He is known as the Pope of Children, and also the Scourge of Modernism; he was the Servant of the Poor, and the Pope of the Holy Eucharist. Guiseppe Sarto – Pope St. Pius X – was all of these and yet his many accomplishments were mere outward signs of the tremendous faith and holiness of a man who lived for one end: the establishment of Christ, not man, at the heart of earthly existence.
According to the book, Pius X, A Country Priest, by Iginio Giordani (Bruce, l954), Guiseppe (Joseph) Sarto was born in Riese, Italy, on June 2, 1835, the second of ten children. The family was materially poor, but rich in faith and their poverty trained the Sarto children in simplicity and sincerity of lifestyle as well as in caring for others. Joseph’s piety was noticeable and because he excelled in his studies, he was awarded a scholarship to the seminary. Neighbors contributed of their meager pennies to provide the youth with money for books and supplies. They were all very proud when he returned to them as Don Sarto, following his ordination in September of 1858 at age 23.
TOO HARD TO RESIST
Don Sarto’s first assignment was assistant at Tombolo, a farming village similar to his own. He was comfortable there, his own beginnings in poverty much like those of his parishioners. It took no time at all for him to assess the needs of his people. He gave simple, direct sermons on the teachings of the Catholic Faith, sermons designed to combat the materialistic interests and crudeness of the parishioners. He taught catechism and even initiated a high school to correct the ignorance of the townspeople. He joined in their sports, he fed their poor, depriving himself of basic needs so others could have more. There was a rebirth of the Christian spirit in that tiny town. The good influence of the young assistant proved to be too hard to resist.
The pattern was repeated when Fr. Sarto was assigned as pastor to Salzano nine years later: simple sermons, instructions for children and adults in their Faith, and assistance for the poor who came to him for food and firewood. Don Sarto’s work during the l873 cholera epidemic saw him as priest, pallbearer, and medical man ever in the service of his flock.
A HIDDEN GEM
When he was assigned to Treviso, it was no longer to be an obscure parish priest, but as canon of the Cathedral. The Bishop, knowing what a gem was hidden beneath the tattered cassock, also made Fr. Sarto chancellor of the diocese and the spiritual director of the seminary. Whether in teaching, administrative work, or spiritual conferences, there was no mistaking Fr. Sarto’s emphasis on Christ.
The times were such that anti-clerical thought and innovations were beginning their noisy blusterings, but Fr. Sarto held firm to the traditional faith of the Church which is for all ages.
So intent was Fr. Sarto on his work, he was the last to suspect that his reputation had reached beyond the walls of his Treviso offices. When Pope Leo appointed him Bishop of the large diocese of Mantua in 1884, Fr. Sarto was taken aback, and in fact, wrote to explain this incompetency to the Pope. The Pope knew better.
What Fr. Sarto was in Tombolo, he was as Bishop in Mantua. He brought to his work as shepherd his same intense concentration on a Christ-centered life. It made no difference whether the task at hand concerned catechism instruction, liturgy, sacred music, seminary formation, home visitations, or service to the poor. Fr. Sarto wanted to lead all in his charge to a greater love for Christ the Savior.
However, Bishop Sarto was no hothouse flower, insulated by his growing holiness from intemperate whims of society. Rather, his dedication to bringing Christ to all caused him to speak out boldly in correction of errors endangering his Catholic people.
GOD HAS BEEN DRIVEN OUT OF PUBLIC LIFE
In 1893, Bishop Sarto was appointed as Patriarch of Venice and its Cardinal, but more than a year passed before he could take up residence in his new city because of legal rigmarole on the part of the Italian government. In response to this, the good Cardinal’s first pastoral dealt with Church-State relations in a way pertinent even to the present day:
“God has been driven out of public life by the separation of Church and State; He has been driven out of science now that doubt has been raised to a system; He has been driven out of art, degraded to an exaggerated realism; He has been driven out of law, which has assumed the morality of the flesh; He has been driven from education by the abolition of religious training; he has even been drive out of the family, which is no longer considered sacred in its origin and is short of the grace of a Sacrament…We must fight the capital crime of our day, which is the substitution of man for God;…” (Giordani, p.47).
