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J.D. Long GarcíaApril 30, 2024
Italian Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati was a struggling student who excelled in mountain climbing.(CNS file photo) (Aug. 19, 2005) 

My hands folded, I stared at the woodgrain of the table. I didn’t even notice the stale smell of the old Newman Center carpets anymore. The yellowed ceiling warmed the glow of the fluorescent lights. I looked up at the clock to watch the second-hand tick-tick-tick.

“I don’t think anyone is coming,” I said.

“Let’s give it another five minutes,” Nathan Castle, O.P., told me. He smiled warmly. Father Nathan was the Dominican priest in charge of the Catholic campus ministry at Arizona State University at the time.

He was wearing his white habit for the occasion, though he didn’t always. I’m not sure what I was wearing, but something black and something white, no doubt—the colors of the Dominican order. I had been trying to keep our young lay Dominican group going, but it wasn’t working. I was the only member.

I believe our group started some time in 1997. Marek Wosinski, a psychology professor at A.S.U., brought together a number of Catholic college students to form the group. Among our first goals was to raise money to travel to Maynooth, Ireland, for a gathering of the International Dominican Youth Movement.

Our group was named after Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, who may be canonized in 2025, according to recent reports. None of us had heard of him, but as we read about his life, he captured our imaginations.

Frassati, who was born in Turin, Italy, was only 24 when he died of polio on July 4, 1925. The photographs we have of him depict an athletic young person, always smiling. He had many friends, was an avid mountain climber and smoked a pipe—as many in our group were fond of noting. As we took up the Dominican charisms of preaching, prayer, study and community, we had Frassati’s life in mind.

For example, we began volunteering as a group at André House, a Catholic Worker house of hospitality run by the Holy Cross Fathers in downtown Phoenix. Frassati, who was a lay Dominican himself, is known for his dedication to the poor and marginalized. He joined the Society of St. Vincent de Paul when he was 17. He also joined Catholic Action and promoted Catholic social teaching.

Many of us tried to meet regularly for daily Mass, either on campus at Danforth Chapel or at All Saints Catholic Newman Center across the street. It was also the first time I prayed the rosary with any regularity. Frassati was a daily communicant and was devoted to the Blessed Mother.

Our group began its study of Dominican life by reading Praying with St. Dominic by Michael Monshaw, O.P, which served as an accessible introduction to the Order of Preachers. We later read now-Bishop Robert Barron’s book on St. Thomas Aquinas. While he was not known as a particularly good student, Frassati was Jesuit-educated and studied the writing of St. Catherine of Siena and was fond of St. Paul’s letters.

Our Frassati chapter did a lot of things together, from going to Mass to watching movies. We would have no doubt gone to bars as well, but some of us weren’t yet 21. Frassati had many friends. He shared his faith with them and through his numerous apostolates. He loved sports, played pranks and loved to laugh. For us, he was a young Catholic we could at once identify with and also aspire to be like. He set a high standard but did so joyfully.

Five of us eventually made it to the international conference in Ireland during the summer of 1998, though our lackluster fundraising meant our parents had to pay for a significant portion of the trip.

In Maynooth, we met Dominicans from around the world—laypeople and sisters and friars. I can’t remember how many countries were represented, but it was more than a dozen. Somehow, it felt like coming home. Everyone was smiling, joking and dancing. It seemed like half of those gathered were musicians. The groups from each country took turns presenting on their efforts. We listened to the translators through headsets, gathered for Mass each day and sang songs of praise that were new and fresh to me. The conversation began at breakfast and continued into the wee hours of the night. We talked about God and friendship and serving others.

And I’m sure Pier Giorgio Frassati would have fit right in. Maybe he was there, come to think of it, in that mysterious way that saints are still present to us. I remember never wanting to leave that place. The showers were cold, the food was mediocre, and it was too cold and rainy for me. But it was like heaven on earth. We belonged.

We returned from our trip that summer with a renewed sense of purpose, committed to staying the course, sharing with others what we learned and planning to join the next international conference, wherever it was. I remember organizing a study group on C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. One of the priests lent me cassette tapes of a voice actor playing the role of Uncle Screwtape. It wasn’t a big group, but people from the broader Newman community came. While we didn’t recruit any new members, it was a success.

But overtime, the group shrunk. Members lost interest or graduated. And then, eventually, it was just me.

I kept organizing information sessions, handing out lousy tri-folds I designed on QuarkXPress. During one information session, just one person, whom I had pestered for weeks, showed up. But he wasn’t interested.

Then there was that last information session. I wanted so desperately to establish a vibrant group, one that would continue after I graduated. That way others could walk a similar path, into a deeper relationship with God and neighbor through community. But there was no community anymore.

Father Nathan and I gave it another five minutes. No one came.

I felt like I had failed. I didn’t have the charisma Frassiti did. I kept asking myself: How could the Spirit not want this? I prayed so much for the group, but it was over. 

I looked over to see Father Nathan had his eyes closed. “I can feel Pier Giorgio Frassati with us,” he said. “He has felt what you are feeling right now.”

I took a deep breath and nodded. But inside I was thinking: Yeah, right. If Frassati was with us there, why didn’t he bring his friends with him?

But decades later, I’m sure Father Nathan was right. The life of our chapter was brief, but it was not a failure. All of us are called to be saints and can only do so in community. Those communities often change.

On the day of Frassati’s funeral, thousands showed up to pay their respects. He did things, like giving away his bus fare to the poor and caring for the sick, that he didn’t speak about. Frassati may have died 100 years ago, but he still inspires us and, I believe, still serves alongside us.

“The end for which we are created invites us to walk a road that is surely sown with a lot of thorns, but it is not sad,” Frassati said. “Through even the sorrow, it is illuminated by joy.”

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