Pier Giorgio Frassati: a role model for the ages

An interview with Wanda Gawrońska, the niece of Pier Giorgio, on his astounding life of action, faith, and charity.

Left: Pier Giorgio Frassati, right: Wanda Gawrońska.

He died two years before Wanda Gawrońska’s birth, but he’s the most important person in her family. Pier Giorgio Frassati—beatified in 1990 by Pope John Paul II—is who Pope Francis speaks of when he says, “Be like him!”—a message given to the participants of World Youth Day 2016 currently taking place in Poland. The relics of Pier Giorgio Frassati are being exhibited during World Youth Day 2016 in the Dominican Basilica of the Holy Trinity in Kraków this week.

Gawrońska was born in 1927, the daughter of Luciana Frassati, the sister of Pier Giorgio, and Jan Gawroński, a Polish diplomat. A photographer and reporter, she became the head of the Center for European Meetings and Studies in Rome in 1973, and supported the Polish opposition and the transformations that were happening there. For Poles traveling to Italy during communism, she was an anchor and support, organizing contacts with cultural and political circles in Italy. She granted stipends, provided help, and hosted many Polish guests in her home.

For Her’s International Editorial Director Marzena Wilkanowicz-Devoud sat down with Gawrońska to talk about her uncle, Pier Giogio’s, remarkable life and example.

What was Pier Giorgio like as a child? What would the family say about him?

Pier Giorgio already as a child had a special fondness for Jesus. He showed sensitivity toward the needy and was aware of the poor. He was only five years old when one day he opened the front door of his house and saw a woman with a child without shoes. He immediately took his own off and gave them to the mother. Along with Luciana, his sister and my mother, they were treated quite harshly while growing up, but this produced good results. No tantrums were allowed, discipline was required. If you misbehaved, you went home to stand in the corner. Food in between meals was not allowed. Many people ask me, ‘When was the moment of spiritual breakthrough for him?’ Nothing of the sort took place. Pier Giorgio simply had the grace of God from birth, which resulted in the increasing strength of his faith. There is a striking coherence in his life—authenticity.

Pier Giorgio

Pier Giorgio with his father, Alfred Frassati, publisher, journalist and politician, owner of the La Stampa newspaper. The photo was taken in 1913, on the day Alfred was appointed a senator of the Kingdom of Italy.

Pier Giorgio apparently didn’t know how to lie …

It didn’t dawn on him to do so! I always emphasize that his attitude was shaped by his upbringing. The word “fear” was forbidden in our family. Once in Giorgio’s presence someone mentioned that he was afraid of the dark, and it was already late in the evening. His mother immediately sent him out into the garden to shut the gate—just so that he wouldn’t ever think that you can be afraid of the dark.

Giorgio did not graduate to the next class twice, which turned out to be a great blessing for him, because in order to not lose a year of school, he was instead enrolled in a private Jesuit school. There, for the first time, he found himself in an environment in which he could deepen his faith and where his spiritual guide allowed him to take Holy Communion every day from the age of 12, which was an extraordinary religious practice. He maintained it until the end of his life. It turned out that failing his exams “paid off.” When World War I started, he asked the housekeeper whether she would give her life, if it would mean that the war would end, because he would immediately! He took special care of veterans later.

Benedict XVI talked during World Youth Days about Pier Giorgio’s charity; his style was to be very simple and effective, uncomplicated in his gestures.

Thanks to his faith, Pier Giorgio embodied simplicity. He wasn’t a philosopher; what he did was spontaneous, automatic, and drawn from a need to fulfill what he believed. For him, one couldn’t act any other way. Pier Giorgio’s presence among the ill, his way of listening and taking care of them was unique. He became part of the family of the poor and needy. He did whatever he could, even tended to their most unpleasant hygienic problems—like during the Spanish epidemic. He also provided financial help. But this wasn’t what was most important. Most significant was giving others a sense of dignity. I get angry when I read that Pier Giorgio gave the poor everything that he had in his pocket. Sure, when he had something, even if it was just enough money for a tram, he gave it away if it was needed and walked home on foot—but most importantly, he gave of himself. He was with them, he looked out for them, listened, took care, provided treatment. He felt responsible for them.

