Handsome, holy Italian man known for skiing, charity
By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service
TURIN, Italy (CNS) -- Once upon a time, a young, handsome fellow, sporting skis and chewing on a cigar, zipped across the Alpine peaks in Bardonecchia, about 75 miles east of Turin.
Just a few months before he died in 1925 at the age of 24, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati had competed in a 15-kilometer race in the same mountains where the Olympic snowboarding competition was being held during the XX Olympic Winter Games.
"Who can imagine how happy he would be today to see the Olympics here" in his own backyard, said Cardinal Severino Poletto of Turin.
"He's a great saint," he told Catholic News Service, "a modern model of holiness and youth."
In order to tell Olympic visitors more about Turin's favorite saint-in-the-making, two Blessed Pier Giorgio associations came together to set up two exhibits for the duration of the games. One was set up in a small church in Bardonecchia and another in a Turin church where Blessed Pier Giorgio was made a Third Order Dominican, a lay order.
The exhibits, called "A Saint on Skis," tell the story of a young outdoorsman who was a friend to the poor and active in many church-sponsored associations and political groups that fought for social justice.
His great sense of humor and generosity made him very popular with his peers. With his closest friends he formed a club, "the Shady Characters," and he was nicknamed "Robespierre" and "the Terror" because of the practical jokes he liked to concoct.
Wanda Gawronska, Blessed Pier Giorgio's niece and the head of the Rome-based Pier Giorgio Frassati association, said people are attracted to this young man once they discover he led "a completely normal life."
"He had all the same problems young people have. He had exams to study for, parents who didn't get along, and he fell madly in love with a girl," she told CNS while visiting Turin and the exhibits she helped organize.
He never gave up the fun things in life -- he cherished his friends, he loved climbing mountains, skiing slopes, and helping his family, she said. But, at the same time, he lived his life with an intense spirituality and devotion to Christ and the Eucharist, she said.
"He really felt Christ" was present in those who were less fortunate, said Gawronska. "He said he saw the poor and suffering were surrounded by a particular light" that others did not have.
Gawronska, whose 103-year-old mother is Blessed Pier Giorgio's sister, said his pockets were always stuffed with tiny slips of paper -- each one had the address or request of people who needed help.
"He went everywhere, bringing people food, looking for jobs for people, helping children, visiting the prison; he was someone people really counted on," she said.
Blessed Pier Giorgio was from an influential and wealthy family, but he pinched his pennies so he could spend most of his allowance on the poor.
People often asked him why he always traveled third class, Gawronska said. Though he did it to save money that he would later spend on others, he would reply, "because there was no fourth class."
He kept meticulous records of how he spent his allowance. On a page from a notebook he kept during a brief stay in Berlin, he listed the amounts he spent on others, like the "poor children of Berlin" and of the smaller amounts he spent on himself for coffee, bread and cigars.
He never went without his cigars, Gawronska said: "His expenses were always alms and cigars."
Blessed Pier Giorgio was active in Catholic Action and the Popular Party, which promoted the church's social teaching. He once said, "Charity is not enough; we need social reform."
Pope John Paul II, who beatified him in 1990, said Blessed Pier Giorgio had served as "a beneficial influence" during his own youth in Poland and that as a student he "was impressed by the force of his Christian testimony."
In a homily celebrating the International Jubilee for Athletes in 1984, Pope John Paul said Blessed Pier Giorgio's dedication to helping the poor and suffering was an example of how to sow peace among people, "making us brothers and sisters." He called on his audience to look closely at how this young man lived and to use him as an example, "a program" to follow so that they, too, could "be messengers of the true peace of Christ."
Born in 1901, Blessed Pier Giorgio "anticipated the church teachings of the Second Vatican Council. He had a lay vocation, and this fascinated the church," said Gawronska.
Blessed Pier Giorgio, known as "the Man of the Eight Beatitudes," died from polio, probably after contracting it from the people he helped, she said. His remains are buried in a chapel in Turin's St. John the Baptist Cathedral, next to the chapel housing the Shroud of Turin.
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