OME dioceses have already made a return to the public celebration of the Sacraments, while, for others, this return remains on the horizon but is growing mercifully nearer. Last week, I shared a fantastic poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins (“Easter Communion”) that seems pertinent in these days. This week, I would like to share a few equally pertinent stories from the life of one of my heroes, Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati.
If you know nothing about Bl. Pier Giorgio, I encourage you to read this short biography.
The bare-bones details of his life are these: Pier Giorgio was an active young man with a large group of friends who loved to read Dante and pull pranks and climb mountains; who also had a deep affection for the Eucharist and the Blessed Mother and the Holy Father; and who tirelessly served the poor, which ultimately led to his contracting polio and dying at the age of 24. His body is said to be perfectly incorrupt.
What follows is a glimpse into his intense Eucharistic devotion, which I am convinced gained strength from a period during which he was not permitted to receive Holy Communion.
Pier Giorgio’s Separation from the Eucharist
S A YOUNG schoolboy in 1913, Pier Giorgio failed Latin, forcing him to leave his public school and attend the Jesuit-run Istituto Sociale for two years. There he came under the tutelage of Father Lombardi, who served the spiritual needs of the students. Father Lombardi extended an invitation to Pier Giorgio to receive daily Communion.
Since 1905, Pope Pius X had been encouraging the faithful toward more frequent reception of Holy Communion (see, for example, his 1905 decree Sacra tridentina). In 1910, he promulgated the decree, Quam singulari, permitting even children (from the age of reason onward) to be admitted to Communion. Implementation took time, of course, and the response was somewhat uneven in various locales.
Adelaide Frassati, Pier Giorgio’s church-going but not-especially-religious mother, was not enthusiastic about Father Lombardi’s invitation to her son. According to Pier Giorgio’s biographers, Mrs. Frassati had two principal concerns. First, “she worried that daily reception of the Eucharist would make it a mere habit emptied of meaning.” 1 There is some truth to this concern, inasmuch as frequent reception of Holy Communion does demand special fervor on the part of communicants in order to avoid sliding into a lifeless routine, but the potential pitfalls do not outweigh the graces. Mrs. Frassati’s second objection was more self-concerned, since she “worried that her son might feel an attraction to the priestly vocation.” 2 The biography written by Pier Giorgio’s sister, Luciana, adds that their mother “was afraid that her son would become a narrow-minded Catholic, and she opposed the idea as strongly as she could.” 3
When he asked his mother’s permission to receive Holy Communion daily, Pier Giorgio was denied. Although he was upset, he did not relent. According to his sister, Pier Giorgio persisted in his pleading for four days before obtaining his mother’s permission.
Having won over his mother, Pier Giorgio went to report the good news to Father Lombardi in his office at the school.
“Father, I have won!” Father Lombardi, acting as if he had not guessed the reason for Pier Giorgio’s happiness, asked what he could possibly have won to make him so happy, jokingly suggesting the lottery. “Much more than that, Father,” Pier Giorgio responded. “I can now receive Jesus every morning!” 4
Four days may seem like a short time, especially considering the length of the COVID-19 restrictions many Catholics have been experiencing this spring. Regardless, I am convinced that it was these four days in the life of the twelve-year-old Pier Giorgio Frassati that fueled his extraordinary devotion to the Most Blessed Sacrament for the remainder of his life. His Eucharistic piety was, perhaps paradoxically, set ablaze by his experience of being denied access to Holy Communion.
Might the same remarkable result be possible for us today?
Pier Giorgio’s Zealous Devotion to the Eucharist
HE ZEAL with which Pier Giorgio clung to the Eucharist was tremendous. He considered morning Mass his daily “appointment with the Lord.” 5 If he could not attend Mass in the morning, he would fast even late into the day in order to receive holy Communion. 6 According to his sister, “after Communion, people tiptoed past him because he was often gazing upward, sometimes in tears, kneeling on the ground.” 7
While vacationing with his family in the Italian Riviera, Pier Giorgio would slip out of their lodging before breakfast—to his mother’s annoyance—in order to attend Mass at the local Capuchin church, then return there in the evening for benediction. 8
The Frassati family would spend summers away from Turin, at a villa in the town of Pollone. Even there, Pier Giorgio was steadfast in his desire to attend Mass each day. Like many sixteen-year-olds, he had difficulty waking up in a timely fashion, so he devised a fascinating alarm to ensure that he would rise in time for Mass:
A rope tied to the drawer of his bedside table was dropped from his bedroom window; at dawn the rope was shaken by the gardener. Once, when Pier Giorgio was sleeping heavily, the gardener had to shake the rope so much that it knocked over the table. . . . From that day on, a new alarm system was used: the long bamboo cane that the gardener used to get nuts from the trees. 9
As he grew older, Pier Giorgio was known to spend long nights in church, adoring the Blessed Sacrament. One priest who knew him recalls this clearly:
I remember Pier Giorgio well during adoration one night in the Turin cathedral: he was kneeling on the floor trying to pray as other young people were brushing past him as they went to and from Communion. Melted wax dripped from the candles onto his suitcoat, and he didn’t seem to notice it at all, so absorbed was he in his prayers. Then I understood what Communion and a Eucharistic life meant to him. 10
Pier Giorgio’s love for the Eucharist was not limited, however, to the time he spent in church. At seventeen, he joined the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Unbeknownst to many of his family and friends, Pier Giorgio undertook a huge range of charitable deeds among the poor of Turin. He befriended them, keeping track of their needs in notebooks and using money received from his parents and uncle in order to assist them. His charitable activity was so widespread and performed so quietly that his family was astonished when thousands of the city’s poor residents showed up at Pier Giorgio’s funeral in gratitude for the help he had given them. Asked by a friend how he could stand going into such filthy parts of the city, Pier Giorgio responded: “Jesus comes to me every morning in Holy Communion, and I reciprocate in my very small way: by visiting His poor.” 11
It bears reiterating that Pier Giorgio’s love for the Church and for the Lord did not cause him to be some type of pariah. He was neither socially awkward nor unpopular nor abnormal. Quite the contrary, Pier Giorgio was, in many respects, exceptionally normal: gregarious, athletic, a leader among his friends, “the life of the party.” 12 A member of the family with whom Pier Giorgio lived while studying in Germany describes him as unusual only in the breadth of his interests and abilities, being “athletic, a mountaineer, a skier, an equestrian, a funny and cheerful man who lived among his fellow students in the liveliest and wildest way.” 13
Pier Giorgio teaches us that piety is a gift for all people.
