A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH
Bishop Fisher's Homily on Feast of Blessed Frassati
"Ready to Think, to Feel, to Love, to Be Generous"
SYDNEY, Australia, 10 JULY 2008 (ZENIT)
Here is the homily Auxiliary Bishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney gave July 4 at St. Benedict's Church on the feast of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati in the presence of his relics. Cardinal George Pell, the archbishop of Sydney, presided at the Mass.
The relics of the blessed, a patron of World Youth Day, were moved from Turin to Sydney for the youth event. They will be available for veneration at St. Mary's Cathedral through July 22.
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Male and female, fat and thin, young and old, clerical and lay, alive or dead at the moment. There are many different kinds Dominicans, of university students, of Vincentians, of Italians, many different kinds of Christians, many different kinds of saints. Each tries to work out with God a path of salvation. Some seem to make more progress than others.
Pier Giorgio was one who in a short time made extraordinary progress in faith, in hope, and in charity. I am delighted, after visiting his family, his home, his tomb, the students and parishioners who treasure his memory, and the chapel where he took as his patron the fiery Dominican reformer Girolamo Savonarola, to now welcome my brother to Sydney. During this World Youth Day period we rely on his heavenly patronage and on the earthly presence of his relics to mediate divine graces we need; but we also hope to make better-known the story of that “Young man driven by his love of God, life and the poor” (Catholic Weekly 30 June 2008).
The Catholic Church, as Chesterton once observed, is the most democratic of organisations, because it has extended its franchise far beyond national borders to all the world — to men and women, rich and poor; to people of all ages, from infant baptism until the last rites of old age; to people of all cultures and communities, all of whom have their sway. Even more democratic than this: she also gives the dead the vote, she treasures her saints and her traditions and allows ages past to have their say as well. Modern, supposedly-liberal societies restrict the franchise to movers and shakers in the here and now. But as we say at the climax of our Creed: “We believe in the Holy Catholic Church” and that means the Body of Christ stretching throughout the world and through time, proclaiming his Gospel through many channels, including our beloved young people, including Pier Giorgio.
Still, it is a quirky, Catholic thing this, this cult of saints long dead. One radio host asked me recently “What’s this thing with Catholics and bones?” One reason is that the relics of saints are sacramentals: sites where God imparts graces of healing, conversion, strength, though the intercession of some faithful soul who is now with Him forever. This was obvious to our ancient and medieval ancestors, who were so much more sophisticated than us when it comes to death. Yet even we primitives honour our war dead, year by year, with various ceremonies, and retell their stories, as if somehow to conjure up their persons and their courage. Even post-moderns have funerals, graves and monuments; they leave flowers and keep ashes — not just to honour a memory but in the hope, in some mysterious way, to remain in communion with those who have died. We might have dumbed things down quite a lot in our relations with the dead, yet still we crave for that next phrase of the Creed: “the communion of the saints”.
There is another reason for venerating relics. Especially today perhaps, when so many people think the real me is some ghost or mind-stuff or inner self and that we can do what we please with the body and be unaffected ‘inside’, we need to retrieve a proper sense of the place of the body. Especially today perhaps, after a century when more and more terrible things have been done to human bodies, by way of torture, genocide, abortion, drugs and self-destruction, and through pornography, prostitution and medical mutilation, we need to be recalled to reverence the body. Against any dualism or disrespect for the body, “this Catholic thing with bones” proclaims the importance of the flesh, and of the unity of body and soul, in every human life now and in the world to come. By honouring relics we honour the person who was and look forward in hope to the person who, after being purified of sin, will be restored and glorified. When Pier Giorgio’s mortal remains were transferred from the Pollone cemetery to the Turin Cathedral they were found incorrupt after sixty years. Reverence for relics, then, is not just a quirky Catholic thing: it is a quirky God thing. “We believe in the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.”
“Amen,” says Pier Giorgio Frassati from his grave here tonight. When Pope John Paul II beatified him in 1990, he called him “the man of our century, the modern man, the man who loved much, the man of the beatitudes.” The photographs around our church show a handsome, robust youth with piercing eyes and an infectious smile. Full of fun and energy, full of God and a passion for sharing God with others: on the face of it, his death at the age of 24 was a tragic waste. Yet here we are, at the other side of the world, celebrating him because of what he still says to us. So far he has lived for 107 years and counting!
I first encountered him on posters in university chaplaincies around Australia. Young men were attracted to the way he made an apostolate even of horse-riding and mountain climbing, party-going and playing pool. Young women seemed to be attracted by his dreamy good looks and romantic character. Young Catholics of all sorts liked the thought that you could be a saint while still a young adult, and that you could unite a passion for God and serving others, with an ordinary young person’s desire for fun. I knew I must get to know him better.
He was born into an important Turin family. His father was an agnostic, the founder-publisher of the liberal newspaper, La Stampa, a senator and later ambassador to Germany. His mother, more sensitive and artistic by nature, saw to the boy’s religious upbringing but was not inclined to his level of devotion or charity. It hurt that his parents did not understand his piety and were struggling in their marriage. Like many young people today, he had to find within himself those gifts of the Holy Spirit that would bring his faith to maturity.
“To live without faith, without a patrimony to defend, without a steady struggle for truth — that is not living, but existing,” he said. As a child he gave his shoes to a beggar. As a university student he devoted his time before and after classes to working in the slums. As a young man he gave his overcoat to a vagrant when the temperature was minus 12 degrees Celsius [10 degrees Fahrenheit] and when his father scolded him he replied automatically: “But Papa, it was cold.” Cold, of course, for the pauper; cold for Christ in that pauper. He gave away his bus fares and even his graduation money to the poor. When asked by friends why he rode third class on the trains he replied with a smile, “Because there is no fourth class.”
It is good to do such things oneself, but even better to do them with others, with “a communion of saints” or saints-in-the-making, and so Pier Giorgio was a great joiner of groups. He loved companionship in a common cause. To promote Catholic social teaching he joined the Catholic Student Federation, the Popular Party and the student newspaper. To serve the poor he joined the St Vincent de Paul Society. To deepen his spirituality he joined the Dominican Laity (‘tertiaries’). Even his practical jokes, sports and social life drew others to God. When Father Gillet — eventually Master of the Dominican Order — met him at University, he recorded that the young man deeply impressed him “with his particular charm. He seemed to radiate a force of attraction … everything in him shone with joy, because it grew from his beautiful nature to bloom in the sunshine of God.”
Fr Gillet thought Pier Giorgio rare amongst university students in his “longing for the supernatural and true temperament of an apostle… [ready] to think, to feel, to love, to be generous, with all the impetus and resources of nature and grace.” Perhaps after World Youth Day this will not be so rare amongst our university students. Students were certainly Pier Giorgio’s special love after his family and the poor. Yet shortly before his graduation he contracted polio from one of the sick to whom he ministered. After six days of intense suffering he died on this day, 4 July, 1925.
The church was full of the worthies of the city for his funeral, as you would expect for one from such a prominent family, as well as his student friends and disciples. But to their astonishment, when they came out of the church, the streets were lined not by the élite, but by the poor and needy whom he had served throughout his short life. The crowd of the poor were equally surprised to find out that their beloved “Fra Girolamo” was from a rich family. It was they who petitioned the Archbishop of Turin to begin the process for his canonization.
Now he speaks to a new generation. Now he graces our World Youth Day with his patronage and witness. Pier Giorgio Frassati, witness to justice and charity, “man of the beatitudes,” draw us more deeply into the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen!
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