Charity and Faith: Pier Giorgio Frassati's Option for the Poor
When Catholic social teaching encourages an "option for the poor and vulnerable", the word "option" does not mean "choice", as though Catholics can choose whether to serve the poor. Instead, it suggests "preference." Followers of Jesus Christ should always prefer the needs, concerns, and desires of poor and vulnerable people above their own. This means the first question we must ask of any action, purchase, or political decision is how it impacts those on the margins of society.
Pier Giorgio knew this well. He regularly made sacrifices to serve others. One morning when he was a young boy, a frail woman knocked on his door with a barefoot child in her arms. Pier Giorgio quickly removed his shoes and socks, gave them to her, and shut the door before anyone could object.
In 1918 at age 17, Pier Giorgio joined the St. Vincent de Paul Society. The Society centered itself on personal compassion more than faceless donations. When someone joined, he was assigned specific poor families to visit and care for. Pier Giorgio reveled in these visits. They were his chance to not only offer material support but also spiritual encouragement. His visits to jobless war veterans, destitute laborers, and homeless children lifted many spirits and became his daily passion. "I see a special light surrounding the poor and unfortunate," he observed to a friend, "a light that we do not have."
As time went on, this service to the poor confounded his parents and friends. They couldn't fathom why a well-off boy would sacrifice comfort for others. A friend once asked Pier Giorgio why he traveled on trains in third-class when he could easily afford better. He replied: "I travel third because there isn't a fourth."
When Pier Giorgio showed up late for dinner—a regular occurrence—his parents would become irate. But they didn't know he would run all the way home after giving away his train money. One night, when the temperature was twelve degrees below zero, Pier Giorgio arrived at home wearing a smile but no overcoat. His angry father demanded to know where his coat was. "I gave it away," Pier Giorgio explained, "You see, Dad, it was cold."
When his sister, Luciana, got married, she shared with him 1,000 liras from her wedding gifts. Pier Giorgio gave 500 liras the St. Vincent de Paul Society and the other 500 to his club, Cesare Balbo, which was part of the FUCI, the Italian Catholic Student Federation. Later, his father gave him 5,000 liras instead of a car, and Pier Giorgio donated all of it to the new St. Vincent de Paul group in his parish.
By the time he was twenty-one, he was personally helping several families. He made sure local children received the sacraments and sponsored many of them. Pier Giorgio helped one lady stay extra time in the maternity ward of a hospital. Later, he acted as godfather to her daughter, bought a dress for her baptism, and waited outside prison when the lady's husband was released, helping him find work in a prison factory where they accepted people who had a prison record. We'll probably never know the full scope of Pier Giorgio's charity, most of which he accomplished without fanfare.
Pier Giorgio didn't focus only on individual charity. In line with Catholic social teaching, he also advocated for institutional justice. He liked to say, "Charity is not enough: we need social reform." The young, zealous activist joined several movements and organizations including Catholic Action and the Catholic Student Federation. He was an active member in the Italian Popular Party, protested against Mussolini's Fascist regime, and also helped found a Catholic daily newspaper called Il Momento, which was devoted to spreading the social principles of Pope Leo XIII's encyclical, Rerum Novarum. His social involvement went well beyond Italy's borders as he participated in the first international meeting of Pax Romana and consulted with Catholic activists in Germany and Austria.
CHARITY FUELED BY FAITH
A friend once asked Pier Giorgio how he could stand visiting the homes of poor people: They're disgusting, filthy, and smelly. How can you tolerate that?
Pier Giorgio responded: "Jesus comes to me every morning in Communion, and I return the visit by going to serve the poor."
With that answer Pier Giorgio revealed the key to his remarkable option for the poor. His service flowed from an inner closeness to Christ. And that intimacy developed over the years through two spiritual poles: the Eucharist and prayer.
Pier Giorgio began attending daily Mass as a young boy, a practice he continued throughout the rest of his life. While visiting Pollone, at the family's country estate, he often headed out early in the morning and returned before anyone else awoke. And when he was planning to hike to the nearby Sanctuary of Oropa, a shrine dedicated to Mary, he asked the gardener to wake him by pulling on a long rope tied to a table in his room. The rope was then draped out his window, and when the gardener tugged the rope, the table rattled, and Pier Giorgio hopped out of bed. One morning, however, the gardener pulled and pulled, and Pier Giorgio didn't wake, so he yanked extremely hard and toppled over the table. Pier Giorgio's mother rushed in and when he assured her that "it's nothing," she advised him to turn on the light next time so he wouldn't trip over things.
Pier Giorgio was a skilled outdoorsman who loved to hike, but no matter how inconvenient, he made sure that his mountain excursions enabled him to attend Mass. If he wouldn't be able to attend Mass, he wouldn't go.
The other pole of Pier Giorgio's spirituality was prayer. A priest once asked him, "Is it true, Pier Giorgio, that when you are in your room you pray for a long time?" He didn't respond, so the priest continued, "Your mother told me so. You are upsetting her, and she gets up in the night.." "But I have so many prayers to say," Pier Giorgio interrupted, to which the priest replied, "And who has ordered you to?" He answered: "No one. I just have to."
Pier Giorgio always carried his rosary with him and he prayed it regularly. On his bedroom door he tacked St. Bernard's prayer to the Virgin from Dante's Paradiso: "Lady, you are so great and accessible, that anyone who wants grace and fails to ask your intercession, his desire tries to fly without wings."
Pier Giorgio often spent hours meditating in prayer. Friends remember that he sometimes became so transfixed when praying in the front of the Blessed Sacrament that he became oblivious to his surroundings. In one instance, some nearby candles melted causing hot wax to drip on his head, though Pier Giorgio didn't seem to notice at all. A friend had to shake him out of his prayerful bliss to prevent injury.