A couple years ago, on my 24th birthday, I decided to spend one year studying two unfamiliar saints: St. Therese of Lisieux and Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. I chose them first because I didn't know much about them, but second because they each died when they were just 24. I wanted them to challenge me with all they accomplished in the same 24 years I had, and they certainly did that.
Throughout the year, we grew close and I learned many lessons. St. Therese revealed her "little way" of holiness. She helped me see the value of secret sacrifice, that God delights in small things done with great love.
Yet Pier Giorgio ultimately left the bigger mark. We just had so much more in common. St. Therese was a contemplative, French nun, who entered the convent at 15 and never left. But Pier Giorgio, like me, was an "ordinary" layman in the world. He was a young mechanical engineer, juggling the spiritual life with intense study. He was a skilled outsdoorsman who loved to scale large mountains, rosary in hand, pipe in mouth.
Pier Giorgio also loved the poor, which many stories affirm. Pier Giorgio's mother often scolded him for showing up late for dinner. She didn't know that he spent his afternoons serving the hungry and that he usually ran home after giving away his bus money. His father frequently chastised him for returning without his coat. It wasn't because he lost it; he gave it away. One episode sums up his compassion: a friend once asked Pier Giorgio why he always chose third-class on the train when he could clearly afford better. He answered, "Because there's no fourth class."
Yet even with this deep holiness and charity, young people are especially drawn to Pier Giorgio's ordinariness. On the surface, he seems like any other young person. He climbed mountains and played sports. He advocated for political causes. Pictures show him laughing, drinking, and joking with friends. He was a prankster known to "short-sheet" friends' beds. One day a lazy friend awoke to find a donkey in his bed, a sign from Pier Giorgio that he was being a "jackass" by not keeping up with his studies.
There's no other saint quite like Pier Giorgio Frassati. C.S. Lewis could have been thinking of him when noting, "How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been; how gloriously different are the saints."
In his most recent video commentary, Fr. Robert Barron shares his own esteem for this unique and "ordinary" saint:
If you'd like to learn more about Pier Giorgio Frassati, check out my past posts on him (or click on his image at the bottom of my site, between Sheen and Aquinas.) You'll also find my favorite Pier Giorgio books below:
by Luciana Frassati
As Pier Giorgio's sister and best friend, Luciana had a front row seat to his parent's deep misunderstandings of him. Their father was an atheist and their mother a nominal Christian. Both were uncomfortable with Pier Giorgio's piety, extremely worried that he might be go overboard and become a priest. His regular mingling with the poor also troubled them and it often boiled over into verbal abuse.
Besides this tension, Luciana also frames Pier Giorgio's life in light of the eight beatitudes. At Pier Giorgio's beatification ceremony in 1990, Pope John Paul II called him a "man of the beatitudes." It's not hard to see why: Pier Giorgio was meek, a peacemaker, poor in spirit, and he hungered and thirsted for righteousness. The core of Jesus's most famous sermon was the core of Pier Giorgio's life. That's why he's a saint and that's why he remains attractive. Luciana's book shows how Pier Giorgio exhibited each of these virtues.
Of the all books and articles I read throughout my year with Pier Giorgio, A Man of the Beatitudes was definitely my favorite.
by Maria De Lorenzo
In many ways this book is similar to A Man of the Beatitudes, covering many of the same themes. However, it's more detached, 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 woman.
During one of his regular mountain climbs, Pier Giorgio fell head over heels for a one of his fellow hikers, a beautiful girl named Laura. His journals and letters reveal the intensity of that affection. It wasn't long before he decided that he wanted to marry her, and she felt the same way about him.
But Pier Giorgio 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 the Frassati's. He knew the relationship would cause a serious rift within his family and so he decided never to reveal his secret love. He gave up the relationship quietly out of honor for his parents. Right or wrong, the decision highlights Pier Giorgio's utter selflessness.
This book has the fullest treatment of this episode among other titles which makes it a must read for Pier Giorgio fans.
by Robert Claude
This title is more difficult to find than the other two—I found it through inter-library loan—but offers some unique insights. For one, The Soul of Pier Giorgio Frassati centers on Pier Giorgio's piety more than his activism and social life. It's more of a spiritual biography than the other two.
In the book we find 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) and make clear the two poles of his spiritual program: the Holy Eucharist and the Blessed Virgin.
