When Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati died on July 4, 1925, of an aggressive form of polio, he was just 24 years old.
Young people the world over know him well, because he is one of the youthful saints who has been featured by the Vatican at its World Youth Day events. He was a man of the 20th century, a robust young Italian who spent his life serving the poor, evangelizing for the Catholic faith, and earning a reputation as “the man of the beatitudes.”
But for many he is known for the mountains he loved to climb with friends. The most popular image of the saint is the one that was unveiled at his beatification in St. Peter’s Square in 1980 by St. John Paul II—a picture of him standing on a mountain summit, his hands on his walking stick and a pipe in his mouth.
Frassati, an avid mountain-climber, is forever associated with the high peaks of Northern Italy.
In this he has a lot in common with a woman of the mountains, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.
Elizabeth was born in 1776 in New York City, far from any mountain. But after establishing her religious house and school at the foot of St. Mary’s mountain in Emmitsburg, Maryland, she wrote often of her love for the mountains in letters to friends, calling herself “your poor Mountaineer” and speaking in awe-struck tones of the “beautiful mountains” and “lovely mountains” which surrounded the settlement and school.
In fact, Elizabeth first fell in love with the mountains in her visits to Italy—not far from the mountains of Torino where Pier Giorgio Frassati was born and raised.
Frassati was born on Holy Saturday, April 6, 1901. His father was the agnostic owner of the newspaper La Stampa and his mother was an artist whose paintings were featured in exhibits and bought by royalty.
Frassati’s childhood is replete with the kinds of stories that fill the lives of the saints; as a child he once removed his shoes to give to the son of a beggar woman; another time he talked his mother into inviting a drunk beggar to dinner. If he sounds too pious to be true, he was not only known for his holiness but for his good-natured practical jokes earning him the nickname “The Terror.”
Despite being an average student academically, he loved the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Catherine of Sienna and became a Third Order Dominican when he was 21.
He often took friends on trips to the mountain range that included the Alps, part of the range which Elizabeth Ann Seton had visited in 1803 when she had been in Italy with her dying husband.
She wrote often to the Filicchi family who had welcomed her and her husband and daughter into their home during her husband’s fatal illness, fondly remembering “your mountains” in her letters.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton would have seen right away what Pier Giorgio Frassati meant, when he said, “Every day, my love for the mountains grows more and more. If my studies permitted, I’d spend whole days in the mountains contemplating the Creator’s greatness in that pure air.”
Mother Seton was delighted to find a mountain home of her own for the Sisters of Charity she organized to serve the poor and establish schools.
“This pleases me for many reasons,” she said. “In the first place I shall live in the mountains, in the next I shall see no more of the world than if I was out of it and have every object centered in my own family.”
Clearly, love of the mountains for both Mother Seton and Frassati had become a symbol of their remarkable faith.
St. John Paul II, also a great lover of mountains, put it this way:
“Mountains are always able to fascinate the human spirit to the point of being considered in the Bible a favorite place for meeting God. They become the symbol of the ascent of the human person to the Creator.”
A month before he died, Frassati and friends had faced a tough climb on which they had to use double ropes. A friend took a photo of Frassati holding a rock and gazing toward the summit. On the back of the photo, Frassati wrote the words, “Verso l’alto”—to the heights.
It became a motto associated with his constant search for holiness, much as “Hazard forward” — the call to risk for gain on the Seton coat of arms — is associated with Elizabeth Ann Seton.
“Sometimes I get wearier, and even wish to be released” from the struggle of life, she wrote from the midst of illness to a friend. “The mountain has been very hard to climb these few months past, which only makes me long more ardently for a haven of rest.”
The greatest mountain Frassati climbed was the Mountain of the Beatitudes.
He joined the St. Vincent de Paul Society when he was 17 and aided orphans and wounded Word War I veterans. Never rich, he was always generous. He once gave his bus fare to charity and then ran home to keep from being late for supper; another time he refused to go on vacation, stating, “If everybody leaves Turin, who will take care of the poor?” A German journalist described an incident at the Italian embassy on a freezing night when Frassati gave away his overcoat to a homeless man. “His father, the ambassador, scolded him, and he replied matter-of-factly, ‘But you see, Papa, it was cold.’”
The Blessed Sacrament sustained both Pier Giorgio Frassati and Elizabeth Ann Seton in their ascent of the mountain of holiness.
Frassati received communion daily and often spent time with Jesus in the Eucharist late into the night. By being attuned to Jesus’s real presence in the sacrament he became more attuned to seeing Jesus in the poor. “Remember always that it is to Jesus that you go,” he told a friend. “I see a special light that we do not have, around the, sick, the poor, the unfortunate.”
Elizabeth Ann Seton had the same holiness, delighting in God’s presence in the sacrament and in those she served, despite the darkness she often felt from her trials.
Converted to a belief in the real presence in the Eucharist when she was in Italy, she retained her love for the Blessed Sacrament for the rest of her life.
“Tomorrow, God at the altar — on the mountain!—our God,” she wrote to a priest friend who planned to visit. “His infinite goodness comes in silence and the sanctuary.”
On another occasion, she saw the same luminosity that Frassati saw in those she served, “Our mountains are very black but the scene below bright and gay, the meadows still green and my dear ones skipping upon them with the sheep.”
The mountains, both literally and metaphorically, represented the heroic climb Mother Seton and Frassati made towards God and holiness.
As St. John Paul II put it, “In contact with the beauties of the mountains, in the face of the spectacular grandeur of the peaks, the fields of snow and the immense landscapes, man enters into himself and discovers that the beauty of the universe shines not only in the framework of the exterior heavens, but also that of the soul that allows itself to be enlightened, and seeks to give meaning to life. From the things that it contemplates, in fact, the spirit is lifting up to God on the breath of prayer and gratitude towards the Creator.”
Like Blessed Pier Girorgio Frassati and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, let us also say, “Verso l’alto!”
TOM HOOPES, author most recently of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas, where he teaches. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary for the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in the Register, Aleteia, and Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.
Image: Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati in the Alps courtesy of Wikimedia Commons