Spiritual Reflections from the Frassati Fellowship of NYC
Erin is a writer, editor, cradle Catholic, and incurable daydreamer. By day she works in book publishing; by night she teaches catechism to middle schoolers, volunteers with the Sisters of Life, watches every video of the Notre Dame marching band in existence, and becomes way too invested in March Madness. She has been involved with the Frassati Fellowship since moving to NYC in 2014.
Today begins the St. Andrew Christmas Novena, also called the Christmas Anticipation Prayer. I first heard about this tradition a few years ago, and it’s a really beautiful prayer:
Hail and blessed be the hour and moment in which the Son of God was born of the most pure Virgin Mary, at midnight, in Bethlehem, in the piercing cold. In that hour, vouchsafe, O my God! to hear my prayer and grant my desires, through the merits of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of His Blessed Mother. Amen.
Traditionally, this prayer is recited fifteen times a day, beginning on November 30, the Feast of St. Andrew, and finishing on Christmas Eve. It is a meditative prayer, helping us to place ourselves in Bethlehem and focus on the coming of the Christ child as we prepare for Christmas. Praying with this novena has given me a richer awareness of God throughout the Advent and Christmas seasons. It helps me to connect my own present experiences and petitions with the miracle of the incarnation.
Last year, I created a lock screen for my phone with the novena prayer written on it, so that throughout the day, whenever I checked my phone, I would see the novena and be reminded to pray it. I’ll share it with you here, in case any of you need the same reminder!
Mary’s fiat at the Annunciation was not just a yes to the be the mother of Jesus but also a yes to the Cross. Today we recall the suffering she willingly accepted, to watch her beloved Son be brutally tortured and killed. She chose to swallow this unimaginably bitter pill because she trusted in her Son’s mission, the salvation of the world and the victory of the Kingdom of God.
We, too, will have to suffer in this world. We don’t often expect to encounter suffering in our lives, which is pretty shortsighted, seeing as Jesus specifically told us that we would. We might look back and remember some bumps along the way, but as we look forward, we imagine smooth sailing, and we’re rattled when things don’t go as we anticipate. But just as Jesus and Mary had to accept the cup of suffering in order to fulfill God’s greater plan, so too will we have to pick up our crosses.
Some of the hardships and injustices we will experience will seem senseless and bleak, and we will struggle to understand how these things could possibly fit into God’s plan. But a God Who could transform the Cross from a sign of brutality and death to a sign of life and resurrection can take the ugliness in our lives and use it to work for good. He can bring meaning to the darkest, most desolate moments of our existence. And He does not leave us alone in them. He is there right beside us, along with His Mother. She gave her fiat as an act of hope, that the suffering that awaited her would not be the end. We, too, are called to give a fiat amidst all the sufferings of this life and trust that none of it will be wasted.
Today we celebrate the feast of our patron, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. As we remember the life of this remarkable young man, let us reflect on four key components of his spirituality, the four pillars of our Frassati Fellowship of NYC.
Adoration of Christ in the Eucharist
The Eucharist was absolutely central to Pier Giorgio’s life. He received Christ with joy each morning in Holy Communion, and he carried Him forth to everyone he met throughout the rest of his day. Pier Giorgio knew that he could not rely on his own strength; rather, he sought to draw nearer to Jesus, that through relationship with Him and intimate communion, he might become a vessel for God in the world. He once wrote to his fellow young people, urging them to seek Jesus in the Eucharist:
And remembering that apostle of the Holy Eucharist, the Holy Father Pius X of venerable memory, I urge you with all the strength of my soul to approach the Eucharistic Table as often as possible. Feed on this Bread of the Angels from which you will draw the strength to fight inner struggles, the struggles against passions and against all adversities, because Jesus Christ has promised to those who feed themselves with the most Holy Eucharist, eternal life and the necessary graces to obtain it.
And when you become totally consumed by this Eucharistic Fire, then you will be able to thank with greater awareness the Lord God who has called you to be part of His flock and you will enjoy that peace which those who are happy according to the world have never tasted. Because true happiness, young people, does not consist in the pleasures of the world and in earthly things, but in peace of conscience which we can have only if we are pure in heart and in mind.
Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, in a letter to the members of “Catholic Youth” of Pollone, July 29, 1923
Spiritual Growth through Authentic Friendship
Within the Frassati Fellowship of NYC, we are blessed to have experienced firsthand the transformative grace of holy friendship. Pier Giorgio cherished his own friendships and prayed fervently for each of his friends. We can tell by reading his letters to them how sincerely he delighted in each of them, in all their little quirks and unique personalities. He was deeply grateful for the gift of his friends and was inspired and enlightened by their presence. Pier Giorgio fostered friendships in which each person encouraged the other to grow closer to God and become the people God had created them to be:
In this earthly life after the affection for parents and sisters, one of the most beautiful affections is that of friendship; and every day I ought to thank God because he has given me men and lady friends of such goodness who form for me a precious guide for my whole life. Every time I visit Clementina I’m edified by her great kindness and I think of the immense Good that such a beautiful Soul has certainly done and will do. Surely Divine Providence in His Marvelous Plans sometimes uses us miserable little twigs to do Good and we sometimes not only don’t want to know God but instead dare to deny His existence; but we who, by the Grace of God, have the Faith, when we find ourselves in the presence of such beautiful souls, surely nourished by Faith, we cannot but discover in them an obvious sign of the Existence of God, because one cannot have such a Goodness without the Grace of God.
Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, in a letter to Marco Beltramo, April 10, 1925
Love of the Outdoors
Pier Giorgio had a special awareness of God’s presence in creation. The mountains were the place where he could feel especially close to God, set apart from the distractions of everyday life and in awe of the beauty of nature. He reminds us of how powerful it can be to disconnect from all the noise that surrounds us and find peace in nature, appreciating the incredible beauty God has created for us:
Do you still intend to climb to the top of the Rognosa by the crest this spring, if God gives us life? I’m always ready because every day I fall in love with the mountains more and more and, if my studies would allow me to do it, I would spend entire days on the mountains contemplating in that pure air the Greatness of the Creator.
Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, in a letter to Marco Beltramo, August 6, 1923
A Heart for the Poor
Pier Giorgio’s devotion to God bore fruit not only in his friendships but also in his devotion to the poorest members of his community. He shared his joy with those most in need, never hesitating to sacrifice his own money or goods for the sake of others. He truly saw the presence of Christ in the poor, and he developed beautiful relationships with those he visited. He cared for them deeply, and his own faith was inspired by his encounters with them:
As we grow closer to the poor little by little we gain their confidence and can advise them in the most terrible moments of this earthly pilgrimage. We can give them the comforting words of faith and we often succeed, not by our own merit, in putting on the right path people who have strayed not out of malice. I think I can say that the Conference of St. Vincent with its visits to the poor serves to curb our passions, it gives us increasing incentives to get on the right road by which we are all trying to reach the great harbor. Seeing daily the faith with which families often bear the most atrocious sufferings, the constant sacrifices that they make and that they do all this for the love of God often makes us ask this question: I, who have had so many things from God, have always been so neglectful, so bad, while they, who have not been privileged like me, are infinitely better than me. Then we resolve in our conscience to follow the way of the Cross from then onward, the only way that leads us to Eternal Salvation.
Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, in a speech to FUCI students
On this ninety-sixth anniversary of Pier Giorgio’s entrance into heaven, let us remember his life with gratitude for the beautiful example he has given us of authentic holiness. Just as he was devoted to his friends on earth, he is still a most devoted friend to us in heaven. Let us seek his friendship, for he will be a sure guide to lead us closer to God.
Brothers and sisters: To this day, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over the hearts of the children of Israel, but whenever a person turns to the Lord the veil is removed.
Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit.
—2 Corinthians 3:15–18
This passage from today’s first reading speaks to the nature of the human heart. We all have a natural inclination to veil our hearts, to protect the innermost part of ourselves that is most vulnerable and keep it closed off. However, the veils we place around our hearts keep us from receiving the transformative gaze of the Lord.
In the book of Ezekiel, the Lord tells us, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26). He wants to utterly transform our hearts, but He can only do so if we give Him permission. We must remove the veils that we’ve constructed in our defensiveness and allow Him to look upon our hearts as they truly are. He will not deal with us as the world does; He will not wound us but will bring healing beyond what we can measure. Only by allowing ourselves to be vulnerable with the Lord will we find our true identity and purpose.
As we prepare to celebrate the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus tomorrow, let us open our own hearts to receive His. May we take down any barriers that stand between us and God and receive the gift of His transformative gaze.
— Image: Giovanni di Paolo, Saint Catherine of Siena Exchanging Her Heart with Christ / PD-US
“For what great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the LORD, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him? Or what great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today?
“However, take care and be earnestly on your guard not to forget the things which your own eyes have seen, nor let them slip from your memory as long as you live, but teach them to your children and to your children’s children.”
