Angela Santana, my Catholic new media sister, just wrote a great article titled "Don't Diss Me 'Cause I'm Young". In the article, she laments something both of us hear pretty often:
Now, nobody means to offend by that--and, meant as a great compliment, it doesn't offend us--but we find it interesting how little is expected of us by both the world and the Church.
Last year, while I was 24, I focused my reading and devotion on two young saints--St. Therese of Lisieux and Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati. Both heroes died prematurely at age 24, so I figured we would develop some special communion throughout the year.
I also hoped they could inspire me to greatness, for everything they accomplished they did before the age I am now. Which means I have no excuse not to be a saint. If they could do in 24 years, why not I?
When you look down through the centuries, you see plenty of other young examples. Mary mothered God when she was just a young girl.Perpetua, the early Church martyr, was slain by the sword at age 22. Joan of Arc was burned at 19, the gifted Dominic Savio died at 15, and Maria Goretti was barely a teen when she died heroically. All the holiness, compassion, maturity, wisdom, and virtue they developed was done while they were young.
Therefore, people shouldn't be shocked at our age. When they see a teenager or a young 20-something ablaze for Christ and his Church, they should instead compliment what should be the norm. I think we're too easily impressed today with zeal that past centuries would have expected as ordinary. But the saints--and Christ--introduce a much different scale.
I have so many dead heroes who, were they alive, would look at me now and wonder, "Why haven't you done more?" I think many of these heroes would not say "you're so young!", but would instead inquire:
What do you think?
Last year, I spent a lot of time reading about two particular saints: St. Therese of Lisieux and Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. They were the two perfect people to spend the year with as both of them died when they were just 24--the same age I was all of last year--and they both shaped my life in many ways.
But despite their similarities, each taught me different things. I'll talk more about Therese in the future, but on this feast day of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati (1901-1925), I'll focus on him.
Pier Giorgio was a man after (or before!) my own heart. He lived to be 24 years old, was a mechanical engineer, a skilled outsdoorsman, and his two great passions were prayer and serving the poor. I probably can't find another saint who shares so many similar traits. Because of our similarities, he was the perfect teacher.
Out of all the things he taught me, though, two things stick out. First, he showed how a suburban Christian can truly love the poor. Pier Giorgio's dad owned a famous newspaper which meant Pier Giorgio was never short on cash. But instead of spending it all on himself, he constantly emptied his pockets for the sake of his poor friends.
|Image from LOLSaints.com|
He could afford nice clothes, fancy meals, and stylish cars. But he almost never indulged. In fact what was Pier Giorgio's response when asked why he always rode in third-class? Because there was no fourth-class. Such was his devotion to standing with the poor.
Despite his profound compassion, though, Pier Giorgio never moved into a poor neighborhood or took a vow of poverty. He showed that you can love the poor as you are, where you are. You don't have to be be a social service agent or move into the slums. You can love just as you are right now. Whatever job you have, however much money you make, however busy you seem to be, you can still live with deep compassion.
Pier Giorgio also taught me the magnetic power of joy. Throughout his life, young people flocked to him not only because of his holiness but because of his smiles, pranks, and contagious laughter (and as the patron saint of young people, they still flock to him.) Pier Giorgio once placed a donkey in the bed of an unstudious friend, a sign that the lazy boy was being an ass. And he was known to shortsheet the beds of friends and priests whenever they went on retreat.
His lightheartedness and deep, rumbling laughter were some of his greatest evangelistic tools. People want joy, and when they taste it in another, they want to know its source. Many of Pier Giorgio's friends found God after first discovering Pier Giorgio's joy.
There's plenty more that Pier Giorgio has taught me--commitment to the Rosary, devotion to the Eucharist, the necessity of prayer, and love for the outdoors. He's such an incredible saint, yet still a profoundly "ordinary" one. His life and spirituality are so rich that he really is worth studying more deeply.
To help with that, here are some short reviews of the three books I read on Pier Giorgio. Unlike Therese, Pier Giorgio is not the focus of many books, so the pickings are few. But even within the small selection, these three stand out.
A Man of the Beatitudes
As far as I know, Luciana is the only relative to write a book on Pier Giorgio. In this book, Luciana, Pier Giorgio's sister and best friend, offers an intimate portrait of his life and death. She also reveals how misunderstood Pier Giorgio was by his parents.
Their father was an atheist, and their mother was nominally Christian, but both were uncomfortable with Pier Giorgio's piety. They were extremely worried that their son might become a priest and were also troubled by his mingling with the poor.
This discomfort regularly boiled over into frustration. Pier Giorgio's mother often scolded him for showing up late to dinner after serving the poor (he usually had to run home after giving away his bus-fare money.) His father chastised him for coming home without a coat, a regular occurrence since Pier Giorgio gave away his own clothes to anyone in need.
Besides revealing the tension with his parents, the book also frames Pier Giorgio's life in light of the eight beatitudes, which I found both interesting and appropriate. At Pier Giorgio's beatification, Pope John Paul II deemed him a "man of the beatitudes" and it's clear why. Pier Giorgio was meek, he was a peacemaker, he was poor in spirit, he hungered and thirsted for righteousness, and he embodied all the rest of the beatitudes. The core of Jesus's most famous sermon was the core of Pier Giorgio's entire life. That's why he's a saint. And that's why his life is so attractive.
Of the all books and articles I read on Pier Giorgio throughout the year, A Man of the Beatitudes was definitely my favorite.
Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati
Maria De Lorenzo
In many ways this book is similar to A Man of the Beatitudes. It covers many of the same themes. However, it does differ by being more detached (it's not written by someone as close as Luciana) and it devotes an entire chapter to one little-discussed aspect of Pier Giorgio's life: his secret, suppressed love for a young girl.