The book also reveals his deep prayer life. Pier Giorgio was known to often lose himself in prayer. On one occasion, the book explains, he became so swept up that he didn't notice hot candle wax dripping onto his head.
Finally, the book presents an interesting look at Pier Giorgio's discernment process. When determining what to do with his life, Pier Giorgio considered becoming a priest. But he then he backed up, and asked a more basic question: what's my calling? He knew he was meant to serve the poor, so he wondered which vocation would allow him to have the most contact with the poor. That ultimately led him to an engineering career and a lay vocation.
Pier Giorgio's process may help young people today who usually attempt to discern their state of life before determining their individual charism. He did it the other way around, and with great success.
Other Recommended Books on Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati:
- Saints at Heart - My good friend Bert Ghezzi has researched and written about hundreds of saints, and he also considers Pier Giorgio his favorite. That says a lot. In this book he 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, accessible biography for kids, perfect for young people.
- My Brother Pier Giorgio: His Last Days - Another book by Luciana, Pier Giorgio's sister, but one focusing solely on the last months of his life.
Are you familiar with Pier Giorgio Frassati?
In today's video commentary, Fr. Robert Barron explains why confusion about the three cardinal virtues often explains why people dislike religion:
"I think one reason why religion is often seen in a negative light today is that people misunderstand dramatically what we mean by faith, hope, and love. The distortion of those three has led to all kinds of problems."
Today marks the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the greatest thinker in Church history. The Dominican prodigy is best known for his two massive "Summas", the Summa Theologica and the Summa Contra Gentiles, along with a wealth of other writings on Scripture, theology, and philosophy. Pope Benedict XVI recently noted St. Thomas' influence on the Church:
"It is not surprising that, after St. Augustine, among the writers mentioned in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, St. Thomas is quoted more than any other—some 61 times! He was also called the Doctor Angelicus, perhaps because of his virtues, in particular the loftiness of his thought and purity of life...
"In short, Thomas Aquinas showed there is a natural harmony between Christian faith and reason. And this was the great work of Thomas, who in that moment of encounter between two cultures—that moment in which it seemed that faith should surrender before reason — showed that they go together, that what seemed to be reason incompatible with faith was not reason, and what seemed to be faith was not faith, in so far as it was opposed to true rationality; thus he created a new synthesis, which shaped the culture of the following centuries."
For a brief introduction to St. Thomas and his work, check out this video by one of his most devoted disciples, Fr. Robert Barron:
If you'd like do go even deeper, here are my favorite four books on St. Thomas:
- Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master by Fr. Robert Barron
- Aquinas: A Beginner's Guide by Dr. Edward Feser
- Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox by G.K. Chesterton
- A Summa of the Summa by Peter Kreeft
Thanks to Kevin Knight at New Advent, who has digitized St. Thomas' entire Summa Theologica, below you'll find an excerpt from the First Part which outlines St. Thomas' famous five proofs for the existence of God.
It should be noted that these aren't proofs for God in the mathematical or scientific sense. Instead these are arguments appealing to the logical evidence for God. Also, St. Thomas uses philosophical terms like cause, necessity, and existence which for him carry very precise technical meanings which are often different than how we use those words today. Thankfully, Kevin has linked many of these terms to their entries in the Catholic Encyclopedia so if you come across one you're unfamiliar with, click on the link to understand it better.
As per his usual style, St. Thomas begins with objections to his position. In this case, the two objections are the existence of evil and Occam's Razor. Next he appeals to an authority who disagrees with the objections (often the Bible, Aristotle, or St. Augustine), then he explores a possible answer, and then finally he refutes the original objections. The selection below will not only answer the question, "can we know God exists?", but will also give you a taste of St. Thomas' characteristic style.
Article 3. Whether God exists?
Objection 1. It seems that God does not exist; because if one of two contraries be infinite, the other would be altogether destroyed. But the word "God" means that He is infinite goodness. If, therefore, God existed, there would be no evil discoverable; but there is evil in the world. Therefore God does not exist.
Objection 2. Further, it is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many. But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. For all natural things can be reduced to one principle which is nature; and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle which is human reason, or will. Therefore there is no need to suppose God's existence.
