Now Featured in the Patheos Book Club
Saints and Social Justice
A Guide to Changing the World
By Brandon Vogt

Book Excerpt

A Living Option for the Poor

When Catholic social teaching encourages an "option for the poor and vulnerable", the word "option" does not mean "choice", as though Catholics can choose whether to serve the poor. Instead, it suggests "preference." Followers of Jesus Christ should always prefer the needs, concerns, and desires of poor and vulnerable people above their own. This means the first question we must ask of any action, purchase, or political decision is how it impacts those on the margins of society.

Pier Giorgio knew this well. He regularly made sacrifices to serve others. One morning when he was a young boy, a frail woman knocked on his door with a barefoot child in her arms. Pier Giorgio quickly removed his shoes and socks, gave them to her, and shut the door before anyone could object.[i]

In 1918 at age 17, Pier Giorgio joined the St. Vincent de Paul Society. The Society centered itself on personal compassion more than faceless donations. When someone joined, he was assigned specific poor families to visit and care for. Pier Giorgio reveled in these visits. They were his chance to not only offer material support but also spiritual encouragement. His visits to jobless war veterans, destitute laborers, and homeless children lifted many spirits and became his daily passion. "I see a special light surrounding the poor and unfortunate," he observed to a friend, "a light that we do not have."[ii]

As time went on, this service to the poor confounded his parents and friends. They couldn't fathom why a well-off boy would sacrifice comfort for others. A friend once asked Pier Giorgio why he traveled on trains in third-class when he could easily afford better. He replied: "I travel third because there isn't a fourth."[iii]

When Pier Giorgio showed up late for dinner—a regular occurrence—his parents would become irate. But they didn't know he would run all the way home after giving away his train money. One night, when the temperature was twelve degrees below zero, Pier Giorgio arrived at home wearing a smile but no overcoat. His angry father demanded to know where his coat was. "I gave it away," Pier Giorgio explained, "You see, Dad, it was cold."[iv]

When his sister, Luciana, got married, she shared with him 1,000 liras from her wedding gifts. Pier Giorgio gave 500 liras the St. Vincent de Paul Society and the other 500 to his club, Cesare Balbo, which was part of the FUCI, the Italian Catholic Student Federation.[v] Later, his father gave him 5,000 liras instead of a car, and Pier Giorgio donated all of it to the new St. Vincent de Paul group in his parish.

By the time he was twenty-one, he was personally helping several families. He made sure local children received the sacraments and sponsored many of them. Pier Giorgio helped one lady stay extra time in the maternity ward of a hospital. Later, he acted as godfather to her daughter, bought a dress for her baptism, and waited outside prison when the lady's husband was released, helping him find work in a prison factory where they accepted people who had a prison record. We'll probably never know the full scope of Pier Giorgio's charity, most of which he accomplished without fanfare.