This upcoming summer, the Church will be celebrating World Youth Day in Kraków. The Church invites all of us, not just those pilgrims in Poland, to celebrate and participate in this great event. The Catholic Apostolate Center announced a few weeks ago that it will be partnering with the USCCB and the Archdiocese of Washington in a number of World Youth Day celebrations both here and abroad, including the event “Kraków in the Capital,” which celebrates World Youth Day stateside in Washington, D.C. As I was helping prepare for the celebration, I came across the fact that the body of Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati will be present for the World Youth Day celebrations in Kraków. I knew very little about this extraordinary young man and I decided that I needed to learn about him. I feel like my introduction to him was perfect timing. Much like Pier Giorgio, I have a great love for the outdoors and for sports. I will gladly spend hours watching games and discussing Sidney Crosby and my Pittsburgh Penguins, the New York Giants, and why the 1969 Mets were the greatest World Series team. Some of my fondest memories include hiking in the Scottish Highlands, climbing mountains in the Adirondacks, and backpacking in New Mexico. I've always regarded these as great activities, but found it challenging to incorporate them into my spiritual life. I knew that being in nature connected me closer to God, but did not know how that could affect my spiritual journey. This young man showed me how.
Pier Giorgio Frassati was born to a prominent family in Torino, Italy on April 6, 1901. His father was the founder of the La Stampa national newspaper (which is still in print today) and was very active in national politics as a member of left wing parties. Growing up, Pier Giorgio took an active role in his life of faith and developed a deep spiritual life. He could often be found praying before the Blessed Sacrament and reflecting on the Beatitudes. During World War I, he served the sick and helped servicemen reintegrate back into society. Like his father, Pier Giorgio got involved with politics but joined the People's Party, which was based on Rerum Novarum and Catholic Social Teaching. He would often be found climbing mountains, going to the theater and to the opera, but never let these pastimes interrupt his service to the poor and the outcast. He would be seen giving bread and sometimes his own clothing to the beggars in the streets. While still a young man, Pier Giorgio was photographed climbing a mountain. He signed the photograph 'Verso L'Alto', which means 'Go to the Heights'. This would serve as his personal motto and means more than simply mountain climbing. It is also a figure speech referring to the climb towards Christ. Pier Giorgio felt that he was drawn to the heights of the Beatitudes and to the Blessed Sacrament. He encouraged all those around him to also climb to these heights of the spiritual life.
Pier Giorgio's family disapproved of his activities and of his faith. They could not understand Pier Giorgio's passion for the poor and for the spiritual life. As he grew older, he grew deeper in his devotion and eventually joined the Third Order of Saint Dominic (Lay Dominicans) in 1922. Before graduating from university, Pier Giorgio contracted a very aggressive form of polio and grew extremely ill. It was during this short period that his grandmother passed away, drawing ire from his family because they felt that Pier Giorgio did not show enough grief for her death due to his own illness. On the night before Pier Giorgio himself passed away, he requested that his medication be given to a poor man he had been visiting. Pier Giorgio succumbed to his illness on July 24, 1925. His family expected very few people to come to his funeral, only some family and personal friends. When the family departed for the funeral, they were completely stunned to find the streets completely lined with thousands of people whom he had cared for. Simultaneously, the people lining the streets were shocked to find that he was from such a prominent family.
Pier Giorgio's legacy continued not only in Torino, but also throughout the world. While visiting Torino in 1989, Saint John Paul II made a pilgrimage to his tomb. A year later, on May 20th, Pier Giorgio Frassati was beatified in Saint Peter Square. His body was then moved from the family plot and reinterred in the Cathedral of Torino for pilgrims to visit. St. John Paul II said, "He (Frassati) testifies that holiness is possible for everyone". In researching his life, I have found encouragement from this great man. He shows us how to have zeal not only for life, but also for our faith. He gives us courage and inspiration. As I prepare for the World Youth Day celebrations, I look forward to diving deeper into the life and spirituality of Pier Giorgio.
Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, pray for us!
“May is Mary’s Month,” began the great poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ, in “The May Magnificat.”
For centuries, the Catholic Church has emphasized the month of May as a time of honor and devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Parishes and families often celebrate with special pilgrimages, devotions, or placing a crown on a statue of Mary, traditionally called a “May Crowning.”
On April 29, 1965, Pope Blessed Paul VI promulgated his encyclical Mense Maio (“The Month of May”), which promoted May devotions to the Blessed Mother, knowing that, “the person who encounters Mary cannot help but encounter Christ likewise” (n. 2). Despite being a lesser-known encyclical, its timing and topic are revealing. Released on the eve of the last session of the Second Vatican Council and amid escalating violence and unrest of the Vietnam War and the 1960’s, the help of Mary was “a matter of top priority” considering “the present needs of the Church and the status of world peace” (n. 3). The words of Paul VI are just as relevant today. In our contentious social and political climate, focusing on Mary is not a pious distraction from real issues, but a vital source for grace, truth, and mercy.
A Short History and Practice
May devotions to Mary began in the 13th century, but there is little information to know how it was celebrated. In it’s present form, the practice of May devotions to Mary originated within the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) in the 18th century under Father Latomia of their Roman College. Shortly afterwards, devotions were adopted at the Jesuit’s mother church in Rome, the Church of the Gesù, and then began to spread throughout other area churches to the entire globe. (Pope Francis, who is also a Jesuit, has a special devotion to Mary, Undoer of Knots, a phrase first attributed to St. Irenaeus of Lyons who said, “The knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosened by the obedience of Mary”).
The image of Mary wearing a gold crown appears in early Eastern and Western iconography, drawing inspiration from the Coronation of Mary as understood in Catholic biblical tradition based on the passage from Revelation 12:1. Some churches and families participate in a special May Crowning celebration. Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605) first placed two crowns on the Marian icon called “Salus Populi Romani” in the Roman Basilica of St. Mary Major, but the crowns were later lost. On the Feast of the Assumption in 1838, Pope Gregory XVI once again added crowns in a special rite, officially starting the tradition as it is still performed today.
One reason the devotion has come to extend over the entire month is the abundance of Marian feast days in May: Mary, Queen of Apostles (Saturday before Pentecost – May 14th, this year), Our Lady of Fatima (May 13), Mary Help of Christians (May 24), and the Visitation (May 31).
Mary in May Today
Seeking Peace- Pope Paul VI’s encyclical was especially concerned with peace, invoking the “intercession and protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Queen of Peace” (n. 10). Amid ongoing persecutions and violence in many areas of the world, turning to Christ though Mary is an important way to pray that May becomes a month of peace.
Honoring the Family- Mary receives an important role in Pope Francis’ recent Exhortation Amoris Laetitia- The Joy of Love: On Love in the Family. He states, “Every family should look to the icon of the Holy Family of Nazareth” (n. 30). Pope Francis goes on to say, “The treasury of Mary’s heart also contains the experiences of every family, which she cherishes. For this reason, she can help us understand the meaning of these experiences and to hear the message God wishes to communicate through the life of our families” (n. 30). Pope Francis reminds us that by honoring Mary, we honor Jesus and our families.
Honoring the Body- Our culture and Church desperately needs the figure of Mary before our eyes as an exemplar of the dignity and uniqueness of women, especially in light of the real and present danger of pornography. The USCCB has also created a pastoral guide regarding pornography “to raise awareness of its pervasiveness and harms.” This month, ask Mary’s intercession for an end to this destructive force, and healing for those deeply affected.
Honoring Your Mother- For good measure, May also celebrates our biological Mother’s Day (May 8, don’t forget!). Let Mary’s month be a new reason to honor and celebrate your own mother.
There is no lack of reasons to stay close to Mary this month, and throughout our lives. Find ways to honor her with your words and actions by seeking new ways to bring about mercy and peace through our churches into our hurting world.