Another kind of Turin excellence


The blend of youth, athleticism, excellence and Turin fuelled the remarkable life Pier Giorgio Frassati. He died in 1925, but would have been right at home with today's Olympians in the streets of his hometown and in the mountains which he loved.

St. Pier Giorgio Frassati

A staple of Olympic television coverage is the oftmaligned personal profile, the saccharine pieces that tell the dramatic tales behind the athletes. True enough, the drama often descends to melodrama, and the search for tragedy is rather forced. But on balance they are endearing to watch. Usually, the striking thing is not whatever calamity — real or imagined — the athlete has overcome, but how remarkably ordinary most of them are. The admixture of ordinary people (biathletes are generally not celebrities) and extraordinary excellence makes an Olympian.

The blend of youth, athleticism, excellence and Turin fuelled the remarkable life Pier Giorgio Frassati. He died in 1925, but would have been right at home with today's Olympians in the streets of his hometown and in the mountains which he loved. Pier Giorgio was a leader and a sportsman, but not an Olympian. His short 24 — year life was marked by extraordinary excellence, but not on the sports field. Pier Giorgio was a champion of a different kind. He was a saint.

The admixture of extraordinary holiness with an ordinary young man's life makes him a saint for our time. Pier Giorgio is increasingly popular with Catholic young people today — university residences are named after him, as are prayer groups and youth clubs. The Catholic chaplaincy at the University of Toronto has a stained glass window of him in their chapel. He was as attractive in his own way as the Olympians are in theirs — attractive because he was overflowing with life.

Born in 1901 to an influential Turin family, Pier Giorgio was a rebel against his parents' secularity. His agnostic father was the founder and editor of the liberal daily La Stampa, and served later as the Italian ambassador to Germany. His mother was a nominal Catholic at best, and intended Pier Giorgio to join the ranks of Turin's elite society. His father forbade him to become a lay missionary. His mother forbade him to marry the woman he loved; she was too ordinary a girl who shared Pier Giorgio's deep Catholic faith — a disqualifying mark in his mother's eyes.

But Pier Giorgio was constrained neither by his parents nor their riches or influence, and set out to live the Christian adventure to its fullest. He could be found at Mass in the early morning, and tending to the poor and sick in Turin's impoverished neighbourhoods at night. Indeed, when he died in 1925 — from polio likely contracted from tending to the sick — his parents were shocked at the thousands of poor people who lined the streets for his funeral procession. They never knew.

Pier Giorgio found in the ordinary things of a young man's life — university studies, summer jobs, mountain climbing, dances, parties and practical jokes — the chance to live life to the full, animated by a Christian spirit of service and sacrifice. He was the centre of a lively social circle, and was just as quick to propose a wholesome night out as he was to lead them to pray.

The photographs of Pier Giorgio show him not unlike the young men and women in Turin today. When he was declared "blessed" by the Vatican in 1990, the large image of him unfurled from St. Peter's Basilica showed him high in the mountains on an alpine adventure. The original had a pipe firmly clenched between his teeth (later airbrushed out in deference to contemporary sensibilities).

"God gave Pier Giorgio all the external attributes that could have led him to make the wrong choices," wrote Wanda Gawronska, his niece. "A wealthy family, very good looks, manhood, health, being the only heir of a powerful family. But Pier Giorgio listened to the invitation of Christ: 'Come, follow me'."

If Pier Giorgio was in Turin today, he would no doubt be in the midst of the athletes' village, celebrating and consoling, singing songs and smoking his pipe, and marveling in the sheer blessedness of being young and able to commit one's life to great things.

The Olympians know that great commitments require great sacrifices. Pier Giorgio knew that great joy lay on the other side of those sacrifices, and that the greatest joy was to share with one's friends the goodness of God and His creation. For that reason, there are countless young people today who look to Turin — not for sporting success, but for sanctity.


Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Another kind of Turin excellence." National Post, (Canada) February 26, 2006.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright © 2006 National Post

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