Given at the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School Mass on 18th January 2017.
I want to talk to you about a friend of mine. I first met this friend 24 years ago, which I appreciate is longer than most of you have been alive. We were a similar age: I was 25 and he was 24, me English and him Italian.
In some ways we were similar, except he was much more athletic than me, and a mountain climber. I have a picture of him standing, smiling, on a rocky mountain outcrop, looking very pleased to have made it to the heights. My friend and I share a deep love for Christ, for our Catholic faith, for the Mass, and for the Church. In different ways, we have tried to serve the Lord Jesus by caring for the poor, although my friend easily beats me hands down in his kindness and generosity.
I would like to introduce my friend to you, so that you can know him too. In fact, anyone can enjoy his friendship, especially young people. My friend is called Pier Giorgio, or Blessed Pier Gorgio Frassati to give him his full name and title. And he is on the way to being canonised as a saint.
You see the saints are not distant from us. On the contrary, they are as close to us as we allow them to be; they are as close to us as we want them to be. Because the saints are living with Christ, they are with us too in spiritual solidarity. We come to know them through their lives and through their writings, but especially through prayer, asking them to pray for us, as friends do.
I first met Pier Giorgio in June 1995. I was on retreat in the Valle d’Aosta in Northern Italy, preparing for my ordination to the priesthood. Needing to get out for a walk I found a biography of Pier Giorgio on sale in, of all places, the local post office which also had a café. As I flicked through the pages, I noticed that he died on 4th July 1925, the day and month of my own birthday. He was just 24. The book was called Il giovane delle otto beatitudini, the ‘young man of the eight beatitudes’, a name given to him by Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the future St John Paul II.
As the years have passed, I have read more and more about Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. Born on 6th April 1901, he lived in comfort with his sister. But his wealthy parents didn’t always get on with each other and often argued angrily. What marks Pier Giorgio is not just his skill in mountaineering, in biking, in rowing, in horse riding or in swimming; not just his love for art, for music, for the theatre and for museums. What marks Pier Giorgio is his deeply real and personal relationship with Jesus and his desire and effort to live like Jesus and to love like Jesus. This is what made him holy; this is what makes us holy.
Pier Giorgio not only attended Mass, prayed the rosary and read the scriptures, he also encouraged his friends to do the same. I wonder when you last said to one of you friends, ‘I’m going to pray for you’. This beautiful faith, which underpinned his whole short life, overflowed into a love for others, especially those most in need. ‘Jesus comes to me every morning in Holy Communion,’ he once wrote, ‘[and] I repay him in my very small way by visiting the poor.’
As a teenager Pier Giorgio served the poorest without making any great fuss or show. He would spend his bus fare helping others and then run home to make it back in time for dinner.
Just before completing a university degree in mining engineering, Pier Giorgio contracted polio, which doctors suspect he caught visiting the sick. Even on the eve of his death, with a paralysed hand, he scribbled a note asking a friend to take medicine to a poor man he had been caring for. At his funeral, the streets were lined with people totally unknown to his family, the poor and the needy whom he had served so selflessly.
In the last year of his life, Pier Giorgio wrote these words to a friend: ‘To live without Faith, without a patrimony to defend, without a steady struggle for truth, that is not living, but just existing.’
In a sense, the question at the centre of that Gospel passage we heard today gives the reason for why Pier Giorgio lived as he did, for why we all want not merely to exist, but to live lives of conviction about our faith, passion for the truth, and sacrifice for others. A question is put by the Lord Jesus to those who criticised him. In essence, it is this: while it might not be easy, and we may face opposition, should we nonetheless, irrespective of circumstances, always seek to choose and do what is good and seek to choose and do what respects life? By healing a man, when his critics said he shouldn’t, the Lord Jesus demonstrates that the answer is always ‘yes’.
My dear friends, through the teaching of Christ and his Church, that which is good and true and beautiful is held up before us, as it was for Pier Giorgio. The need to defend and protect and serve human life in all situations is as important now as it has ever been. Be courageous. Don’t just exist; live. Live for what is truly good and what serves the dignity of your life and the lives of others. Because of your faith, make a difference to the world and to the people around you. Like Pier Giorgio, live like Jesus and love like Jesus.