Long live liberty.
Long live Christian democracy.
Death to the tyrants.
On the Fourth of July, Americans may find a swelling of their heart, full of an American spirit that reflects the sentiment in these words. At first glance, one may even think to attribute these bold words to one of the Founding Fathers of America. It may come as a surprise to many that it wasn’t a Founding Father, or even an American for that matter, who uttered these words, but a young Italian man whose feast day Catholics celebrate on the fourth as well. Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati penned these words to a dear friend after having his family home broken into by five fascists one day in 1924 while his father was out of town. Although Pier Giorgio can be painted as a gentle soul, he also had a passionate heart that was unafraid to fight—so much so that he physically fought the five fascists off and garnered notoriety from countries all over Europe. Even though this story, and Pier Giorgio’s life, are nearly one hundred years in the past, there is much we Americans can draw from this great Italian man on the Fourth of July about the American spirit we are called to embrace.
On July 4, 1776, a nation was conceived and with it a new spirit and approach to the world. And so, the American experiment began with a new vision for what a nation not only could be but should be. Founded upon the premise that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, America set itself apart with a new blueprint for a free nation. This foundational blueprint was the spark that lit the flame that burns in the hearts of millions of Americans.
This burning flame, also known as the American spirit, can mean different things to different people. However, historian David McCullough aimed to set a definition that could inspire and unite all Americans. His approach to what the American spirit is would follow the line of history that America has found itself in. Through the Revolutionary, Civil, and World Wars, through the fight against slavery and racism, through the fight to rid the world of terrorism, at the heart of every American is unrelenting optimism. McCullough saw this optimism as the root of the American spirit and the path for a better and more united country in the face of all the modern division we face. The optimistic spirit of Americans is what carried the American experiment on from a small imagined ideal to a revolutionary approach to a nation. Optimism does not inspire passivity, but action. A hope for a better tomorrow starts with a dream or a goal and ends with actions taken to get there. It cannot be achieved by sitting back and just hoping for a better tomorrow.
Blessed Pier Giorgio, although Italian, held this same approach to his life in all that he did. The man of the eight Beatitudes is most renowned for his love and service to the poor; however, he was also a great patriot and hoped for a better tomorrow not only for him but for his country and the entire world. Pier Giorgio was raised in an upper-class family that found itself heavily involved in politics. His father, Alfredo, not only ran a newspaper that dove into politics but was also a senator and then an ambassador for Italy while Pier Giorgio was growing up. From a young age, Pier Giorgio was surrounded by politics, both in conversation and his lived reality. At that time in his life, the First World War began, and fascist ideology began to poison the minds of millions. Somehow, Pier Giorgio maintained a state of optimism and peace throughout this time of political turmoil. His faith was not rooted in his politics, but his politics in his faith. This ultimate foundation is what gave him hope, because all that he did was rooted in the infinite and, therefore, ultimately in control.
As shown earlier, however, this optimism and hope do not mean that Pier Giorgio embraced a state of passivity. On the contrary, he embraced a life of action and involvement. The story of his fight with the fascists is not a unique one for him. He was caught up in multiple physical and verbal altercations and was even arrested a handful of times because of his courageous spirit. His faith had revealed to him the ultimate Truth, and he devoted his life to fighting for that Truth by allowing his faith to infiltrate and inform all aspects of his life. This truly is a hallmark of Pier Giorgio—allowing his faith to inform his life and living radically by that. It is this radicality that led him to fight the fascists, join a newly formed Catholic political party, march in protests, and even serve the poor. He did not see his life as something he could partially give to the Lord, but as something that must be fully given just as Christ had done before. He held nothing back because he had deep trust and optimism that the Lord would, as he always has, provide a better tomorrow for his people. It is this hope in the Lord that allowed Pier Giorgio to know that no matter how dark it gets, there is always hope for a better tomorrow.
Nothing quite paints the picture of Pier Giorgio’s optimism better than the story of his untimely death from poliomyelitis on July 4, 1924. It is likely that he contracted the disease from an impoverished family that he served in Turin. It was his faith that inspired him to fight for the poor and the sick and to serve them even at a cost. He not only financially assisted the poor but often delivered medicine and food directly to families. He hoped for a better tomorrow for them and embraced the Lord’s call for us to care for the needy as radically as we can. Knowing there was a chance he could be infected by any family, he continued to serve them because it was a worthy pursuit to provide them care and hope. His sister recalls that, as symptoms came upon him and his body began to decay, he continued to hope in what would be tomorrow. He didn’t call to attention his suffering or ailments but continued to try and serve those around him until he finally was unable to move from his bed. He even would go as far as to deny that anything was wrong as those around him noticed his decline. As his family and doctors fought for a diagnosis and eventually treatment, Pier Giorgio remained at peace. As death stared him in the eyes, he stared right back without flinching. He had recently lost his grandmother, and now encountering his own passion, he was asked by a local priest, “What if your grandmother were to call you to heaven?” He replied, “How happy I would be.” One is incapable of uttering such words and facing death so bravely if they do not have a firm understanding of what they are hoping for. Pier Giorgio fully hoped in the Lord and knew of a better tomorrow to come, even if tomorrow brought death, because the Lord would be with him.
As Americans, we remember the trial and error of our country throughout the last 274 years, the men and women that have devoted and even given their lives all in the hope of a better tomorrow for them, their families, and this country. In many ways, the American experiment is a great success. Yet the experiment is far from over. As all of those that went before us fought to provide us with a better life and country than they had, it is now our turn to return the favor. True patriotism is rooted in this hope for tomorrow, and there is no better provider for tomorrow than the Lord. Ultimately, our aim as Christians is God himself. As Pier Giorgio allowed this aim to inform his life, we must allow it to inform all aspects of our lives. It is by a full gift of self—not just a partitioned version—that we learn what the true American spirit is and how we can orient ourselves properly in this great country. As we aim for what is good and true, let us pray that our country may in turn become more good and true each and every day.
Verso l’alto con America!
Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, patriotic citizen of the nation, pray for us.