It was supposed to be a peaceful demonstration.
Their numbers swelled to fifty thousand by the time they took to the streets. The large assembly drew the ire of supporters of the opposing party, who shouted and antagonized them. Fights broke out. As police intervened, one tall, athletic young man entered the fray, not to brawl but to help a feeble friend get out of the chaos.
A makeshift police barrier failed to deter the demonstrators, who marched on. Another barrier was established, this time with military officers. More violence ensued, but a few managed to slip through. Finally, this small band was beset by further violence. The signs they carried were confiscated. Defiant, the young man—that tall, athletic one from before—seized a trampled banner and raised it high. He was thrown to the sidewalk and taken into custody, along with his friends.
Many demonstrators held in the makeshift prison nursed injuries. The young man helped calm and comfort them. The tattered banner still in his hand, he led the recitation of a rosary. “For us, and for those who have hit us,” he began.
The officers realized he was the son of the ambassador to Germany. They sought to release him swiftly and quietly, but he refused to leave the others behind. The national political system was crumbling. Society was in ferment. His personal privilege meant nothing to him. He belonged wholeheartedly to a higher cause.
This young man’s cause, in turn, is currently open—his cause for canonization, that is. He is on the threshold of being declared a saint in the Catholic Church.
His name is Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati. The assembly described above took place in Rome in 1921. It was organized by the Italian Catholic Youth. This was one of several activist organizations to which Pier Giorgio belonged, groups seeking to pursue the Church’s social teachings as promoted in Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum novarum. The antagonizers were Fascist sympathizers. (Mussolini would take power a year later.) Pier Giorgio and his friends marched in support of the freedoms—for individuals and for the Church—which they recognized Fascism threatened.
There’s a tendency in accounts of Pier Giorgio’s brief life—he died in 1925, at the age of twenty-four, from polio contracted during his extensive work with poor—to look past his political activism and to focus on other areas of his life: his assiduous care for the needy, his zeal for sports and the outdoors, or his misadventures as a student. But Pier Giorgio’s activism was not incidental to his sanctification; it was instrumental to it. His political activism was an expression of his sanctity, and his sanctity shaped his activism. Pier Giorgio was as attentive to the political problems in his native Italy as he was to the needs of the poor (and he was so attentive to them that hundreds whom he helped unexpectedly lined the streets for his funeral).
As the Republican National Convention gets underway, and anxiety mounts over protests and public safety in Cleveland, it’s worthwhile to reflect on Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati’s brand of political activism. It offers a corrective to what we’ve seen on display in places like San Jose, Burlingame, Chicago, and Fayetteville, and may very well see in Cleveland.
In clashes between anti- and pro-Trump forces, violence has been embraced as a necessary evil. “Trump is a fascist,” one anti-Trump protester stated bluntly in a recent news report. Violence, she continued, is “the only thing that stands up to fascism.” When Pier Giorgio Frassati would travel to the outskirts of Turin, his hometown, to promote Christian ideals in the Communist strongholds, he was frequently derided and physically threatened. The same thing happened at the many political rallies he felt it was his duty to attend. When he was complimented for his courage and restraint, he would reply, “One ought to go and one does. It is not they who suffer violence who should fear it, but those who practice it.”
What joins protesters in Cleveland is cobelligerence. They share a common enemy, but little else to genuinely unite them. Another anti-Trump protester in the same news report observed, “All these people are coming in, and they’ve got their own agenda.” The disunity exacerbates chaos on the streets. But a personal agenda is precisely what Pier Giorgio lacked. He had no pet cause, and didn’t want others in the Catholic social movement to have one either. As with St. John Paul II, Pier Giorgio recognized the efficaciousness of Christian solidarity. (When the pope visited Frassati’s tomb in 1989 he remarked, “When I was a young man, I, too, felt the beneficial influence of his example.” Indeed, if one were to plot Pier Giorgio on the grid of modern sanctity, it would be at the point at which John Paul II’s zeal for solidarity, Teresa of Calcutta’s compassion for the poor, and Dorothy Day’s pious activism intersect.) Pier Giorgio worked to unify various Catholic organizations, bringing together believers of different classes, ages, and social causes. After Frassati suggested that Catholic student and worker organizations unite under one banner, someone from the student organization pointed out that his support of labor reforms might actually impoverish his affluent family. He replied, “And what does that matter?” His commitment to the common good was genuine.
Amidst any chaos at the conventions, or on the campaign trail this autumn, we would do well to invoke the aid of Pier Giorgio Frassati. His loves were properly ordered toward the good, so his political activism—which flowed from his charity—was as well.
Jordan Zajac, O.P., is a Dominican brother of the Province of St. Joseph and a summer intern at First Things.