Two hundred and forty years ago, on July 2, about 50 men gathered in Philadelphia and voted to declare independence from the British Crown. Two days later, the men approved a document called The Declaration of Independence.
This is the anniversary we remember today, the great event we celebrate with “pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other,” just as John Adams predicted we would in a letter to his wife on July 3, 1776. He also said “it ought to be commemorated … by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty.”
Fittingly, many of us will go to Mass, thank our Father in heaven for this beautiful land of freedom, and beg that it remain that land of freedom.
Because his feast day lands on this great anniversary, most will not even remember young Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati. But he shares this day of celebration with America.
On July 4, 1925, Pier Giorgio died in his bed from polio at the age of 24. He had twenty four short years to make an impact on his country and Church. And that’s exactly what he did.
Most people think of Pier Giorgio as an active, joyful, handsome young man, who is pictured on holy cards climbing mountains and laughing with his friends. He loved mountain climbing, art, the opera, reading Dante, and playing practical jokes.
He is remembered for his charity to the poor, sick, and less fortunate. Despite his wealthy family, he rode third class on the train and then spent the money he saved on medicine and food for the poor. When asked why he rode third class, he merely joked, “Because there is no fourth class.” He went to the poorest, dirties parts of Turin to minister to the sick. He served them to the end, eventually contracting polio while working amongst them. He suffered for six days in silence, not wanting to take his family’s attention away from helping his dying grandmother. When he died, his parents knew they had lost a son. They had no idea that thousands had lost a friend.
His sister later wrote, “The boy whom we thought was unknown to all but his family, suddenly was revealed to us to be the friend of thousands…those whom he had assisted or those he had merely passed near, leaving the unforgettable memory of his spirituality.” “The street—it was nine in the morning—could hardly contain the thousands of persons who had come from every part of the city.” “A blind man wanted to touch the coffin, another struggled to approach his benefactor. The crowd pressed around his mortal remains. Some wept, some prayed, while that coffin, without a single flower, seemed to rock above a tide of heads.”
What many don’t realize about Pier Giorgio is that he lived in Italy during a sensitive time for Church-state relations. Italy had only be unified for thirty years, and Fascism was on the rise. He became heavily involved in political and social reform, belonging to groups such as Catholic Action and the Federation of Italian Catholic University students. He organized his fellow students and workers. He was arrested during peaceful demonstrations. He physically protected priests who were attacked during protests. He dialogued with workers during strikes and uprisings.
At age 21, during the rise of Mussolini, he wrote to his friends, “I glanced at Mussolini’s speech and my blood boiled. I am disappointed by the really shameful behavior of the Popular Party. Where is the fine program, where is the faith which motivates our people? But when it is a matter of turning out for worldly honor, people trample on their own consciences.”
When John Paul II beatified Pier Giorgio in 1990, he called him the “Man of the Beatitudes.” Just like the young John Paul II, Pier Giorgio enjoyed mountain climbing and picnics and spread the Gospel through joy. But also like the young John Paul II, Pier Giorgio did not sit and watch his country and his Church suffer. He became politically involved. He not only fed the poor, he fought for them. He not only lived justice, he worked for it.
Our country needs us to be men and women of the Beatitudes today. We need to thirst for justice. Our Church needs defending. Our freedom needs rescuing.
Our poor need serving. And yet it is precisely the freedom to do this that is being taken away from us.
In his homily to open the first Fortnight for Freedom, Bishop Lori pointed out:
“[E]mbedded in the HHS mandate is a very narrow governmental definition of what constitutes a church; and if it is not removed, it is likely to spread throughout federal law.
In the HHS mandate, the federal government now defines a church as a body which hires mostly its own members and serves mostly its own members, and which exists primarily to advance its own teachings. In a word, so long as a church confines itself to the sacristy, then it is exempt from having to fund and facilitate in its health insurance plans government mandated services which are contrary to its own teachings. But if a church steps beyond the narrow confines of this definition by hiring those of other faiths and by serving the common good – then the government is telling us that such institutions aren’t religious enough, that they don’t deserve an exemption from funding and facilitating those things which violate the very teachings which inspired churches to establish their institutions in the first place.
Friends, we must never allow the government, –any government, at any time, of any party–to impose such a constrictive definition on our beloved Church or any church! Our Church was sent forth by the Lord teach and baptize all the nations. It was commissioned by our Savior to announce that the Kingdom of God is at hand. It was sent into the world to do the corporal works of love and mercy. Don’t we see this all around us – in inner-city Catholic schools, in Catholic hospitals, in the work of Catholic Charities so critical for the well being of local communities? ‘The Word of God cannot be chained,’ St. Paul wrote to Timothy, and now it is up to us to defend the Church’s freedom to fulfill her mission to freely manifest the love of God by organized works of education and charity” (emphasis mine).
May Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, Man of the Beatitudes, intercede for us as we suffer persecution for justice’s sake. On this anniversary of our country’s founding, may we work for justice — so that this country may always be the land of the free and the home of the brave.
O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation.
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
(The Star-Spangled Banner, 4th verse)