Faith that Works

Teaching middle schoolers how to live and practice their faith

Here is a copy of the talk I gave to kick off our back to school retreat last week.  We chose the Beatitudes as our theme and the life of Pier Giorgio as our example.  I used the book Pier Giorgio Frassati: A Man of the Beatitudes by his sister, Luciana for my facts.  Feel free to use the format of this if it is helpful- just know that I connected his life to my own, and my experiences may not speak to your own.

I also told the story of my friend MaryJo, a woman of the Beatitudes, at the end.  MaryJo was one of my first teaching friends.  She recently died while working for Catholic Relief Services in Afghanistan.  In her 33 years, her love of service, her joy in teaching and her infectious laughter touched thousands of life.  I then encouraged students to find those who are a light of hope in their lives and to be a light of hope for others.

 

Life is like a voyage on the sea of history, often dark and stormy, a voyage in which we watch for the stars that indicate the route. The true stars of our life are the people who have lived good lives. They are lights of hope. Certainly, Jesus Christ is the true light, the sun that has risen above all the shadows of history. But to reach him we also need lights close by—people who shine with his light and so guide us along our way.

Pope Benedict Spe Salvi paragraph 49(Saved by Hope)

I wanted to start this retreat today with that quote from Pope Benedict for several reasons.  First of all, I feel that sometimes Pope Benedict gets a bum rap because he looks like the bad guy from Star Wars.  But in Pope Benedict we get a beautiful example of humble service to the Church, which is something that we will talk about a lot today as we learn about Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati and the Beatitudes.  Part of growing in happiness and holiness is learning how to serve others, and Pope Benedict does just that for our Church, still today.

The other reason I wanted to share this quote with you is because it has had a huge impact on my own relationship with God and others.  I love the lives of the saints, and their examples truly help me when I need guidance on my own voyage of faith.  Pier Giorgio Frassati is one of those lights of hope in my life, and I hope that by the end of this morning he can be a light of hope for you too.

  1. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

 Who was Pier Giorgio Frassati?  He was born in Italy in April of 1901 into an affluent family.  This means that they were important and had a lot of money.  He had a younger sister named Luciana.  They were only year apart and very close.  Pier loved his parents and sister very much, but they didn’t really understand or accept him.  His dad was not very kind to his mom, and this was very hard for Pier and his sister.  In the family, no one loved God or practiced their faith except for Pier.  From a very young age he would pray and encourage others, even though this often made life at home very hard for him.

This part of Pier’s story gives me hope for the times when I want to live my faith, but don’t necessarily have the support from people in my family.  Only two of my sisters practice their faith, so this happens a lot.  When I get frustrated or feel alone, I can remember that Pier felt this way too.

  1. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.

 Even when he was super young, Pier Giorgio was very aware of the poor.  Once, a mother came to their door asking for money to buy shoes for her child.  Pier didn’t have any money (he was only about 7 or 8) so he took off his shoes and gave them to her.  Another time a man asking their family for help was turned away from the door because he was drunk.  Pier was so upset that eventually his mom said he could find the man and invite him into the kitchen for something to eat.

Pier’s generosity challenges me lot.  Sometimes I fall into the trap of judging the people who need or ask for my help.  I wonder “will they use this to buys drugs or alcohol”? and then I don’t help.  Maybe they will use my help the wrong way, but I am trying to remember that judging is not my job.  Even though if I am being honest, homelessness makes me really uncomfortable, there are ways I can safely help.

  1. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.

Parts of school were very hard for Pier Giorgio, especially writing. This was especially difficult because his dad ran a newspaper that was very big, and Pier was expected to take over the family business.  Because he failed a very important test, his parents decided to send him to Catholic school.  What originally had seemed like a terrible embarrassment to him was suddenly a great thing.  Now he got to learn about his faith in school, and he felt like he had won the lottery.

I think of this when something in my life isn’t going right and I am having trouble seeing God’s plan.  For example, at the end of college, a lot of really bad things were going on in my life, but as a result, I looked for God’s plan and ended up moving to Yakima.  Now I get to be a part of this amazing community and I have a great family here.

  1. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 

During his years in college, Pier Giorgio Frassati was an activist.  This is probably one of my favorite things about him, because I am someone who tends to get all fired up when I see situations that I think are unjust.  I know getting fired up seems to be the opposite of being a peacemaker, but Pier Giorgio did a great job balancing the two.

Pier was part of two different Catholic student groups, and neither group particularly got along with the other.  At one march he was able to calm a fight between the groups by simply praying “Praised be Jesus.”  He was very active in protests against the government because in 1922 Italy became a Facist country, and in Facist countries there are very few civil liberties.

He also was one of the organizers of the very first Pax Romana conference.  Pax Romana is a group that tries to unite Catholic students to work together for peace.  This movement still exists today.

I really want to be like Pier and find the balance between activism and peace making.  I think we have a real need in our world right now for people who can peacefully disagree and protest injustice.  Too often we see good causes devolve into violence and name calling. Pier’s example can show us a good way to disagree with one another.

5. Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.