During one of his regular mountain climbs, Pier Giorgio fell head over heels for a fellow-hiker named Laura. His journals and letters reveal just how instantly and deeply in love with her he was, and it wasn't long befroe he decided that that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her.
But he knew his parents wouldn't approve. Laura wasn't part of the upper class, and she was a Catholic activist, both strikes against her in the eyes of his parents. Pier Giorgio knew this would cause serious problems within his family, and since his relationship with his parents was already tumultuous, he never once revealed to them his secret love. He gave it up quietly, quitting his pursuit out of honor for his parents. For better or worse, right or wrong, the episode puts Pier Giorgio's utter selflessness on full display.
This book had the fullest treatment of this whole episode, which makes it a nice addition to any Pier Giorgio collection.
The Soul of Pier Giorgio Frassati
This book is much more difficult to find than the other two--I got it through inter-library loan--but it offers some unique insights. For one, The Soul of Pier Giorgio Frassati centers on Pier Giorgio's piety. In that way, it's more of a spiritual biography than the other two.
The book includes diary entries from a 17-year-old Pier Giorgio which tally his monthly communions and Rosary decades (26 communions and 145 decades in December 1919.) The book lays out Pier Giorgio's spirituality along two poles, the Holy Eucharist and the Blessed Virgin, and explores his devotions to each.
The Soul of Pier Giorgio Frassati also reveals his deep prayer life. Pier Giorgio was known to lose himself in prayer quite often. On one occasion, the book explains, he became so lost in prayer that he was oblivious to the candle wax dripping onto his head.
Finally, this book presents an interesting look at Pier Giorgio's discernment process. When trying to determine what he should do with his life, Pier Giorgio considered becoming a priest. But he then asked a key question: "which vocation will give me the most contact with the poor?"
He decided the answer was to pursue a lay vocation and a career in engineering. His method stands as an alternative pattern for young people who are usually first encouraged to discern their state of life before finding their individual charisms. Pier Giorgio, the book shows, discerned the other way around. He first determined that his calling was to directly serve the poor, and then he chose the vocation that best enabled him to do that.
Other Recommended Books on Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati:
- Saints at Heart - My friend Bert Ghezzi, who has researched and written about hundreds of saints, considers Pier Giorgio to be his favorite. That says a lot to me. This book by Bert offers a nice, short introduction to Pier Giorgio's life and significance.
- Letters to His Friends and Family - A collection of Pier Giorgio's personal letters.
- Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati: Journey to the Summit - A short, wonderful Pier Giorgio biography for kids, the perfect introduction for young children.
- My Brother Pier Giorgio: His Last Days - Another book by Pier Giorgio's sister, Luciana, but one focusing solely on the last months of his life.
A month or so before my 24th birthday last May, I considered how the Church designates a theme for certain years (i.e. the "year of St. Paul" or the "year for priests"). I thought that was a great idea and decided to do something similar in my own life.
So I set out searching for a good theme. After considering many options, I settled on this: for an entire year, beginning on my birthday, I would focus on one particular saint. I researched different options, and found many of them compelling. I considered Lawrence of Rome, my patron saint, whose boldness and compassion I envy. I looked at Pope John Paul II, envisioning immersing myself in his encyclicals and "theology of the body" for an entire year.
But during my search, I came across not just one saint, but two who stood out among the others. I just couldn't get them out of my head.
Each of the two had eerie similarities. Both were widely popular among Catholics, yet unfamiliar to me. Both were laypeople who encouraged 'ordinary' holiness: sanctity in your family, in your work, in your daily comings and goings. Most intriguing, however, was that both died of crippling diseases when they were just 24 years old--precisely my age during the entire following year.
Beginning on my birthday, I leaped into their lives and spirituality. My friend Bert Ghezzi, who has volumes on almost every saint, gave me a couple of biographies to get started. I picked up some more through Amazon, and then spent the rest of the year with them.
This past Monday, I turned 25, which ended my year-long exploration. A year later, I count Therese and Pier-Giorgio not just as heroes, but as friends. I'm sure I could write a whole book describing the lessons they've taught me. There are many concrete ways that I live differently now because of their example and prayers.
However, instead of trying to fit their influence into a single blog post, I'll simply let it season future writings (yet I do plan to post short reviews of the books I read on each saint.)
Because the year was so rich, though, I decided to do another.
Last Monday, May 23, kicked off my year with C.S. Lewis, a man who has been instrumental in my entire Christian life. As an Evangelical, he baptized my imagination and strengthened my mind. As I explored Catholicism, he acted as my Moses, walking me slowly to the promised land of the Catholic Church despite never entering himself.
I'm pretty familiar with Lewis already: I've read many of his works, I've shaken hands with his closest living relative, and I've even attended a conference celebrating his influence. But for the entire upcoming year, I'm planning to read everything afresh.
I'll be reading through every single one of his works chronologically, which I began doing on my birthday with Spirits In Bondage, a collection of poetry. The book, what Lewis calls a "cycle of lyrics," was his first published work. Lewis completed it as a 20-year old agnostic.
I also have the first massive volume of Lewis' personal letters on my bedside, which I've already dipped into into each night.
So as Therese and Pier-Giorgio pass the torch to Lewis, I hope to learn as much from this next mentor as I did from the first two. And I'm sure you'll hear more from all three of this motley bunch over the coming months.
Here's a peek at my current reading:
The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic
Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati: An Ordinary Christian
(Maria Di Lorenzo)
The Priority of Christ: Toward a Postliberal Catholicism
(Fr. Robert Barron)
The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age
The Face of God: The Rediscovery of the True Face of Jesus
Fatima For Today: The Urgent Marian Message of Hope
(Fr. Andrew Apostoli)
How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization
Great Books of the Western World - The Iliad and the Odyssey