Pier Giorgio was the sort of young man who often went hiking and climbing with other young men and women, but who would invite them to join him for Mass beforehand. Sometimes he would even surprise his friends by arranging for a priest to meet them for Mass in a chapel somewhere along their route. 14 He was in no way ashamed of the Gospel (Rom 1:16).
Notorious for his joke-telling and for bursting into song as he went about his day, Pier Giorgio’s demeanor changed in the Lord’s presence. An acquaintance testifies to this:
I would see Pier Giorgio in church every morning, going to Communion and praying, always kneeling in his pew, so absorbed, so concentrated on what he was doing that I was sure that he wouldn’t have been disturbed if a bee would have stung him. Every time I saw him going to the altar to receive Communion, the thought occurred to me that one day I would like to attain his purity of spirit, so that I could receive the Sacrament with the same enthusiasm and intensity. I noticed how he faithfully spent a long time making his thanksgiving after Holy Communion, praying with such fervor that I was amazed. 15
Many other stories of Pier Giorgio’s life could be recounted attesting to his remarkable Eucharistic piety. Perhaps the best illustration of his love for the Eucharist is a speech he gave to members of the “Catholic Youth” of Pollone in 1923. The 22-year-old Pier Giorgio exhorted his peers:
I urge you with all the strength of my soul to approach the Eucharistic Table as often as possible. Feed on this Bread of the Angels from which you will draw the strength to fight inner struggles, the struggles against passions and against all adversities, because Jesus Christ has promised to those who feed themselves with the most Holy Eucharist, eternal life and the necessary graces to obtain it.
And when you become totally consumed by this Eucharistic Fire, then, you will be able to thank with greater awareness the Lord God who has called you to be part of His flock and you will enjoy that peace which those who are happy according to the world have never tasted. Because true happiness, young people, does not consist in the pleasures of the world and in earthly things, but in peace of conscience. 16
The life of Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati is a marvelous example of what the Catholic faith can look like when it takes root in a person. Is there anything to prevent us from following his example?
HETHER those four days Pier Giorgio spent seeking his mother’s permission to receive daily Communion were, indeed, the springboard for his life of passionate Eucharistic devotion cannot be proven. Nowhere do his letters or the biographies of his life establish a direct connection. It is hard to believe, however, that those days of disappointment and separation from the Most Blessed Sacrament did not somehow contribute to his lifelong zeal for Christ’s Real Presence.
According to his sister, Pier Giorgio “got from Communion the energy to face the day.” 17
Going forward, may the same be said of us. Having returned to the public celebration of the Sacraments, may we find new strength in the Holy Eucharist to love God more wholeheartedly and to serve His people more generously than ever before.
COVID-19 Pandemic Reflections
On Separation from the Sacraments:
On Returning to the Sacraments:
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 Maria Di Lorenzo, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati: An Ordinary Christian, trans. Robert Ventresca (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2004), 18.
2 Di Lorenzo, 18.
3 Luciana Frassati, A Man of the Beatitudes: Pier Giorgio Frassati, 2nd ed., rev. Patricia O’Rourke, trans. Dinah Livingstone (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 200), 30 and 32.
4 Di Lorenzo, 18.
5 Di Lorenzo, 18.
6 Luciana Frassati, 83-84.
7 Luciana Frassati, 98.
8 Luciana Frassati, 33. Cf., Di Lorenzo, 58.
9 Luciana Frassati, 40-41.
10 Father Tommaso Castagno, quoted at https://frassatiusa.org/his-eucharistic-devotion.
11 Pier Giorgio Frassati, quoted in Pope Francis, “Message for World Youth Day 2016,” available from https://frassatiusa.org/message-for-wyd-2016.
12 Di Lorenzo, 10. The actual nickname used was Sonntagskind, German for “life of the party.”
13 “Sportlich, Bergsteiger, Skifahrer, Reiter, ein lustiger, frölicher Mann, der mit den übrigen Studenten in der lebhaftesten und wildesten Weise lebte.” Karl Rahner, Erinnerungen im Gespräch mit Meinold Krauss (Freiburg: Herder, 1984), 33. English translation mine.
14 Di Lorenzo, 80.
15 Attilio Amedeo, quoted at https://frassatiusa.org/his-eucharistic-devotion.
16 Pier Giorgio Frassati, Pier Giorgio Frassati: Letters to His Friends and Family, ed. Timothy E. Deeter and Christine M. Wohar, trans. Timothy E. Deeter (Staten Island, NY: St Pauls, 2009), 129.
17 Luciana Frassati, 97.