The first and more manifest way is the argument from motion. It is certain, and evident to our senses, that in the world some things are in motion. Now whatever is in motion is put in motion by another, for nothing can be in motion except it is in potentiality to that towards which it is in motion; whereas a thing moves inasmuch as it is in act. For motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality. But nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality. Thus that which is actually hot, as fire, makes wood, which is potentially hot, to be actually hot, and thereby moves and changes it. Now it is not possible that the same thing should be at once in actuality and potentiality in the same respect, but only in different respects. For what is actually hot cannot simultaneously be potentially hot; but it is simultaneously potentially cold. It is therefore impossible that in the same respect and in the same way a thing should be both mover and moved, i.e. that it should move itself. Therefore, whatever is in motion must be put in motion by another. If that by which it is put in motion be itself put in motion, then this also must needs be put in motion by another, and that by another again. But this cannot go on to infinity, because then there would be no first mover, and, consequently, no other mover; seeing that subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are put in motion by the first mover; as the staff moves only because it is put in motion by the hand. Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.
The second way is from the nature of the efficient cause. In the world of sense we find there is an order of efficient causes. There is no case known (neither is it, indeed, possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible. Now in efficient causes it is not possible to go on to infinity, because in all efficient causes following in order, the first is the cause of the intermediate cause, and the intermediate is the cause of the ultimate cause, whether the intermediate cause be several, or only one. Now to take away the cause is to take away the effect. Therefore, if there be no first cause among efficient causes, there will be no ultimate, nor any intermediate cause. But if in efficient causes it is possible to go on to infinity, there will be no first efficient cause, neither will there be an ultimate effect, nor any intermediate efficient causes; all of which is plainly false. Therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God.
The third way is taken from possibility and necessity, and runs thus. We find in nature things that are possible to be and not to be, since they are found to be generated, and to corrupt, and consequently, they are possible to be and not to be. But it is impossible for these always to exist, for that which is possible not to be at some time is not. Therefore, if everything is possible not to be, then at one time there could have been nothing in existence. Now if this were true, even now there would be nothing in existence, because that which does not exist only begins to exist by something already existing. Therefore, if at one time nothing was in existence, it would have been impossible for anything to have begun to exist; and thus even now nothing would be in existence — which is absurd. Therefore, not all beings are merely possible, but there must exist something the existence of which is necessary. But every necessary thing either has its necessity caused by another, or not. Now it is impossible to go on to infinity in necessary things which have their necessity caused by another, as has been already proved in regard to efficient causes. Therefore we cannot but postulate the existence of some being having of itself its own necessity, and not receiving it from another, but rather causing in others their necessity. This all men speak of asGod.
The fourth way is taken from the gradation to be found in things. Among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble and the like. But "more" and "less" are predicated of different things, according as they resemble in their different ways something which is the maximum, as a thing is said to be hotter according as it more nearly resembles that which is hottest; so that there is something which is truest, something best, something noblest and, consequently, something which is uttermost being; for those things that are greatest in truth are greatest in being, as it is written in Metaph. ii. Now the maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus; as fire, which is the maximum heat, is the cause of all hot things. Therefore there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection; and this we call God.
The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.
Reply to Objection 1. As Augustine says (Enchiridion xi): "Since God is the highest good, He would not allow any evil to exist in His works, unless His omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil." This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good.
Reply to Objection 2. Since nature works for a determinate end under the direction of a higher agent, whatever is done by nature must needs be traced back to God, as to its first cause. So also whatever is done voluntarily must also be traced back to some higher cause other than human reason or will, since these can change or fail; for all things that are changeable and capable of defect must be traced back to an immovable and self-necessary first principle, as was shown in the body of the Article.
What do think of St. Thomas' arguments?
Today I'm posting on Martin Luther King, Jr. over at Ignitum Today:
Today we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr., a personal hero after whom I named my son, and perhaps the twentieth century's greatest prophet. Like Jesus, King consistently chose non-violence in the face of hatred and brutal persecution. In harmony with Catholic social teaching, he celebrated the dignity of all people—friends and enemies alike. And like prophets past, he harnessed rhetoric and solidarity to sway a nation.
The explosive message of this modern-day Isaiah still matters today. If you've never studied King's words—and by that I mean more than just sound bites—take a few minutes today and taste his passion and power.
In the post, I include two must-watch videos for today. One is King's iconic "I Have a Dream Speech" and the other is commentary from Fr. Robert Barron on why King still matters today:
What's your favorite Martin Luther King quote or speech?