Popular Pier Giorgio Frassati: A saint for ordinary Catholics

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Images of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati appear beside and on his tomb at St. John the Baptist Cathedral in Turin, Italy, in this file photo from February 2006. (CNS file photo/Carol Glatz)

“The secret of [Pier Giorgio Frassati’s] apostolic zeal and holiness is to be sought in the ascetical and spiritual journey which he traveled; in prayer, in persevering adoration, even at night, of the Blessed Sacrament, in his thirst for the Word of God, which he sought in Biblical texts; in the peaceful acceptance of life’s difficulties, in family life as well; in chastity lived as a cheerful, uncompromising discipline; in his daily love of silence and life’s ‘ordinariness.'” — Pope St. John Paul II

I was at a brewery with some friends when I heard the exciting news that Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati would be canonized next year. It was a fitting environment to toast the soon-to-be patron saint of ordinary Catholics.

I don’t mean ordinary in a derogatory way. I mean those of us who work regular jobs, grab drinks with friends on Saturday afternoons, and talk about sports, politics and the latest adventures we’re planning together.

Blessed Pier Giorgio died almost 100 years ago, but he would have fit in perfectly with my group of friends. He was born in Turin, Italy, in 1901, among the political upheavals, war and social strife of the opening years of the 20th century. Against this challenging backdrop, Pier Giorgio exemplified a life of devout faith, strong friendships, social activism and rugged adventure.

Frassati was, there’s no other way for me to put it, a bro. He climbed rocks, threw parties, experienced heartbreak and punched fascists.

Frassati was also holy. He had a deep interior life of prayer, an intense devotion to the Eucharist, and a selfless heart for serving the poor in Turin.

Too often, we see the different aspects of Pier Giorgio’s life as incompatible. Sometimes, we think it’s impossible to have an exciting life of adventure with friends if we want to be prayerful and serve the poor. Other times, we compartmentalize these activities, living one life on Saturday night and an entirely different one on Sunday morning.

Pier Giorgio Frassati’s life challenges us to think differently. His ability to weave his faith into every aspect of his life, from the peaks he climbed with friends to the streets he walked to serve the poor, illustrates a seamless integration of faith and ordinary life.

Ordinary Catholic, extraordinary life

The most iconic photos of Pier Giorgio are of him smoking a pipe on top of a mountain. This is where he felt most fully alive. He often led groups of friends on climbing expeditions through the Alps, viewing these adventures as pilgrimages in addition to physical challenges. Before leaving for one of these adventures, Pier Giorgio would spend the early hours of the morning in adoration. Then, as they ascended a mountain, he would lead his friends in praying the Rosary, transforming the mountain paths into spiritual avenues leading to the heavens. The motto Verso l’alto (“To the heights”), which became synonymous with his approach to life, encapsulated Pier Giorgio’s desire to strive for spiritual peaks as he conquered physical ones.

Italian Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati was a struggling student who excelled in mountain climbing. He had complete faith in God and persevered through college, dedicating himself to helping the poor and supporting church social teaching. He died at age 24 and was beatified by Pope St. John Paul II in 1990. He is pictured in an undated photo. (OSV News file photo)

Pier Giorgio was also known for his immense generosity. He would often give his bus money away to someone in need, opting instead to run home across the city to make it back in time for family dinner. One winter, in an act of profound selflessness, he gave his shoes to a homeless man, walking home barefoot through the cold streets of Turin. His acts of kindness extended beyond mere charity. They were expressions of his profound faith, as he viewed service to the less fortunate in his community as both a duty and a privilege. He often refused to join his family on vacation, remarking, “If everybody leaves Turin, who will take care of the poor?”

In a time of growing political turmoil and the rise of fascism and anti-Catholic persecution in Italy, Pier Giorgio’s faith was his moral compass. He was deeply involved in Catholic youth groups and anti-fascist movements, such as the Catholic Student Foundation and Catholic Action. These groups not only fostered his spiritual growth but also became platforms for his anti-fascist activism. He did not shy away from confrontations when it came to defending his beliefs. Pier Giorgio’s participation in pro-Catholic and anti-fascist protests sometimes led to physical altercations and even his arrest, underscoring his commitment to his faith and his courage in the face of oppression.

