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Pier Giorgio Frassati, the “terror” with a big heart

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His love for the outdoors, social justice, and the poor and vulnerable made him stand out in his family and city.

At first glance, Pier Giorgio Frassati might not fit the stereotypical profile of a saint. Born to a wealthy agnostic father and artist mother, Pier Giorgio was a fun-loving troublemaker—yet his adventurous personality hid a huge heart that led him to continuous acts of service and charity. Watch this video to learn about this cheerful saint, whose death sent an entire city into mourning.

No telling of Pier Giorgio’s life would be complete without mention of his mother, Adelaide Ametis. She taught the faith to Pier Giorgio and his sister Luciana entirely on her own, as her husband was an agnostic. Clearly she did something right, as her son grew into such a holy young man.

Pier Giorgio was known for his practical jokes and sense of fun, to the point that he was jokingly called a “terror.” His compassion, however, was legendary, to the point that his many acts of generosity were a source of annoyance to his father, as told here:

One of our favorite things about Pier Giorgio, then, is noting how much (and how cheerfully and respectfully) he annoyed his father. Pier Giorgio’s father, Alfredo, was the founder and publisher of the Italian newspaper, “La Stampa.” His desire was for Pier Giorgio to follow him in journalism and publishing. Pier Giorgio preferred engineering studies.

But that’s not the only way Pier Giorgio caused his father to shake his head and wonder about his son. A man of some means, Alfredo would have first class train tickets purchased for his son’s travels. Pier Giorgio would trade in the first class tickets for third class, and give the cash to the poor.

Alfredo needed to continually replenish his son’s fine wardrobe—coats, shoes, boots—because Pier Giorgio would “lose” them to the poor. He’d see someone cold and give a coat; see someone barefoot and arrive back home without shoes.

Pier Giorgio was what some would call a social justice warrior. He was once arrested while participating in a protest against Mussolini’s fascist government and was outspoken about social action that would unite people to overcome inequality. He said, “Charity is not enough; we need social reform.”

An avid outdoorsman and athlete, Pier Giorgio loved and cared for the environment and enjoyed hiking, swimming, and mountain climbing. This last hobby led to the motto which has been associated with him since his death: “Verso l’alto!” or “To the heights!”

When he died suddenly of poliomyelitis at age 24, thousands of mourners lined the streets of Turin for his funeral. This public outpouring of love for him came as a surprise to his parents, as recounted here, and led to a beautiful reconciliation within their marriage and the reversion of Pier Giorgio’s father to the Church:

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.

Christians dedicated to serving the kingdom of God through acts of charity and social reform can find in Pier Giorgio Frassati a sympathetic patron. Athletes and those who love the outdoors, too, will find in him a worthy model. Not just those who share his interests, however, but all sincere Christians can surely relate to his cry, “Verso l’alto!” and follow his lead in striving to climb the summit of the interior life to heaven.

Read more: The witty little verses that inspired Dorothy Day

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