Fireworks, Freedom, and Frassati
A month after his 21st birthday -- a time when most young people are trying to find themselves -- Pier Giorgio Frassati became a member of the Dominican family. Kneeling down in the gothic church of San Domenico, with the soft glow of candlelight reflecting off the vaulted ceilings, and the sweet aroma of incense filling the air, he received the white scapular of the Third Order of St. Dominic. Taking the name Gerolamo, after the Dominican friar whom he so admired for his religious zeal and fervor, Pier Giorgio had no doubts about his purpose in life. He was to be a man of the beatitudes: merciful, pure of heart, a peacemaker.
Like many Catholics in the modern age, Pier Giorgio was no stranger to political unrest. He understood, perfectly well, the struggle for peace and religious freedom. As a young man he participated in a number of religious processions that often led to his being “detained” by the police. They were afraid that he might be trying to stir up trouble as a member of the Popular-Socialist Party, who along with the Fascists, were vying for control of the Italian government in the early 1900s.
In spite of his distaste for the Fascist Party, the affairs of state were not Pier Giorgio’s chief concern. He simply believed that violence was never the answer and that “true peace is more a fruit of Christian neighborly love than of justice” (A Man of the Beatitudes, 99). So he used his brief periods in jail, not to promote some political agenda, but to encourage his fellow prisoners – to pray the rosary with them, to counsel them, and to ease their pain. For Pier Giorgio, this is what it meant to be a Christian, to be blessed. As a man with a hunger and thirst for righteousness, he had discovered that freedom is not merely something political. True liberty is spiritual – freedom from the power of Satan and slavery to sin.
We find an example of this type of freedom in the Gospel of Matthew (8:28-34), when Jesus heals two men who have been possessed by evil spirits; men who had been held captive in Satan’s grasp for many years. By sending these demons into a herd of pigs, Jesus reveals that his miraculous work is not limited to feeding the hungry crowds. He also has the power to free us from the bonds of sin. Like the demoniacs who are freed from their spiritual imprisonment, we too can experience the power that frees us from spiritual death and raises us to new life in Christ. It is made available to us in the Sacraments, especially in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, when we are absolved of our sins, when grace is poured upon us, and we are given the strength to resist future temptation.
These least two weeks, during the Fortnight for Freedom, have been a wonderful time to reflect on our belief as Americans that everyone has a right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” While I will gladly admit that religious liberty and freedom of conscience are essential aspects of our way of life, we must not forget that spiritual freedom – freedom from the power of sin – is just as important. For Christ’s reign extends over all creation and the proclamation of his kingdom includes a declaration of liberty to captives – those under the thumb of human oppressors, as well as those who find themselves oppressed by spiritual forces.
Pier Giorgio knew this well. He believed that “faith enables us to bear the thorns with which our life is woven,” whether they be political or spiritual. This is why he went to Mass daily and once told a group of young people, “Feed on this Bread of Angels and from it you will gain the strength to fight your inner battle, the battle against passion and all adversities, because Jesus Christ has promised to those who feed on the Holy Eucharist eternal life and the graces necessary to obtain it…you will enjoy the peace that those who are happy in accordance with this world have never experienced, because true happiness does not consist in the pleasures of the world or in earthly things, but in peace of conscience, which we only have if we are pure in heart and mind” (A Man of the Beatitudes, 97-8).
Pure in heart; these words were often used to describe Pier Giorgio, by those who knew him best. When he died of polio on the 4th of July, 1925, it seemed as if the entire city of Turin turned up to pay their respects: Ester, the housekeeper whom he had brought to the faith; Signora Converso, the poor woman to whom he had sent medication while on his own deathbed. These and many others poured into the house, lined the streets during the procession, and crowded into the Church during the funeral. In Pier Giorgio they had been witness to a life touched by grace, a man of blessedness, who had experienced spiritual freedom in Christ and wanted to share it with the world.
Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1990, and is a patron of World Youth Day.