In a letter to the Catholic youth of Pollone, Italy, Frassati expressed his unwavering faith and encouraged perseverance when surrounded by adversity: “The times which we are going through are difficult, because persecution against the Church rages as cruelly as ever. But you fearless and good young people, do not be afraid because of this small problem. Bear in mind the fact that the Church is a divine institution that cannot end and will endure until the end of the world, and ‘the gates of hell will not prevail against her.'”

Pier Giorgio’s life is a testament to the fact that we can live an “ordinary” Catholic life yet have a profound impact. His integration of faith, charity and activism offers a powerful blueprint for our lives. He shows us that living a holy life requires a steadfast dedication to the principles of the Gospel and a willingness to act on behalf of those principles, even in the face of significant personal risk.

Today, as we navigate our complex world, Pier Giorgio’s life invites us to reflect on how we, too, can embody such courage and generosity. Whether through small acts of kindness within our community or broader activism for social justice, we are called to carry forward the torch of faith and service that Pier Giorgio held so high.

Eucharistic devotion

Pier Giorgio Frassati’s devotion to the Eucharist was the central aspect of his spiritual life, deeply influencing his actions and approach to service. He understood the Eucharist as the vital source of spiritual strength and communion with Christ. His days began with Mass, where he drew the courage and fortitude to face the challenges of his active life devoted to social justice and charity. This daily communion was, for him, a wellspring of divine grace, reinforcing his resolve to live out the Gospel’s call to love and serve his community.

In a letter to fellow young Catholics, he wrote: “I urge you with all the strength of my soul to approach the Eucharistic Table as often as possible. Feed on this Bread of the Angels from which you will draw the strength to fight inner struggles, the struggles against passions and against all adversities, because Jesus Christ has promised to those who feed themselves with the most Holy Eucharist, eternal life and the necessary graces to obtain it.”

Pier Giorgio’s Eucharistic devotion extended beyond the Mass. He spent countless hours, often entire nights, in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Such deep, sustained periods of prayer are more commonly associated with the cloistered lives of monks and nuns, but Pier Giorgio shows us how to seamlessly integrate this spiritual practice into ordinary, lay life.

His devotion to daily Mass and frequent adoration highlights how profound and personal receiving and adoring Christ in the Eucharist was for him. Pier Giorgio’s life shows us that intense spiritual devotion and a vibrant secular life are not mutually exclusive.

A relatable saint

At times, I find myself intimidated by the lives of great saints of our tradition. The profound intellect of St. Thomas Aquinas, the deep humility of St. Francis of Assisi, and the radical selflessness of St. Teresa of Calcutta can make me question my own capacity for sainthood. When I first encountered Pier Giorgio Frassati as a recent convert to Catholicism, his story struck a chord with me. It was honestly a relief to discover a man who was both wholly ordinary and remarkably holy. He seemed to say to me, “If I can be a saint, why not you?”

Pier Giorgio’s example shows us that sanctity doesn’t require extraordinary circumstances. Most of us navigate the demands of 9-to-5 jobs and daily chores, yet these routines are not barriers to holiness but the very pathway to it. Frassati found divine joy and holiness in the ordinariness of life, climbing mountains, spending time with friends and serving those in need.

As we examine our own lives, it’s important to remember that being an “ordinary” Catholic does not mean settling for mediocrity. Each one of us is called to be a saint! Pier Giorgio seamlessly wove his joy for life with deep faith and a dedicated prayer life, leading by example that to be holy is to be fully alive! His life is a beacon for our own journeys, demonstrating that integrating our spiritual life with ordinary life is not only possible but necessary.

Inspired by Pier Giorgio Frassati’s upcoming canonization, let us cultivate a friendship with him and ask for his intercession to help us boldly answer the call to holiness in our everyday lives.

Together, let’s raise a glass and toast to Pier Giorgio Frassati, our soon-to-be patron saint of ordinary Catholics.