The sayings of philosophers don’t often make their way into our common parlance. People tend not to quote Plato or Aristotle in polite conversation, but, often without knowing it, they do quote – or, more often, come close to quoting – the Spanish-born and American-raised man of letters George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” His point, which is retained even in the most inaccurate retellings, is that, “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness.”
As we approach July 4, 2020, it is a good time to take a step back and look at how these sage words might apply to our present situation. Few years since 1776 have been more eventful, especially for the internal sense of who we are a nation, and it would be a missed opportunity if we did not reflect on where we have been so as to know where we should go as we face what surely will be a brave new world.
From a Catholic perspective, it might be helpful to look 95 years into the past – to July 4, 1925. On this day in Turin, Italy, a 24-year-old social justice activist and opponent of fascism named Pier Giorgio Frassati died after a short battle with polio. Coming from a prominent family – his father owned La Stampa, one of the most influential newspapers in Italy – his funeral was attended by the elite and well connected of Turin. But in addition, the streets were lined with thousands of mourners who saw Frassati as a champion of the poor and marginalized.
His public works were well known – things like his protests against and arrest by the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini and his founding of the newspaper Momento promoting the social teachings of Pope Leo XIII. But many of those who attended his funeral were drawn to him by stories of private acts of charity and concern for those who did not grow up in a privileged home. One of the earliest such stories tells of a young Pier Giorgio answering the door to find a poor mother begging for money to buy her son shoes. The response – to give his own shoes to the boy – was to be a hallmark of the life of this saint-in-the-making.
At his beatification in 1990 Pope John Paul II hailed Frassati as the “Man of the Eight Beatitudes” and he is today seen as a patron of, among other things, Catholic Action. Most people know what the Beatitudes are (even if they can’t recite them from memory), but few – even Catholics – are aware of the movement known as Catholic Action, the loosely-tied confederation of Catholic social justice networks throughout Europe and the world.
The seminal Catholic Action group was the Young Christian Workers in Belgium, founded by Fr. Joseph Cardijn in the years after World War I. At a rally in Paris he told 75,000 young Catholic workers that they had “a divine mission from God…to bring the whole world to Christ.” Fr. Cardijn is also known for his simple approach to all social activism: Observe-Judge-Act.
Bl. Pier Giorgio’s belief that “charity was not enough, we need social reform” was in complete harmony with the ideals of Fr. Cardijn’s movement, and fittingly it was at a congress of the Young Catholic Workers in Rome that he was arrested. In fact, Fr. Cardijn was so impressed with the holiness of the young Italian social activist that he petitioned Pope Pius XI to initiate Frassati’s cause of canonization.
Frassati is a model of Catholic social activism, and should be seen as such by anyone who claims to be a faithful follower of Jesus, the original Man of the Eight Beatitudes. He, following his mentor Fr. Cardijn, knew that any action must spring from a purpose, an aim. The actor must always be able to answer the question, “How will what I am doing help to bring the whole world to Christ?” If no answer can be found, then no action can be taken.
History shows that any and all social action undertaken without a purpose compatible with that of Jesus is a crucible for chaos and anarchy, death and destruction – meaning more, rather than less, social injustice for those most vulnerable. It leads inexorably to events where, in the cold light of day, even the participants may look back and ask, “What have I done?” If only the devastating effects of such acts from the past had been remembered.
Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, pray for us.