Pier Giorgio Frassati.

Pier Giorgio Frassati at age 16.

First and foremost, help others

Even on his deathbed, he thought of those who needed help.

He worked on the St. Vincent Conference, which was dedicated to the poor. Once he wrote to his friend, during a time when his studies required his urgent attention, that ‘[he’ll] stay in Turin and disappear from it all, but not the Conference.’ One summer he stayed longer in Turin because ‘who will take care of the poor, if everybody leaves!’ He also said, ‘Christ visits me during Holy Communion every day. And I thank him for this in my humble way by visiting His poor.’ My mother would tell me that he always had his pocket full of notes, receipts, and addresses. To the question of how he managed to continue to go to those smelly lofts, he replied, “Around the suffering, around the poor, I see a light. A light which we do not have.’ He went to Christ.

The day before his death he asked my mother to look in his pocket, in which he had some shots and notes. He asked her for a pen and paper and wrote with his nearly paralyzed hand a barely legible set of instructions to his friend from the Conference: ‘These are the shots for Converso, and the receipt from the pawn shop is Sappy’s, please renew it on my account.’ These were his final thoughts, and then he lost consciousness. He gave aid to the sick with great dedication. He accompanied the dying. One of his sayings, which he shared with a friend when he visited a leper boy, is especially touching to me: ‘You see, our health must be given up to those that don’t have it, otherwise it would be a betrayal of the great gift from God, which we experience. We have health so that we can help those who don’t have it. My legs walk, because others’ do not.’ There is no philosophy in this. It was spontaneous, simple, and natural.

Pier Giorgio Frassati.

Pier Giorgio loved the mountains. The last hike, Le Lunelle, photo from June 7, 1925 with his inscription “To the Top.”

And he was only 24-years-old.

Certainly, Pier Giorgio was the precursor to the role of the laity nearly forty years before Vatican II. He understood the laity’s responsibility to the Church well. He felt this. Put it into practice. That is why St. John Paul II spoke of his heroic virtues during the synod of the bishops on the role of the laity in 1983.

Friendship was important to him. He was very close to his sister Luciana, your mother. They shared an unusual bond.

Yes, friendship was very important for Pier Giorgio. He created the ‘Association of Shady Characters,’ whose motto was ‘a few of us, but good like pasta.’ Pier Giorgio thought that faith can be shared only through happiness. The point of the association was to go hiking and stick together. But as he wrote himself, ‘We will be unbreakably connected by faith which will integrate us during our trips and will be the granite foundation of our friendship,’ and the unbreakable bond was prayer. Today, from all corners of the world youth will be united under the banner ‘Shady Characters.’ In Poland, in Rybnik, the largest such ‘association’ is ongoing.

My mother did not belong to the group; their friendship was different. They were very close since childhood. Treated harshly by their parents, they stuck together; their age difference insignificant. In February 1925, my mother married Jan Gawroński, a diplomat, who she met in Berlin when her father was the Italian ambassador there. She left Italy for him. My mother told me how on the day of her wedding, Pier Giorgio escorted her to the station. She saw how intensely he was going through this experience. Her departure was for him ‘a true blow to the heart,’ as he wrote to a friend. She wrote him a letter immediately. His response is for me one of the most cited of his thoughts: ‘You ask if I am happy, but how can I not be happy when faith gives me strength. Always happy! Sadness should be erased from the souls of Catholics! Suffering is not sadness! Sadness is the worse type of illness.’

Pier Giorgio Frassati.

Pier Giorgio with his beloved sister Luciana in Berlin 1922.

Only after his death did the family discover Pier Giorgio’s true nature. Members were surprised by the crowds of strangers at the funeral. Same with the number of condolences, cards, telegrams. From shelters, to veterans, from hospitals, nurseries and the various centers dedicated to those who need help. Where did he find time for all these people? Because, of course, he was still studying at the time.

He set the bar high for himself.

