A Mysterious Sanctity

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It's not easy to figure out what made Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati so remarkable. It is easy to understand why people loved to spend time with him in his life: by all accounts, he was the life of the party, gregarious, outgoing, enthusiastic, athletic, and handsome, but also humble, generous, prayerful, and devoted to works of charity. But what led John Paul II to call him a “man of the beatitudes,” and to declare him the patron saint of World Youth Day? What made him a saint?

One way to tell the story of his sanctity is to emphasize his heroic and unflagging commitment to charitable works. He spent much of his free time and all of his money serving the poor, the neglected, and the sick; he may even have caught the polio that killed him at the age of twenty-four from the sick he was tending to. On this reading, Pier Giorgio was a saint because he was a moral hero, a doer of great works, and we should seek to imitate his sanctity by working as hard as he did.

Another way to tell the story is to emphasize his vivacity. He loved to party, to hike and climb, and to enjoy the company of his friends; a quick Internet search will reveal any number of delightful photographs of him grinning as he pulls a barrel of beer, or posing with a pipe on a mountaintop. On this reading, Pier Giorgio was a saint because he was a cool guy, bursting with life, and we should seek to imitate his sanctity by becoming cool guys ourselves, laboring to be as relaxed and energetic as he was.

Another way to speak of Pier Giorgio is to speak about his human and psychological integrity. He was radically uninhibited, perfectly happy to do whatever came to his mind, able to act without endless introspection and second-guessing; in his letters, for instance, he once mentions how desperately he needs to spend the weekend studying in order to pass an important exam, but in a letter a few days later we discover he spent the whole weekend hiking instead, and just muddled through the exam somehow. On this reading, Pier Giorgio was a saint because he had a perfectly balanced psychology and temperament, always certain about what to do next, and we should seek to imitate his sanctity by shedding ourselves of inhibition and working to acquire his carefree, easy manner of life.

But none of these stories are accurate descriptions of Pier Giorgio’s sanctity. He is not a saint because he was a moral hero; he is not a saint because he was a cool guy; and he is not a saint because of his ideal psychology. Nor is he a saint because of all these factors combined. So what is it, then?

Bl. Pier Giorgio is a saint because his Christianity was totally unlimited. His whole life was enlivened by grace, transformed by love. He is a model because he was totally free; free with the freedom of grace for which Christ set us free (Gal 5:1). The individual actions he did, ministering to the sick, smoking pipes on mountains, and all the rest—and the carefree joy with which he did them—are outgrowths of his sanctity, not the cause of it. Love for God subsumed his whole person, and every ordinary and extraordinary thing he did flowed from that love, freely, easily, and joyously.

We often broker a kind of deal with God that we’ll love him and follow him up to a point, as long as God appreciates the hard work we do for him. The example of Bl. Pier Giorgio invites us to a still more excellent way: a love without limits, without qualifications, without insisting on my rights. In this month of July, as we celebrate the freedom of our country, let us ask God to show us the limits we place on him, the chains with which we bind ourselves, and to give us the desire to be free.

Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, pray that we may be free in Christ!

Brother Gabriel Torretta, OP

About Brother Gabriel Torretta, OP

Br. Gabriel is a member of the Order of Preachers, currently studying for the priesthood in Washington, DC. He contributes regularly to the blog and journal of the Dominican student brothers of the Eastern Province.