As a Catholic in the Western world, I like my faith as I do my summer blockbusters: fast, loud, and explosive. My first true encounter with a Saint of the Church—in an undergraduate religion class— felt something like being at the movies (just without the eight dollar bucket of popcorn). St. Francis of Assisi—a person about whom I had once known nothing—captured my secular imagination like Mel Gibson’s William Wallace or Russel Crowe’s Maximus. Here was a man who gave up everything to serve not nobility, but God; here was a knight for Heaven’s cause, stripping himself of worldly splendor and past transgressions to kneel at the foot of the cross! Hollywood wishes it could write that script. I certainly did not understand at the time that I, in the recesses of my soul, desired to live like Francis. Nor would I have predicted that I, only a few years later, would be attempting to do just that.
But existence, like any good movie, consists of more than action sequences and high-drama. If I’ve learned one funny thing about religious life it’s that it can sometimes look uncannily like “regular life.” Yes, as a friar I strive every day for conversion—to pray, to deny myself, and to live a supernatural life according to the Gospel message—but there still comes a time at the end of the day when I have to take out the trash. With every visit to the Blessed Sacrament, there’s a Costco trip to be made or a toilet to be scrubbed. I assume that such mundane tasks did not spare even Padre Pio. For a Franciscan, life is not all “kissing lepers and talking to wolves.” This reality begs a necessary question. As Christians, what do we do when we’re not converting sinners, making disciples of all nations, or doing all those things that we read about in Butler’s Lives of the Saints? Is it reasonable that we be expected to bear witness to the Risen Christ when we work forty hour weeks and then deal with seemingly endless troubles in our off-time? How can we become holy when our own lives often seem so…normal?
Fortunately, our God never fails to inspire us. While all saints were certainly normal people like you and I, some feel just a little bit more “human” than others. Enter Pier Giorgio Frassati, the devout young Italian who turned our traditional view of sanctity on its head.
I was first introduced to Blessed Pier Giorgio when I was a novice friar. As I scanned a display shelf in a Catholic bookstore, one of my classmates held a relatively thin paperback up to my face. “You’ve got to read about this guy!” he said. “You’ll love him.” I looked at the book’s cover: teal with a black and white image of a man snow-shoeing across an unforgiving landscape. Below the books title, the subtext read “Daredevil Athlete, Roguish Prankster, Unrelenting Activist, Unexpected Mystic.”
I grabbed the book from my brother. “Woah, how have I not heard of him before?” I asked rhetorically. Without even reading a page, I knew I was about to enter into the world of a real wild-man: a Catholic Jeremiah Johnson, if you will. The book’s pages, however, painted the picture of a much different character—one who, in many ways, was much more heroic than his photograph suggested, yet at the same time, as familiar as a lifelong friend.
Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati was the son of a wealthy, agnostic politician who ran a prominent liberal newspaper. Despite his father’s wishes that he, too, work in the publishing business, Pier Giorgio entered university studies with the intent of working with and evangelizing low-income miners. Throughout his short life, he fought for social justice as a member of Catholic Party, organized outdoor excursions with friends, and was committed to his vows as a Third Order Dominican. But above all else, Pier Giorgio was authentically, radically Catholic. His faith was the driving force behind his every action, whether feeding the hungry after school, being obedient to his parents, or climbing a mountain. His faith was the reason that, when he came to die, the poor no less than the great came to pay their respects by the thousands.
In a world rife with relativism, atheism, and profound negativity, many often wonder why anyone would decide to follow Christ. After all, why allow superstition to limit pleasure and happiness? Why follow the “rules” of religion? Perhaps there is no better time than the Lenten season to follow in the footsteps of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati and bring the joy of Christ into the normalcy of life. How can we do this? All it takes is faith—a mindfulness of the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ. Pier Giorgio once said, “You ask me whether I am in good spirits. How could I not be so? As long as Faith gives me strength I will always be joyful!”
On one occasion, I found a prayer card of Blessed Pier Giorgio sitting atop a counter in our friary basement. When no one claimed it, I happily snatched it and placed it proudly upon my bedroom desk. I looked at the image—an extremely jovial Pier Giorgio among a group of friends—and thought about the faith that inspired that joy. What incredible faith, to live a normal life elated by the simple hope of God’s love! I mailed the card to a friend, hoping that the simple example of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati would inspire him as it did me. Briefly, I worried that since there were a few men depicted on the holy card, my friend might not know which one was Pier Giorgio. Then I looked again at the image, at that face radiant with supernatural life, and understood that he would be impossible to miss. Shouldn’t we, too, be impossible to miss?
Lent offers us an opportunity to renew this faith through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. In the weeks leading up to the Resurrection of our Lord, let us look to the example of Blessed Pier Giorgio and all the Saints. Let our prayer be for the constant presence of the Holy Spirit within us. Let our fasting be from negativity, from idleness, and from all that keeps us from loving as a Christian is called to love. And let our almsgiving be the profound mercy of God offered to all who need it, from our family members to strangers on the street. Let us show the world that we are truly joyful! And our joy is unusual, as it comes not from the pleasures of the world, but from the supernatural power of Christ. The power that transforms you will be the same power that transforms all whom you meet.
Remember, not every life is meant to be a summer blockbuster; but it should be a great film nonetheless. A blessed Lent to you all!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brother Zachary Burns, T.O.R., is a simply professed friar with the Franciscan Friars of the Third Order Regular of the Province of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. He blogs at This Too Shall Pass.