For sure! Pope Francis beautifully expressed this in his message to Dutch youth when he said, ” … say ‘no’ to fleeting, superficial culture, which assumes that you are not strong, that you are not able to stand up to great challenges! Think big! Like the blessed Pier Giorgio, who once wrote: ‘Life without faith, without heritage, which is protected without upholding Truth in constant battle, this isn’t life but vegetation. We should never vegetate, but live.’ This is a thought that Pope Francis often repeats in his own statements: “to live, not to vegetate,” not even citing Pier Giorgio anymore!

Pier Giorgio believed exactly this: to fully engage in life we have to shape ourselves properly. He achieved this through prayer; long, nightly adorations, the rosary, and shaping his own strong will, which he constantly asked his friends about, so that they would remember him in their prayers. St. John Paul II said that Pier Giorgio is an example for all of us, and holiness is available to us all.

Not too long ago I received a letter from a young Pole, who learned of Pier Giorgio and the normalcy of his life and had similar problems: studies, exams, falling in love, conflicts with parents, constant help to those who are close. With this in mind, this boy became a firefighter: “Pier Giorgio was able to reach holiness, why shouldn’t it be possible for me as well? It’s worth a try.”

With friends, 1924.
Pier Giorgio with friends dragging a barrel of wine, 1925.
Dinner with friends cooked by Pier Giorgio, wearing a hat made from his favorite satirical newspaper, Il Bello Giallo (poking fun of fascism), 1924.

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To be like Frassati

Francis says: Be like Frassati! What does it mean to be like Frassati?

I would answer by saying that Francis is thinking here mainly about his charity: Pier Giorgio posited that the world, even in suffering, is beautiful. And one should participate in it.

The relics of Pier Giorgio will be in Kraków, at the Dominicans during the World Youth Days. What does this mean to you?

I am convinced that this is the will of St. John Paul. When I found out that the theme of the Days will be “blessings,” I thought that it’s clear: John Paul II wants to have Pier Giorgio in Kraków, close to him at World Youth Day, as a helper in evangelization. It’s he who called him a “man of eight beatitudes.” Besides this, Pier Giorgio is the only saint who is spoken of in such a way. It is not a coincidence that “blessings” are the theme in Kraków.

John Paul II at St. Paul’s Square next to the portrait of Pier Giorgio in 2001.
Pope John Paul II with the Frassati-Gawroński family, praying by Pier Giorgio’s grave in Pollone, July 1989.
Pope John Paul prays by the grave of Pier Giorgio a year before his beatification, 1989.
Wanda Gawrońska and John Paul II at the exhibition dedicated to Pier Giorgio in the atrium of the Lateran Basilica in 1984.

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A soon-to-be Pope Jean Paul II said to youth in 1977 when he opened the exhibition at the Dominican Church in Krakow: ‘Look at what a person of eight beatitudes looks like; this person who carried the joy of the gospel in him.’

And later he also said, ‘Pier Giorgio Frassati can boldly be deemed—although not yet canonized—as a patron saint, a spiritual guide for students … he died very young: often saints do.” After all at that point he had already beatified Pier Giorgio, who wasn’t even a servant of God yet, because his process was halted in 1941. Only in 1978, shortly before his death, did Paul VI sign the reinstatement of the process.

I remember when a year later in Turin an exhibition dedicated to Pier Giorgio was supposed to take place and the organizers asked me for a speech. I said that there is this cardinal from Kraków, who said the following about Frassati, “Pier Giorgio. L’uomo delle Otto beatitudini. Pier Giorgio, a man of eight beatitudes.” That was August 1978, when Jean Paul II was chosen as Pope; to me, it was something incredible. And he immediately began to talk about Pier Giorgio. A year after the election, he went to Turin. At one point he said to the youth: “I will tell you about two people: Bosco and Frassati.” I nearly fell off my chair in front of the television. Jan Bosco was already a Blessed. In 1984, in Rome, an international athlete convention took place, and someone called my mother and said that we should come to the stadium. It turned out that the Pope had just finished his speech, in which he quoted Pier Giorgio: “Be like him, carriers of peace to all corners of the Earth. He often spoke of Pier Giorgio. I think that he understood him deeply, and with conviction, he put him forth as an example to be emulated.

