Updated: Jul 18, 2020
Photo by James McNaueal
We are a Frassati brotherhood and “Verso l’alto” is our song.
This refrain came to mind rather than “The Star-Spangled Banner” this past fourth of July. For Americans, the day marked Independence Day: an occasion for the bald eagle to fly high, the jorts (jean-short hybrid) to make a public appearance, and apple pies by the thousands to be consumed. For Portuguese Catholics, the day celebrates St. Elizabeth who is referred locally as Saint Queen Elizabeth; the beloved royal whose promotion of peace, and charity amongst the poor is still revered.
For the younger generation of Catholics, July fourth commemorated the feast of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. An ordinary man with an extraordinary life. Many are familiar with the hagiography of Frassati – the most famous account is written by Luciana Frassati, his sister – but unprecedented is the magnitude of influence he has had, and continues to have, on young Catholics. Bl. Pier Giorgio serves as a witness to countless men and women, even 95 years after his death. In fact, a group of men celebrated his patronage at a reunion, recently.
Bl. Pier Giorgio, who lived in Turin, Italy, was a young man from the start of the 20th century who is the inspiration of Frassati House, a Catholic men’s residence in Kingston. Frassati House was established to cultivate young university men in their faith, human, and cultural formation, in imitation of their Patron. The figure of Bl. Pier Giorgio called “Man of the Eight Beatitudes” by St. John Paul the Great strove for the highest virtues; a Christian disciple, par excellence. The same expectation is placed upon each of the brethren: to embody the life of Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati - excellence in all things.
What did excellence mean in Bl. Pier Giorgio’s life? Why is he a model for young men?
The answer is encapsulated in Bl. Pier Giorgio’s signature motto, verso l’alto – towards the height. For Frassati, the splendor of nature and the mountains, in particular, revealed the transcendent truth of the Divine Creator. In fact, the accredited motto was originally imprinted by the young Blessed on a photograph of him scaling a mountain.
I was reminded of Frassati and the mountain imagery in my recent travels to Alberta. A newly dedicated Shrine Church of Our Lady of the Rockies sits in the shadows of the famous trio of mountain peaks in Canmore known as ‘The Three Sisters’. The three peaks are named Faith, Hope and Charity. A common personification of the theological virtues in Christian art and literature are as three women. For example, in Dante’s Purgatorio, the Italian poet – of whom Frassati was a great admirer – characterized the theological virtues as three maidens:
But that your own [eyes] may see what joyous light Shine in them, yonder Three, who see more deeply, Will sharpen and instruct your moral sight. (Canto XXXI: 109-111)
Dante fittingly underscores Bl. Pier Giorgio’s perception of the mountains. The grandeur of The Three Sisters compares not to the higher reality that awaits man. A reality seen with the eyes of faith, hope, and charity.
The height Bl. Pier Giorgio strove towards was greater than any mountain he summited. The height he strove towards was God, Himself.
“Give us the courage to strive for the highest goals, to flee every temptation to be mediocre,” begins one of the prayers invoking his patronage. “Enable us to aspire to greatness, as Pier Giorgio did, and to open our hearts in joy to Your call to holiness.” That is what makes Bl. Pier Giorgio an attractive model for young men: excellence in striving towards holiness.
At a recent gathering of current and past Frassati brothers, I was grateful for his continued patronage. The transitory nature of the house brings new faces and cherishes old ones. Timeless, however, is the impression Bl. Pier Giorgio has had on these men.
Six years, 26 men, and seven generations later, the gift of the brotherhood, the fraternity of fellowship, continues to bear fruit. Vocationally, men have gone to become full-time missionaries; engage in the professional world; prepare themselves for the sacrament of Holy Matrimony; and discern religious life & the diocesan priesthood. The young Bl. Pier Giorgio died two exams short of obtaining his university degree after suddenly contracting poliomyelitis. His influence, however, is evident in the campus missionary, just lawyer, medical school student, selfless fiancée, religious novice, and diocesan seminarian. His life is present in the men of Frassati House.
On the occasion of the beatification of Bl. Pier Giorgio, 30 years ago, Pope John Paul II spoke of the Blessed as the answer to the Petrine exhortation to give an account for the reason of your hope (cf. 1 Pet 3:15). “[Frassati] became the living witness and courageous defender of hope in the name of Christian youth of the twentieth century.” Located in the student district of Queen’s University, Frassati House functions as just that: A living witness and courageous defender of hope amidst a secular culture of the twenty-first century.
Blessed Pier Giorgio’s feast day was a grand celebration for the brothers. Between outdoor excursions, convivial meals, mass and prayer, a proper honoring was observed. The whole experience was a cause for thanksgiving. As the reunion came to an end and the brothers departed home, there was an unspoken sadness. Nevertheless, we stand together at Calvary’s peak, drawn by the True Summit of existence. With our patron we look above – beyond the mountains of earth – to the hope of a complete reunion in the heights.