In today’s first reading, Moses speaks to the Israelites and reminds them of all that the Lord has done to lead them out of Egypt, through the wilderness, and into the Promised Land, which they are about to enter. His admonition to carefully keep God’s commandments is accompanied by this call to remember, to repeat the stories of the marvels God has done for this people through every generation. Moses knows that the people will struggle to carry out God’s commands, but if they keep those stories close and kindle a devotion to the God who has rescued them from slavery and led them through the wilderness, they will be more likely to observe God’s law because of their love for Him.
While they traveled in the wilderness, God led them in a more tangible way: in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. As they enter into the Promised Land, His guidance will not be so immediately apparent. As they enjoy all the new comforts of the land, it will become all too easy to forget their need for God. And so Moses implores the people to remember: to keep God’s Word engraved upon their hearts, instilled in the minds and hearts of their children, and ingrained within all their habits and traditions. The covenant God has made with them is everlasting; it should be the root and foundation of their lives, for all generations. We see Jesus affirm this in today’s Gospel reading, that He has come not to abolish but to fulfill the law. Jesus brings to fruition every letter of these promises that Moses is asking the Israelites to remember.
Right now, we are approaching spring, both literally and metaphorically. The snowbanks are melting, and buds are just starting to appear. We are still in the midst of the long winter of this pandemic, but it feels like we might be beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. During this past year, we have been brought to our knees by suffering, loss, anxiety, and helplessness. As our lives start to get somewhat back to normal, let us look to Moses’s admonition and not forget what God has done for us in the wilderness. Even in the most difficult moments, even when we strayed and complained and doubted in Him, He has been leading us. As we transition from night into day, God will continue to lead us, but by a pillar of cloud instead of a pillar of fire; we must adjust our eyes to keep our focus upon Him.
By day, we are led by Mystery; by night, we are led by Fire and Light. In our darkest moments, the Lord draws us forward by illuminating the path at our feet: always just the next few steps, leading us as a beacon in the night. We may be overwhelmed by the unknown terrors that surround us, but He stays before us, and we follow close, utterly dependent on His Light. But in the daylight of our lives, when we are surrounded by so many distractions and could go any way we choose, His Presence is the one thing that is veiled in mystery, drawing us toward a divinity beyond our comprehension. In the daylight, it can be all too easy to allow our eyes to drift away from that pillar of cloud and instead grasp toward things that we can take hold of and understand.
Sometimes it seems easier to follow God by night, when we are in survival mode and it seems there is only one possible step to take at a time, than by day, when we are overwhelmed by distractions and indecision. Whenever we find ourselves in this place, let us remember Moses’s call to remember, to set God at the center of our hearts and recall all the marvels He has worked in our lives. Then, as we travel onward, we can turn our eyes toward the cloud of His Presence, gently guiding us deeper into His Mystery.
Prayer of St. Elizabeth of the Trinity:
O my God, Trinity whom I adore, help me to forget myself entirely that I may be established in you as still and as peaceful as if my soul were already in eternity.
May nothing trouble my peace or make me leave You, O my Unchanging One, but may each minute carry me further into the depths of Your Mystery.
— 1. Benjamin West, Joshua Passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant / PD-US 2. Ivan Aivazovsky, Passage of the Jews through the Red Sea / PD-US
Jesus summoned the crowd again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.” … “But what comes out of the man, that is what defiles him. From within the man, from his heart, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.”
—Mark 7:14–15, 20–23
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus continues His rebuke against the Pharisees after they had criticized Him for eating with unwashed hands, thus breaking with the tradition of the elders. He calls our attention to the fact that while the Pharisees are concerned with the outward appearances of keeping tradition down to the smallest detail, their inner souls are utterly neglected, and they allow evil thoughts to fester within themselves. Jesus calls us to look at the state of our hearts, for everything else we do flows forth from there. If our hearts are corrupted, then it doesn’t matter how well we attempt to follow the letter of the law; the spirit of the law will be absent.
As we approach Lent, this is a good reminder for us that whatever we give up or take on during this penitential season, the most important thing is the intentions of our hearts. Wherever we create spaces in our lives by giving something up, we are called to make room for God in our lives instead of immediately filling them up with other distractions. And when we take on new habits of prayer and service, we must always orient them within our relationship with God, so that we don’t get caught up in a mindset of constant busyness and self-improvement but rather rely on God to form our hearts into the people He created us to be. We must understand that holiness is not something we can achieve on our own by following a list of instructions; rather, it can only occur through relationship with God, by His grace and in His timing.