Cardinal Wojtyła

Cardinal Wojtyła, later Jean Paul II, at the exhibition dedicated to Pier Giorgio in Krakow at the Dominican Church and Monastery in 1971.

What’s striking is the similarity between them. Both in good shape, joyful, charming. Both adored trekking in the mountains. Both with the gift to listen to others.

They had the same passion. A passion for God and a passion for mountains, special veneration for the Holy Mother. Both very handsome and strong men. Their methods of evangelism also were very similar. John Paul II himself confirmed this when he came to Pollone to visit our family grave in 1989, in order to pray to Pier Giorgio. Then he admitted, ‘In my youth, I myself experienced the positive influence of his example, and as a student, I was impressed by his Christian testimony.’

And there is also the matter of the rosary … Pier Giorgio always carried a rosary in his pocket. Once he was walking out of the church, still with the rosary in his hand. He met a friend, who asked him, “So you became a bigot?” “No, I became a Christian,” he responded.

In the ’70s, the cult of saints was not yet alive. John Paul II changed this. He spoke of Pier Giorgio as a saint from the beginning. The laity began to become saints. Did Pier Giorgio consider going to seminary?

No, there is no evidence of this. When he was in Germany, in Freiburg, he lived with the Rahner family, the parents of Karl and Hugon, in order to practice the language. Ms. Rahner saw that Pier Giorgio prayed a lot. She asked whether he wouldn’t consider becoming a priest. He answered by saying that if he lived in Germany, maybe, but in Italy he would be closer to the people as a lay person. He went to the Polytechnic for his studies and specialized in mining engineering (mineralogy, this was his passion. He always came back from the mountains with his pockets full of rocks). He wanted to work with miners, as it was the most difficult type of labor. When it came to the Germans … He valued them very much, often going there. Immediately after WWI, the international level of the representatives of Catholic movements in Germany was greater than in Italy. He became very attached to them. For Pier Giorgio it was characterized by a livelier sense of community and cooperation with Catholics than in other countries. When in 1923 France took over the Ruhr region, Pier Giorgio was indignant, and he wrote a letter to students from Bonn that stated “… we the Italian Catholic students, we are sending you this expression of our brotherly love!” The letter was published under the significant title “The Consciousness of the World is Awakening” in one of the most important German newspapers Deutche Reichszeitung. This “consciousness of the world” was a young student from Turin

Pier Giorgio

Pier Giorgio returns from Monte Viso in the Alps, 1923.

What did the family think of his activity? His father—Alfred Frassati—was the founder and the editor-in-chief of La Stampa in Turin, and also a senator. He must have had certain expectations or career plans for his son.

It is certain that there was no dialogue between them. Shortly before finishing his degree, his father asked him, not personally but through a friend, if he wouldn’t agree to work in the administration of La Stampa. For him it was a tragedy, but his parents were going through hard times; his father was leaning towards a separation. Pier Giorgio was ready to do anything in order to prevent this. Family was very important to him. Money counting in the administration of the La Stampa must have been terrible for him. I am convinced that he hoped that this would help to keep his father at home. In those days he wrote to a friend, who asked him about his plans after college, that “In the future, God willing, I would like to proclaim these truths.” God gave him the widest spectrum of work, because he died after two months and his parents never separated after his death. He received his degree from the Polytechnic in Turin posthumously, on the anniversary of his 100th birthday.

Paul VI said that Pier Giorgio demonstrated that one can be modern and Christian. How can we understand the meaning of these words today?

The best way is through learning about Pier Giorgio’s life. Today’s youth understand it really well and know that they can identify with him. They know that through his example they can change their life into a “great adventure.” This is how John Paul II described Pier Giorgio’s life!

Santo subito? Italian for “sainthood now!”

