(Lenten Reflection) Unusual Joy


Pier Giorgio climbing (1)

Blessed Pier Giorgio mountain climbing

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.

Pier Giorgio pulling a kegI 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!”

Pier Giorgio laughing

Blessed Pier Giorgio Prayer Card

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!


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.

Chiara Petrillo: The Story of a Beautiful Soul

Dear Friends, peace and abundant blessings!! It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything. Seminary has kept me busy with five classes, papers, midterms, and my first attempts at studying Latin. Going forward with faith. Please always keep me and my fellow seminarians in prayer.

I recently came across a new book published by Sophia Institute Press, Chiara CorbellaChiara Pertillo: Witness to Joy. I was very excited and moved to see Chiara’s image on the cover and to see that her story has been made into a book. It was a few years ago, before entering religious life, that I took a pilgrimage to Medjugorje in hopes of discerning my future. On that pilgrimage, during the Youth Festival, a film was shown of Chiara’s story. My mother was with me, tearing up, as many were: witnessing the account of this beautiful, 28-year-old woman in love with God, who received cancer while pregnant with her child. Doctors proposed cancer treatment that would risk the life of the baby. Chiara had no interest in that, refusing the treatment as an act of sacrificial love for her child.

She gave birth to a healthy boy, Francesco, his parents naming him after St. Francis of Assisi. Shortly thereafter, Chiara died at the age of 28 from the cancer that pervaded her body, leaving her husband and son. She dealt with the disease, and the conflict that her life was experiencing, with great surrender to God, facing death with a heroic and serene optimism that only a deep relationship with the Almighty can foster. Here is a short but powerful excerpt from the book’s Web site (from Sophia Institute Press):

“Chiara Petrillo was seated in a wheel chair looking lovingly toward Jesus in the tabernacle. Her husband, Enrico, found the courage to ask her a question that he had been holding back. Thinking of Jesus’s phrase, “my yoke is sweet and my burden is light,” he asked: “Is this yoke, this cross, really sweet, as Jesus said?”

A smile came across Chiara’s face. She turned to her husband and said in a weak voice: “Yes, Enrico, it is very sweet.”

At 28 years old, Chiara passed away, her body ravaged by cancer. The emotional, physical, and spiritual trials of this young Italian mother are not uncommon. It was her joyful and loving response to each that led one cardinal to call her ‘a saint for our times’.”

“Go Forward…God will Prepare the Way”

Dear Friends, may the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you!

This Friday, on the feast day of Saint Joan of Arc, one of my favorite saints, I will be receiving the Franciscan habit and, following the footsteps of Saint Francis of Assisi, will become a religious as a novice with the Franciscan Friars of the Third Order Regular. Novitiate is meant to be a beautifully ascetical and contemplative year, in greater solitude, wherein one’s interior life with God, growing in the spiritual life, is the focus, and wherein great inner-transformation and growth are the goal; spending one year away from many forms of technology and in deeper prayer, contemplation, and the study of Franciscan spirituality.


I will not be blogging for the year, but do encourage you to return to the Web site for the various features and articles that are available. Most importantly, I ask for your prayers this year as I pursue the vocation of a Franciscan friar and priest. It is a great honor to pursue this call, and one of great responsibility before the Lord; may I be able to faithfully follow where He leads me. I am so grateful to Him, and to our beloved Mother, Mary, who have led me to the gift of religious life. May God bless you, friends, and Our Lady protect you!

 “Fear nothing. Go forward, and God will prepare the way.”

– Saint Joan of Arc

Our Lady’s Message, October 2, 2013

Dear Friends, Happy Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi! It’s my first time celebrating this solemn day as a religious postulant in a Franciscan community, making the occasion so much more special for me this year. Below is Our Lady’s latest message from Medjugorje, delivered to Mirjana on October 2, 2013. Please read, contemplate it, and allow the Holy Spirit to move you with Our Lady’s sacred words.

OurLady2“Dear children, I love you with a motherly love and with a motherly patience I wait for your love and unity. I pray that you may be a community of God’s children, of my children. I pray that as a community you may joyfully come back to life in the faith and in the love of my Son. My children, I am gathering you as my apostles and am teaching you how to bring others to come to know the love of my Son; how to bring to them the Good News, which is my Son. Give me your open, purified hearts and I will fill them with the love for my Son. His love will give meaning to your life and I will walk with you. I will be with you until the meeting with the Heavenly Father. My children, it is those who walk towards the Heavenly Father with love and faith who will be saved. Do not be afraid. I am with you. Put your trust in your shepherds as my Son trusted when He chose them, and pray that they may have the strength and the love to lead you. Thank you.”