Whatever we do, let it be rooted in a sincere love for God from the heart. This Lent, instead of simply making our own plans, let us pause to ask God what He wants us to do for Lent. Maybe He will surprise us; maybe He will confirm and bless the plans we are already making; but most importantly, He will delight to see us coming to Him first and foremost, looking for His guidance instead of relying on our own capacities.
— 1. Engraving by A. Wierix, Christ shooting arrows into the believer’s heart / CC BY 4.0 2. Engraving by A. Wierix, Christ clearing demons out of the believer’s heart with a broom / CC BY 4.0 3. Engraving by A. Wierix, Christ enthroned in the believer’s heart, venerated by angels / CC BY 4.0 These files come from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom. Refer to Wellcome blog post (archive).
Because he himself was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested. —Hebrews 2:18
All around the sick and all around the poor I see a special light which we do not have. —Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati
During these times of trial, we may begin to feel that God has abandoned us in our suffering. When we are sick, lonely, anxious, or strained, it can be harder to see how God is present. But these readings are a reminder to us of a profound paradox: that in the midst of our suffering, God draws even closer to us. He shares in our most difficult experiences in a deep, intimate way.
Jesus willingly took on flesh for our sake, entering into all the mess and pain that accompanies our humanity, taking on death itself in order that He could destroy death forever and set us free from its grasp. Ultimately, He desires to heal us and set us free, but He allows us to experience suffering along the way as a means of growing closer to Him. If Jesus Himself did not spurn the Cross, then who are we to run from our own crosses? Alone, we cannot carry them, but He promises to stay alongside us, to help us when we are being tested.
In this Gospel reading, Simon’s mother-in-law is lying sick with a fever when Jesus enters the house:
He approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up. Then the fever left her and she waited on them. —Mark 1:31
After this encounter with Jesus, who met her in her suffering and understood more deeply than anyone else the pain she was experiencing, she arises and is made new. And the first thing she does is to serve the One who healed her. May we, too, allow Jesus to draw close to us in our most painful moments, and when we have encountered Him, let that experience change and restore us. When we have weathered the trials of our lives, let us turn back and serve God in praise and thanksgiving for all that He has done for us.
At that time, John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” When the men came to the Lord, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?’” At that time Jesus cured many of their diseases, sufferings, and evil spirits; he also granted sight to many who were blind. And Jesus said to them in reply, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”
Amongst the Jewish people during the time of Jesus, there was much confusion about the identity of John the Baptist and the identity of the Messiah. Even after witnessing Jesus’s miracles, many still doubted Him. But John the Baptist, who was fully rooted in the Scriptural context of the Messiah, would have been highly attuned to all the signs of the Messiah’s arrival. When Jesus came to him and asked to be baptized, John recognized Him immediately as the One whom the Scriptures foretold, the One who anointed him in his mother’s womb, the One whose sandals he was not worthy to untie.
In today’s Gospel reading, we see John the Baptist send messengers to ask Jesus if He is the Messiah they have been awaiting. At this point in the Gospel, John had already met and baptized Jesus. Why, then, is John questioning Jesus’s identity?
We don’t know fully what was going on in John’s heart and mind when he sent those messengers, but we do know that by that point he was in prison. Alone, facing the end of his public ministry, he heard news of the miracles Jesus had been performing. Perhaps he found himself wondering if he had correctly understood God’s call, since languishing in prison was not how he had expected things to go. Maybe there was more that God needed him to do. Or perhaps these reports of Jesus were surprising even to him, and he wondered if there was something he was missing, something he didn’t quite understand. He desired to be faithful until the end to the mission God had given him, and so he sought confirmation that he was following the right path.
John knew that God had called him to be a herald of the Messiah and to prepare the way of the Lord, but today’s Gospel reading reveals that while he knew his purpose within God’s plan, he didn’t know the details of how God would unveil that plan in its entirety. This underscores for us what complete trust John had in God. He couldn’t see the big picture, but he remained ever faithful to his own role, trusting that God would handle the rest. Today’s reading gives us a perfect example of faith seeking understanding. When John struggled to fully understand what he had heard, when he found himself wrestling with questions, he went straight to the Source, to Jesus Himself.
As modern Christians, we profess a much greater understanding of who Christ is. But to those who awaited the Messiah, Jesus was surprising. He fulfilled the messianic prophecies, but He did not fit all the people’s expectations. The prophecies of Isaiah foretell a Savior who would bring liberation, healing, and joy, but Isaiah never quite understood that this Messiah would be God Himself, the Word become Flesh, humbled to become for us a little child, sharing in our humanity.