Not necessarily. In order to be canonized, one miracle needs to be acknowledged. Currently there are two healings, thanks to the intercession of Pier Giorgio. But when the process involves a lay person, everything takes longer. Some would like to request canonization without a miracle. It is possible when the Blessed is revered world-wide, and not only in his diocese. But I think I would prefer a miracle to be recognized, even if this takes longer. Pier Giorgio is definitely revered on all continents. I’m baffled by the fact that he is so well known in the Unites States. Apparently there is not one seminary there without his image or name somewhere. Building floors are named after him, young priests take him as a companion on the road. The Episcopal Conference of the United States made him—along with St. John Paul—one of the patrons of the local youth days. Many nuns take the name Frassati and the monks, Pier Giorgio. In Argentina, one of the most difficult peaks to climb is called Cerro Pier Giorgio. Even in Poland there are already two churches bearing his name: a parish in Lublin and a military parish in Lubliniec, as well as a Dominican monastery in Łódź. Polish missionaries built a parish in Kiabakari, Tanzania dedicated to him. In Australia there are multiple initiatives under his patronage. And these are just a few examples! As one of the Blesseds he should be revered, therefore, only in the Diocese of Turin, but as you can see, even popes are convinced of his sainthood and the effectiveness of his example. John Paul II made him the patron of youth days and often gave him as an example to emulate during World Youth Day, comparing him to great saints, like St. Francis and Don Bosco. Benedict allowed his relics to go to Australia for the World Youth Day there, while Pope Francis gave him as an example for three years during each Youth Days, including the message for World Youth Day in Krakow.

Pope Francis prays by the grave of Pier Giorgio. Turin, May 2015.
Pilgrimage of Pier Giorgio’s “Shady Characters” to Częstochowa, 2014.
A prayer by Pier Giorgio’s relics. World Youth Day, Sydney, Australia, July 2008.
Pier Giorgio at World Youth Day in Toronto, 2002.

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You ran the Center for European Meetings and Studies, in which important meetings among Poles took place. The center was visited by Cardinal Wojtyła among other respected Poles: artists and politicians.

I simultaneously also ran the Italian Pier Giorgio Frassati Association of Friends of the Catholic University of Lublin. I felt the need to do something for the persecuted Poland, and running this Center in the beautiful building on Via Anicia became my passion and a chance for an interesting life and meeting great people. And there was a lot of work. An important achievement of ours was receiving from the Italian government a free license for the television broadcast of the Polish inauguration of the pontificate of John Paul II, which the Polish government was denying, citing lack of funds.

Wanda Gawrońska receiving honors at the Catholic University in Lublin.
Wanda Gawrońska receiving the Polish Order of the Commander’s Cross for her service to Poland from President Bronisław Komorowski. The order was awarded in 1993 by Lech Wałęsa, ex-president of Poland.

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Through Wanda Gawrońska’s lens …

You previously worked as a photographer for the American edition of Vogue among others. You are an artist.

No, I don’t feel like an artist. I wrote articles, reportage. I was passionate about this. Work was simultaneously fun. I photographed so many balls, parties, weddings, mainly those that I was a guest at myself. The most exotic was the wedding of Scia with Farah Diba! But there were also those important stories: Toscanini, Furtwangler, Peggy Guggenheim, and von Karajan. I did many Italian fashion shoots for US Vogue. But this was not my passion; fashion does not interest me. What I see on the covers of women’s magazines is not the essence of femininity. Femininity is grace, class … A way of seeing the world and the things in it. Charme, as the French say. It’s a gift.

Ball in the Pallavicini Palace. Karl Schwarzenberg dancing with Donna Mirta Barberini Sciarra. Wanda Gawrońska for the American edition of Vogue.
Marella Agnelli in Spoleto in 1956. Wanda Gawrońska for the American edition of Vogue.
October 1958. Charity ball in New York for the Worlds Together Festival in Spoleto.
Wanda Gawrońska at the ball in New York for the Worlds Together Festival in Spoleto. From the right, Mrs. Henry Fonda (Alfreda Franchetti), Mrs. Oxenburg, Princess Arenberg, Prince Obolensky. Princess Soraya and Douglas Fairbanks, 1961.