Pier Giorgio was an avid outdoorsman.  He loved skiing, mountain climbing, hiking and all sorts of other athletic activities.  He would often meet with friends in the mountains and pray and talk about God with them while enjoying nature.  He saw God in everyone he met and in every beautiful thing he came across on his adventures.  The very last photograph of him shows him on a mountain, striving toward the top.  He wrote the words verso l’alto on the picture for his sister- toward the top.  Many people use this saying now as a way to remind themselves to always work- toward the top- toward heaven.

Pier Giorgio’s love of nature and constant striving toward the heights challenge me to be aware of the many ways God is working in my life.  Because the clean of heart see God, I am challenged to see everything as a gift from God and to keep my heart open to the possibilities he has for me.

  1. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

 Probably one of the most important things to know about Pier Giorgio Frassati is the way that he helped the poor.  In addition to his acts of charity as a child, at the age of 17 he joined the Saint Vincent De Paul Society, which is an organization that devotes itself to serving the poor.  He would visit the sick and the poor, and he used all of his money to buy food and medicine for those in need.  When he ran out of money he would continue to visit people just to talk and pray with them.  He had a special place in his heart for the soldiers returning from World War One who were often physically and mentally ill.

He was very quiet about his work with the poor- only his closest friends knew about it.  He loved to read 1 Corinthians 13- love does not boast.  He simply loved people and showed them mercy.  He never tried to draw attention to himself.

So many times I find myself doing the right thing because I want people to know that I did the right thing.  In Pier Giorgio, I can see a better way of doing things.  Be merciful and loving in the quiet hidden ways- love does not boast.

  1. Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.

 Pier Giorgio’s grandmother died July 1st, 1925, and he missed her last hours because he had what seemed like the flu.  His family was extremely angry with him- his mother even told him that “whenever you are needed you are never there.”  He was very upset that he couldn’t see her and pray with her, and tried to crawl down the hallway to leave the house. What his family didn’t know was that he was already paralyzed from the waist down, and that he too, was dying at the age of only 24.  Even in his last moments his parents were incredibly harsh with him, and he was quiet and calm.

Pier had caught polio, an extremely contagious disease, from the people he was serving.  As he lay dying, with all his family miles away at his grandmother’s funeral, his last concerns were for the people he had been helping.  He sent friends with medicine and food to the people in need.

On July 4th, 1925, Pier Giorgio went home to be with Jesus.

Being corrected or punished for something you didn’t do is really painful, and it is hard for me to imagine how Pier felt at his mother’s words.  But in times where I feel like someone is being unfairly harsh with me, maybe Pier’s example will help me.

  1. Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.

After Pier Giorgio’s death, something amazing happened. His family, who had no idea all the things that Pier had done for the poor, expected it to be a small funeral with a few important family friends there.  On their way to the funeral, the streets were lined with thousands of people whom Pier Giorgio had befriended, helped and prayed for.  Most of these people were the poorest in the city.  For the first time, they realized that they had been living with a saint.

I want to return to the quote from Pope Benedict for a moment.

Life is like a voyage on the sea of history, often dark and stormy, a voyage in which we watch for the stars that indicate the route. The true stars of our life are the people who have lived good lives. They are lights of hope. Certainly, Jesus Christ is the true light, the sun that has risen above all the shadows of history. But to reach him we also need lights close by—people who shine with his light and so guide us along our way.

Pope Benedict Spe Salvi paragraph 49(Saved by Hope)

My first thing I hope you take away from this is how Pier Giorgio can be a light of hope.  He wasn’t the perfect student, brother or son, but he loved God and others in the best way he could.  He didn’t have the perfect family, but he still knew the perfect love of God.  We’re not perfect either, but God is calling each of us verso l’alto- to the top.

My second thing is that when we hear the lives of saints they can seem impossible or long ago.  Pope Benedict also encourages us to find “lights close by”- people who shine with his light and so guide us along our way.  Find those people in your life and stay close to them.  You too could be living with a saint.  I want to share a quick example of a woman of the beatitudes who I was blessed to know in real life.  When I first moved to Washington, MaryJo was the very first person I met.  As I got to know her, I was impressed with her commitment to service and her infectious laughter.  MaryJo got me to try all sorts of things that I found scary- biking all over the city of Portland, camping in the middle of nowhere, rope bridges that could only safely hold one person, and all sorts of disgusting fast food.  MaryJo spent her entire adult life teaching, first in a very poor school in Portland, then a very poor school in Nicaragua, and most recently she had moved to Afghanistan to try to help girls go to school- over 4 million girls in Afghanistan are not allowed to go to school, and MaryJo the activist knew this wasn’t right.  When she died earlier this month, at the age of 33, MaryJo, like Pier Giorgio, had touched the lives of thousands.  Her friendship and example are a light of hope to me.

So this week, this year, find your lights of hope.  Find a saint who you want to be like, and learn everything you possibly can about them.  Find a friend or mentor who you want to be like and ask them to support you.

Most of all, be like Pier Giorgio, or MaryJo.  Be a light of hope to someone else.  Thank you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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