Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 18, 2000
A young man who witnessed to Christ
A Man Of The Beatitudes: Pier Giorgio Frassati, by Luciana Frassati, with an introduction by Karl Rahner. Toronto, Novalis, 2000. 170 pages, including black and white photos; softcover. (First published in Rome,1975; adapted and edited by Patricia O'Rourke).
Review by WAYNE HOLST
Special to the WCR
Beyond the Italian Catholic community in Canada few seem to be aware of Pier Giorgio Frassati, who died at the age of 24 in 1925. Yet, like Ste. Therese of Lisieux whose life ended at the same young age in 1897, Frassati was beatified by Pope John Paul (May 20, 1990).
The pope calls him "a young man who was able to witness to Christ with singular effectiveness. . . . I felt, too, in my youth the beneficial influence of his example and as a student, I was impressed by the force of his Christian testimony."
In the Introduction, Karl Rahner, the theologian who as a child first met Frassati in Berlin, says his life was "so rich, so serene, so almost thoughtlessly cheerful (in spite of all his family problems): riding, skiing, reading (poetry) in the company of (boy) friends and girls, singing, having ardent political discussions, clashing with the police and doing so many other things characteristic of . . . youth".
In 1975 Luciana Frassati, his sister, published this interesting period piece with its setting in early 20th century Turin. Her book was translated into English (1990) by Diana Livingstone and is now available to Canadian readers through Novalis.
Because of the author's elite, essentially agnostic Catholic family background and the uniqueness of her times, an explanatory preface would have helped to clarify certain peculiarities.
There is much to be mined here, but readers may have to dig. Certain pieties, social euphemisms and political references as well as some English terms used by the translator are foreign to the average Canadian reader. It would be a shame if, because of these challenges, people were to ignore this beguiling book.
Who then was this youth-saint, a potential mentor to many modern students, whose image now graces one of 12 new stained glass windows at the University of Toronto's Newman Centre Catholic Mission? The reader is introduced to a most unusual person whose humanity and holiness were naturally and authentically integrated.
Frassati rejected inherited wealth and a ready-made career with his father's popular liberal newspaper La Stampa. He spent his time - while not studying or mountain-climbing - in devotional attentiveness. Evenings saw him engaged in service to the poor through the St. Vincent de Paul Society or at political meetings sponsored by the youth organization - Catholic Action.
At the same time, he spurned a priestly or missionary vocation and completed studies as an engineer (his parents would not have approved of the priesthood and he always sought parental approbation in spite of their constant put-downs).
Frassati believed a secular vocation (outside religious and societal strictures) would provide a freedom to live his true calling.
In many ways, Frassati was a countercultural youth - not rebellious but different - who decided early in his life that he had a special layperson's vocation for faith, charity and justice. From very early he truly marched to the beat of a different drummer - falling in love on one occasion, then backing away.
Like St. Francis he saw money only as something to be given to the poor. Like Mother Teresa, he had a "special predilection for the apostolate of charity" and saw Christ in the face of the poor who "possess a light . . . that we don't have."
Like Dorothy Day he lived a life of spiritual devotion focused on those who suffered injustice by taking on evil political ideas and movements. And, like the recently deceased spiritual guide Henri Nouwen "his whole life was characterized by numerous intense human relationships that consumed so much of his energy that he sometimes felt he was drowning, (yet needing) to find the strength for one more stroke."
His painful death was caused by poliomyelitis, for which there was no known cure, contracted while tending to the sick.
Father Thomas Rosica, head of the Toronto Newman Centre mission, states: He anticipated by at least 50 years the Church's understanding and new direction on the role of the laity . . . and is probably the first saint to have lived the encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) that launched the Church into the modern era of faith and social justice."
This book should appeal to youth and to all who want to make a difference with their lives.
(Rev. Dr. Wayne Holst is a lecturer in religion and culture at the University of Calgary.)