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And if you were to write an article about Pier Giorgio, what would be your ‘hook?’

It would be on the need to give people back their dignity, all those unhappy people, immigrants. Pier Giorgio did this by dedicating most of his time to them. But it was not enough. He participated in politics. He said that charity is not enough; we need political reform. But I would also point out the joy of life, and conquering new heights and peaks.

How is it to have a saint in the family?

First and foremost, it means a lot of work (laughter). Great joy. I’m constantly experiencing his help, care. Sometimes these are amazing things. But also because of him, I still meet young priests, seminarians from the various countries here in Rome. I meet wonderful young people, very engaged and involved in dedicating their life to what they truly believe in! Young people chose Pier Giorgio as a friend, with whom they want to walk, conquer the highest peaks, and ‘live and not vegetate!’

Luciana Frassati’s book My Brother Pier Giorgio: His Last Days ($66, Amazon), written by Pier Giorgio’s sister, Luciana, from the testimonies and memories she gathered at the beginning of the 50s, of many people with whom Pier Giorgio had contact; through praying, hiking in the mountains, or spending free time together.
The book cover of Pier Giorgio: A Man of the Beatitudes. WAM Publishing House. ($10, Barnes & Noble)
The book cover of Pier Giorgio Frassati’s Letters to His Friends and Family. Więź Publishing House. ($20, Barnes & Noble)

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Blessed Pier Giorgio a film made by the Chemin Neuf community. A documentary translated into 16 languages for view and purchase at Netforgod.

 

Pier Giorgio Frassati was born in Turin in 1901 to a wealthy family. His father, Alfred Frassati, was the founder and editor-in-chief of the Italian publication La Stampa, as well as a senator, and an ambassador in Berlin. His mother, Adelaide, was a painter. His sister, Luciana, was just a year younger. Pier Giorgio, an athletic and handsome young man, loved mountain climbing. From an early age, he exhibited a special sensitivity towards the needy.

In 1919 he began his studies at the Polytechnic of Turin with a specialization in mining engineering. During his studies in 1920–21, he traveled to Germany where he met one of the greatest Catholic theologians, the young Karl Rahner, as well as the pastor and social activist called “the Apostle of Berlin,” Father Karl Sonnenschein. He belonged to several Catholic organizations, including Pax Romana, Catholic Action, the Italian Catholic University Federation, and also to the Italian People’s Party, which was based on the principles of the encyclical, Rerum Novarum.

In 1922 he became a Dominican of the third order. Membership in the St. Vincent Conference, however, was for him a special task. Most of his free time was dedicated to visiting the sick and the needy, to which he gave all of himself. In 1924, together with friends he founded the “Society of Shady Characters.”

He died on July 4, 1925 at the age of 24 due to Heine Medina disease, which he caught from the sick he took care of. In 1932, the process of beatification was started. The last step in the apostolic process was the opening of his coffin in 1981. Witnesses of the events were surprised by both the smile on his face and his unchanged appearance. On May 20, 1990, Pope John Paul II beatified him. His body was moved to the family tomb in Pollone to the Cathedral of Turin. Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, the future Blessed Paul VI, stressed that Frassati’s life answers the questions posed by youth, including: “How to be a modern person and at the same time a Christian?” The relics of Pier Giorgio Frassati will be exhibited during the World Youth Days in the Dominican Basilica of the Holy Trinity in Kraków on Stolarska St. Earlier, they will also be present in several Polish cities: Rybnik, Wrocław, Szczecin, Poznań, Warsaw, Lublin, Tarnobrzeg, Jarosław and Rzeszów.

Marzena Wilkanowicz-Devoud
Marzena Wilkanowicz-Devoud
Marzena Wilkanowicz-Devoud is International Editorial Director of For Her. Before launching the online magazine in the U.S., she was editor-in-chief at Elle in Poland, and served on the editorial board at Hachette Filipacchi. Most recently she represented the successful haute couture fashion brand Gosia Baczynska at Paris Fashion Week. She lives in Paris with her husband and two children.

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