Pier Giorgio was intensely devoted to the Eucharist, and fought with his parents for the freedom to go to daily mass at the age of thirteen. He joined every religious club he could find, especially Eucharistic groups, and joined an association of university students who would stay up all night adoring Christ in the Eucharist. On one such occasion, he was praying in such an ecstasy that he completely failed to notice a broken candle pouring hot wax on his neck, and scarcely noted the intervention of his compatriots.
Prayer was how Pier Giorgio lived and breathed. It was as natural to him to conclude a short letter to a friend on the occasion of the loan of an ice-axe with “Christian greetings” as it was for him to take out the rosary he always kept in his pocket and pray a few decades whenever he had a moment to spare. He would go to confession at least three times a week, regardless of time and place—once he even grabbed a priest and gave his confession in the middle of a street. He would spend long hours in prayer, fast, and keep vigils, but for him prayer was never a somber or melancholy affair: it was the joyous encounter with the Risen Lord that gave him strength and joy for all he did.
Pier Giorgio’s frequent acts of extraordinary charitable service were his best-kept secret. Although some of his acts were public—as when his father offered to buy him a car and he instead asked for the equivalent amount of money so that he could distribute it to the poor—he would generally sneak out unseen to take care of “his poor,” giving away all the money he could get his hands on or spending it to give food and necessities to the indigent. But for Pier Giorgio, service was never a matter of mere finances. He would encourage the poor, help them return to Mass and the sacraments, and stay up all night with them when they were sick, in order to show them genuine love.
“Jesus comes to me every day in Communion,” Pier Giorgio once said, “and I return the visit by going to serve the poor.” His relationship with the poor was always one of love, seeing them not as a class to be educated or exploited, but as individuals whom God was calling in the same way He was calling Pier Giorgio. His last act before dying was to provide for the care of those for whom he had given up his life, making sure that the medicines in his pocket would be given to the needy man to whom he had promised them, and that another poor man’s goods would be kept from the pawnshop.
Love of the Outdoors
Pier Giorgio was a fountainhead of energy. For all the clubs, prayers, service, and study that comprised his life, he found seemingly endless opportunities to lose himself in the mountains with his close friends, whom he dubbed “The Shady Characters.” He went on thirty-nine mountain ascents in the last four years of his life alone, often admitting shamelessly in his letters that he had exams he should have been studying for instead.
Mountain climbing was for him a way of growing in friendship with human beings and with God. Speaking of his climbing friends, he said, “We believe that even when we reach the tomb, the ‘shady characters’ will remember each other in prayer,” elsewhere calling such a friendship “a precious guide for my life.” Through the physical exertion of climbing and the beauty of the mountains, Pier Giorgio was able to experience firsthand the beauty for which God made the world. As one author has said of him, “Be it on the mountain peaks or at the feet of the Tabernacle, his transparent soul encountered God with similar ease.”
This harmonious and balanced life is what we seek to imitate at the Cincinnati Frassati Fellowship, asking Bl. Pier Giorgio’s intercession for us as we are drawn more deeply into Christ individually and together.