God comes to us in a quiet moment, when we least expect it. He defies all our expectations and surprises us with joy. During this season of Advent, as we prepare to celebrate the coming of the Christ Child, let us also prepare for Christ’s coming in our own lives by looking to the example of John the Baptist. If we stay in relationship with Jesus, bringing to Him all that is in our hearts, then we will recognize Him when He comes. And if we are rooted in faith and trust in God, then we just might be able to let God surprise us with something far beyond our expectations.
— Image: Giovanni di Paolo, Saint John the Baptist in Prison Visited by Two Disciples / PD-US
In today’s Gospel reading, the parable of the ten gold coins, Jesus calls us to be good stewards of the gifts we’ve been given, to grow and develop the skills and resources we have and use them toward building His Kingdom instead of sitting idle. A key element in this story is how the third servant, bewildered by his master’s ways and unable to understand him, buried his talents away out of fear. Instead of taking a chance and investing them, or even placing them in the bank, where they would gain steady interest, he avoided his responsibility and just let them sit. What angered his master about this response was not the amount of money he returned but the fact that he let fear hold him back from doing good, from gaining anything at all. He allowed his fear to paralyze him.
The Lord has entrusted each of us with particular gifts, and we are called to respond by employing those gifts in service to His mission for us. But too often we allow our fears to hold us back from developing our gifts to fruition. We are tempted to compare ourselves with others, to doubt whether our gifts will be good enough, whether our contribution even matters. We allow our pride to keep us from offering our gifts to the world, preferring to hide ourselves away rather than face the possibility of failure.
But when we give in to fear and allow ourselves to be controlled by it, we miss out on what God has in store for us. He wants to see our gifts, however humble they may be, placed before Him as an offering. If we entrust them all to Him, we can be sure that He will not leave us disappointed. God will provide what we need when we need it; there is no reason for us to live in fear.
During these November days, I am noticing just how little daylight remains. The night seems impossibly opaque and pitch-black, and its darkness encroaches little by little, day by day. It can feel all the more somber after this year of darkness and uncertainty. But as the daylight wanes, let us ever keep in mind that we are children of the day, for we bear the Light of Christ within us. It is only during a pitch-black night that we can recognize the beauty of the twinkling stars; similarly, it is against the backdrop of darkness that our own gifts are meant to shine brightly. But that can only happen if we step out in faith, trusting in God even amidst our fear. During these dark days, when we can’t see anything around us, let us not cover up the Light within us but rather respond to God’s call to illuminate the darkness.
— Image: Andrey Mironov, Parable of the Talents / CC BY-SA 4.0
Yesterday, on the Solemnity of the Ascension, we celebrated Jesus’s rising into Heaven. Whenever I reflect upon this mystery, while I know it’s supposed to be an occasion of joy, it always seems to me rather bittersweet for the disciples who watched Jesus ascend. How could they possibly carry on without Him? Didn’t they feel a sense of emptiness now that He was gone?
However, Jesus assured His disciples, “It is better for you that I go” (John 16:7). While it may seem that Jesus was leaving His disciples behind, He was actually becoming closer to them, entering into their hearts in a new, radical way. Jesus never really leaves us; rather, through His Ascension, He brings us closer to the Kingdom of Heaven. It requires us to have faith in a mystery that is far beyond our earthly understanding, but it also grants us a foretaste of the heavenly glory to come.
Ascension Thursday is a reminder that, in the words of St. Therese, “the world is thy ship, not thy home.” We are all too aware in these times of all the suffering and injustice in this world, the persistent ache that undercurrents our human experience. Jesus points us toward the fulfillment of that deepest ache of our hearts, which we will find in heaven. And He promises that He will be alongside us as we journey toward our ultimate home: “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
St. Rita of Cascia, whose feast is today, knew this very well. After her abusive husband was murdered by members of a feuding family, her two sons became filled with anger and desired to avenge their father’s death. Rita tried to dissuade them and prayed that God would protect their souls from committing the grave sin of murder. Her prayers were answered in a distressing way: her sons both died of dysentery shortly thereafter. While Rita grieved her beloved sons, she was also filled with gratitude and hope that God had protected their innocence and guided them toward their heavenly home. The state of their immortal souls was far more important to her than the state of their earthly bodies.
In this world, we face all kinds of obstacles, disappointments, and losses. But let us remember, as did St. Rita, that we are only in the middle of the journey. At His Ascension, Jesus gave His disciples a tangible reminder of this reality, pointing them toward their true destination. The sorrows of this world will not last forever, and our deepest longings for peace and justice will not remain unfulfilled.