The 20th-century Dominican lived a life of charity, unknown even to his closest friends
Saints are perhaps best known by the effect they have on the people around them. St. Antony of Egypt left the world to live alone in the desert; young men flocked to his side, and one of his disciples, St. Athanasius, saved the Church from Arianism. St. Benedict went to live in a cave, and his followers are now found all over the world. But while some saints live their lives in the spotlight, God blesses others with lives of perfect anonymity, so that the fruits of their holiness become known only when their lives are complete.
To his family and neighbors, Pier Giorgio Frassati appeared to be an ordinary young man of his day: athletic, outgoing, and not particularly studious. He had many close friends, with whom he delighted to go on outings, and on whom he delighted in playing pranks. He was an earnest mountain climber, often rising early in the morning to go hiking, and enjoying longer mountaineering and skiing trips whenever possible. And if he was passionate about social conditions in his native Italy, and active in a number of clubs devoted to social action, there was nothing unusual in this.
Pier Giorgio’s mother was an artist. His father, an agnostic, owned the progressive Italian newspaper La Stampa. Neither were particularly pious, and though his mother saw to it that he received the sacraments, neither were aware that in their son the seeds of the faith had fallen on fertile soil. Consumed as they were by their own activities, they had little awareness of or access to Pier Giorgio’s mind and heart, or that his morning hikes were timed so that he could attend Mass at a small church in the mountains.
Only a few of his closest friends were aware of how he spent his private time, and then only by accident. One met him in the street, carrying a parcel, and followed him to a shack in the poorest part of Turin, where Pier Giorgio was welcomed warmly as a friend and helper. This was his usual habit: to visit and befriend the poor of Turin, and to see to their needs and run their errands.
Pier Giorgio became a Dominican tertiary in 1922; three years later, he fell ill and took to his bed. By the time his parents discovered how ill he was, it was too late. On July 4, 1925, Pier Giorgio died of polio, probably contracted during one of his visits to the poor. He died peacefully, rosary in hand and the life of Saint Catherine of Siena at his side; and his last concerns were for two of his friends among the poor, for whom he had unfinished errands. He was 24 years of age.
Pier Giorgio’s funeral was attended by his father’s friends and associates, the elite of Turin; and the streets outside the church were filled by the workers, the unemployed, and the homeless of Turin, come to say goodbye to the one who had loved them so well. The sight was life-changing for his parents. Their marriage had always been rocky; at the time of Pier Giorgio’s death they had planned to separate permanently, but instead, stunned that their big oaf of a son had lived the life of a saint under their noses, they chose to reconcile. Pier Giorgio’s father returned to the practice of the faith, and when he died in 1961 it was with the benefit of the sacraments.
Pier Giorgio became famous in Italy overnight. In 1989 John Paul II named him “Man of the Beatitudes,” and he was beatified two years later.