A Catholic Monthly Magazine

St Pius X

Tricia O'Donnell

by Tricia O'Donnell

When Pope Francis was first elected, the world warmed towards this man of simple means and his empathy for the poor and needy of society. However, there are similarities between him and another of our greatest popes, Pius X, who went on to sainthood, a mere 40 years after his death.

Giuseppe Melchiorre Sarto - known affectionately as Beppi – was born on the 2nd of June 1835 in Riese near Venice into an extremely poor family. He was the eldest of eight children (originally there were ten, two having died) and from an early age it seemed he was destined for great things. Highly intelligent, he studied Latin with the village priest and was schooled through scholarships, as there was no spare money at home for education. Every day he made the six kilometre journey to school on foot.

Beppi obtained a further scholarship in 1850 to go to the Seminary of Padua, where, over the next eight years he studied philosophical and classical subjects along with theology – all of which he finished with distinction. In September 1858, at the age of 23 he was ordained and became curate at the country parish of Tombolo which was a huge learning curve as the parish priest suffered ill health, leaving the young curate to carry out many of his duties.

In 1867 he was transferred to the Diocese of Treviso to become parish priest at Salzano. In his eight years here he worked tirelessly to restore the church and upgrade the hospital, using his own funds or begging for what was needed, either in money or labour. He soon became much loved among his flock, which intensified during the cholera epidemic of the early 1870s when he was a constant presence among the sick and dying, helping wherever and whenever he could.

At the age of 40, Father Sarto was canon of Treviso Cathedral along with several other offices such as rector and spiritual director of Treviso seminary, examiner of the clergy and chancellor of the Diocese of Treviso. The latter position enabled him to arrange religious instruction for public school pupils, not previously available and something which had long been close to his heart.

Further challenges came in 1884 when he was made Bishop of Mantua. His main priority was the shaping of new priests in the seminary, ensuring their total commitment to the Church and firmly establishing the teachings of St Thomas Aquinas. He believed that a priest must “bring his every action, every step, every habit into harmony with the sublimity of his vocation.” The young seminarians got used to their outspoken bishop, as no doubt they also became familiar with him turning up to hear confessions. Bishop Sarto took his pastoral duties seriously!

St. Mark’s Venice

St. Mark’s Venice

Ten years later he became Cardinal Sarto and Patriarch of Venice. He continued to instil into his priests the true tenets of the Church, focussing on strengthing of the Faith and discouraging preaching on secular subjects.

In 1903 Pope Leo XIII died and despite only gaining five votes on the first count, on the fifth ballot, Cardinal Sarto was elected. On the 4th of August 1903, Pope Pius X became the 257th Pope and those around him were to learn from the beginning about his ‘no nonsense’ approach when he wore a simple pectoral cross at his coronation. He was uncomfortable with much of the pomp and ceremony that surrounded his position, “Look how they have dressed me up,” he cried and complained that “they lead me around surrounded by soldiers like Jesus when he was seized in Gethsemene.” Pius identified with the ordinary people inside and outside the Vatican.

His motto, “to renew all things in Christ” reflected his conviction to place the Faith and the Church at the heart of his papacy. As a lover of sacred music, Pius X instigated the use of the Gregorian chant and promoted devotion to Our Lady, driven by his own love of the Mother of Christ. Holy Communion, which he said was the “shortest and safest way to Heaven” was reduced from the age of twelve to all who had reached the ‘age of discretion’, seven years old. He believed that children needed to learn the importance of this Sacrament very early on. The new Pope also actively urged people to receive the Eucharist more often – daily if able. Little wonder he became known as the Pope of the Blessed Sacrament.

Pope Pius X

Pope Pius X

Pius X was determined to do all he could to ensure that the children were taught the Faith; he went out into the streets and sought them out – usually with a pocketful of treats! He held weekly catechism classes in the Vatican and ordered all parishes to hold a Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. This association had been started about 500 years before, to enable ordinary Catholics to learn about their Church’s teachings, though not all parishes were holding regular meetings.

In keeping with his deeply held beliefs, Pius X therefore opposed anything that smacked of liberalsim or, as we would say today, ‘watering down’ of the Faith. The strength of Catholicism lay in its dogma and he would not tolerate anything that would compromise this, especially the trend towards modernism at that time. He criticised the modernists who were establishing themselves within the Church through their writings, their seminary lectures and their various meetings. “The modernists,”he said, “try in every way to diminish and weaken the authority of the ecclesiastical magisterium itself by sacrilegiously falsifying its origin, character and right…” The Pope detailed the means by which they worked in his encyclical Pascendi Gregis. Even in the face of criticism, Pius refused to back down. He demanded that all the clergy take an oath of anti-modernism and refusal to do so meant excommunication.

The pontiff was equally as firm in his dealings with secular governments. He was widely criticised throughout the world for his disagreement with the Italian monarch over papal territories. Portugal, England, Ireland and Poland were just a few of the countries unhappy with his stance towards King Victor Emmanuel III, which also resulted in a rift with France. Pius, annoyed that the French President was visiting the Italian King, refused to meet with him and this led to a separation of church and state by the French, who then created the Law of Separation. Further conflict was caused when France forced the Jesuits out and ended all contact with the Vatican.

Pius was undaunted. His focus was on reforms and these continued unabated: from the codification of Canon Law and the reorganization of the Roman Curia to updating seminary and Sacred Scripture studies. He established 15 new dioceses in the United States and sanctioned ten beatifications including Joan of Arc and John Bosco and four canonizations one of which was Gerard Majella.

Throughout his papacy, Pius X remained a pastor at heart with a deep need to pass on the teachings of Christ to people. Conservative he may have been, but he was also deeply compassionate, demonstrated during the Messina earthquake in 1908 when he housed many of the homeless at the Vatican.

After suffering a heart attack in 1913, his health began to fail rapidly, exacerbated by the imminent threat of war. “This is the last affliction the Lord will visit on me. I would gladly give my life to save my poor children from this ghastly scourge.” Just weeks after the outbreak of World War 1 Pope Pius X took a turn for the worse – the date was August 15th 1914, the Feast of the Assumption. When he died five days later, many said it was of a broken heart.

Though devastated by the world events, his words just prior to the start of the Great War were prophetic: “Truly we are passing through disastrous times, when we may well make our own lamentation of the Prophet: ‘There is no truth, and there is no mercy, and there is no knowledge of God in the land’ (Hosea 4:1). Yet in the midst of this tide of evil, the Virgin Most Merciful rises before our eyes like a rainbow, as the arbiter of peace between God and man.”

Pope Pius X was originally buried in the crypt of St Peter’s Basilica. Because the crypt could not cope with the sheer volume of people wishing to visit his tomb, a small cross was laid into the floor of the basilica directly above the tomb. It was inscribed Pius Papa X and here the pilgrims would gather and pray.

On the 3rd of June 1951, he was beatified and became Venerable Pius X. His body was then transferred to a glass and bronze casket beneath the altar of the chapel of Presentation in the Vatican. Three years later on the 29th of May 1954 he was canonized. The feast of St Pius X is the 21st of August.   


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