Along with being Independence Day, today is also the Feast of Bl PierGiorgio Frassati.   Independence Day makes this cynical, conservative-minded woman want to post about the state of the country we live in and question what the Founding Fathers would think if they had time machines and could come visit us.   But no one wants a downer on this holiday, and I want to spend the day reflecting on what an HONOR and PRIVILEGE it is to live here.

But since it’s the Feast of Bl PierGiorgio, I also want to reflect on his life, because he can get overshadowed in this country by Independence Day.  If you want a good 4th of July post, head over to my brother’s blog here.

We all need heroes.  It’s a natural inclination in us to look for someone to admire, to show us that the goals to which we aspire are possible. Bl. PierGiorgio Frassati is such a hero for our culture today. He, in the words of John Paul II, “testifies that holiness is possible for everyone.”

If you look at a picture of PierGiorgio, you’ll see a handsome young man smiling back at you. Perhaps he does not fit the mold you’ve created in your head for what it means to be a “saint.”  There are pictures of him skiing and laughing with friends.  One picture depicts him holding a wine bottle in one hand, a newspaper hat perched on his head.  He formed a group of young adults who called themselves “the Shady Characters,” who enjoyed hiking and mountain-climbing.  He gambled with his friends and played practical jokes.  What could this young man teach us about holiness?

PierGiorgio was born into Italian society in the early twentieth century with everything he needed to be successful in the world: he was handsome, charming, and the only son of an affluent family.  His father was founder of a prominent Italian newspaper and rose in Italian politics as senator and ambassador to Germany.  He expected PierGiorgio to follow in his footsteps, marry well, and rise in the world.

PierGiorgio had different aspirations in mind.  Growing up, he struggled in school but threw his energies into his studies, seeing them as his primary vocation.  Much to his father’s disappointment, he chose to study mining engineering—not for fortune or success, but so that he could “serve Christ better among the miners.”  He fell in love with a young woman, Laura Hidalgo, but after his parents showed their disapproval, chose not to pursue the relationship.  Heartbroken, he wrote to a friend of his sacrifice, say he was giving up Laura for “what God wills.”

To this day, his family doesn’t understand him.  Except for his sister Luciana, who spent her life telling her brother’s story, and his niece Wanda, most of his family today is not even practicing the Faith.  Yet despite the pain of being misunderstood by his parents and family, he lived life joyfully. He understood that when Christ told us He came to give us life—and give it in abundance—He meant for us to live life to its fullest.  PierGiorgio found pleasure in art, music, and God’s creation because he recognized God’s love in them.

Perhaps he was thinking of his agnostic father when he told a friend, “To live without faith, without a patrimony to defend, without a steady struggle for truth—that is not living, but existing.”  How opposite PierGiorgio’s own life was from this!  He also told a friend, “A Catholic cannot help but be happy; sadness should be banished from their souls.”

PierGiorgio did not say these words in a life devoid of suffering.  His whole life was one of sacrifice, lived in service to the poor—but that did not stop him from living a life of joy.  He clarified, “Suffering is not sadness—which is the worst disease. This disease is almost always caused by atheism, but the end for which we are created guides us along life’s pathway, which may be strewn with thorns—but is not sad. It is happy even through suffering.”

He took care of the poor, both financially and physically.  He gave up his first-class train tickets, his daily bus tickets, and even the shoes on his feet to give to others.  Working with the St. Vincent de Paul Society, he visited the slums of Turin to bring food and medication to the sick and destitute.

At the age of 24, he contracted polio from the poor and sick he served.  His grandmother was dying at the same time, and PierGiorgio chose to suffer in silence to allow his family to care for her instead.  His mother did not even notice his pain and the paralysis slowly setting in, and she yelled at him for not helping the family.  The day after his grandmother’s funeral, PierGiorgio went to his eternal reward.

His parents, still ignorant of their son’s popularity and work among the poor, expected a quiet family funeral.  To their shock, thousands of people flooded the streets of Turin to say goodbye to their friend and protector.

On the back of a picture taken of his last mountain climb before his death, PierGiorgio scribbled the phrase, Verso l’alto, or, “toward the top.”  May he be an example to us to live life to the fullest, in lives of service for Christ as we journey to Heaven.  May we not settle for mediocrity in our lives or in our society, but use the gifts God has given us to spread a culture of faith and life.

verso l'alto