Bishop Sarto meant what he said. Again, seminary formation, again home visitation, stress on catechetical instruction, simple sermons. Cardinal Sarto wanted his people to know Christ and grow in their love to and service to Him.
Anti-clericalism and savage Masonic demonstrations against the Church were on an increase. Cardinal Sarto responded by organizing a Eucharistic Congress of Reparation. The liturgies, sermons, and processions reached into the souls of the Venetians and works of charity abounded.
LET THIS CUP PASS
In 1903, Pope Leo XIII died. All the Cardinals of the Church went to Rome for the Conclave. The 62 cardinals remained in strict cloister, having no contact with the outside world while the balloting went on for the next successor to St. Peter. Ever humble, Joseph Cardinal Sarto had no aspirations for the Chair of Peter and panicked when his name began to get more and more votes. He begged his brother Cardinals not to consider him, insisting that he wasn’t qualified. He did not want to be cast into this leadership role.
When formally asked whether he would accept the Papal Throne, Sarto replied, after long deliberation and prayer, “Would that this chalice might be far from me. Yet may the will of God be done…I accept it as a cross” (Ibid, p. 67-68). As for a name, he said, “Since I must suffer, I take the name of those who have suffered; I shall be known as Pius” (Ibid, p. 68).
THE RESTORATION BEGINS
The eleven years of Pius X’s papacy were marked by the same orientation toward Christ as the previous 45 years of Joseph Sarto’s priesthood. The only difference was that the audience was the whole world. And it was to the world that Pius X brought his efforts to restore all things in Christ as he outlined in his first encyclical letter, E Supremi Apostolatus. This encyclical set the course for his papacy. Pius talked of mankind’s devastating ills as stemming from apostasy from God, and the papal commitment to the “return of mankind to the majesty of God’s rule.” Toward this end he called for fidelity to the Church and God’s laws (Ibid, p. 79- 84). The restoration had begun!
Reluctance was past. Pius was the Supreme Head of Christ’s Church now, charged before God and man to bear witness to the Faith As time went on, the means to accomplish this witness became clearer. For Pius X, there could be nothing without the Eucharistic Christ.
Daily Reception of the Blessed Sacrament
Contrary to popular custom at the time, Pius X urged frequent – daily! – reception of the Holy Eucharist in order to establish a living relationship with the Savior. He also urged that children be allowed to receive the Holy Eucharist soon after the day of their First Communion instead of being forced to wait until a year had passed. Pius wanted the change so “that children be nourished by Christ before they are dominated by their passions, so they can with greater courage resist the assaults of the devil, of the flesh, and of their other enemies, whether internal or external” (Ibid, p. 94).
At that time, children could not receive their Lord until age 10 or 12, but in 1910, it was formally decreed that children should receive their First Holy Communion when they attained the use of reason around seven years of age. Pius felt their innocence at this younger age more than qualified them to receive their God.
In Pius X’s mind, living a Christ-like life could proceed only from knowledge of Christ. His encyclical on catechetical teaching in 1905 clearly pointed that out. To provide such knowledge of Christ and His Church, Pius X reminded the clergy of the obligation to instruct the faithful in Catholic teaching. He called for simple sermons, more catechetical instruction for children and adults, and the establishment of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine in each parish.
THE SPIRITUAL DIRECTOR SPEAKS
Firmly believing that “You will have just the kind of priest that you have educated” (Ibid, p. 160), Pius X reminded all of his Bishops more than once about their special responsibilities in clergy formation: “Let seminaries preserve jealously the spirit that is proper to them, remaining dedicated exclusively to preparing young men not for worldly careers but for their high mission as ministers of Christ …” (Ibid, p. 160). Scholastic studies, discipline, and vigilance were called for as well as general education.
Pius’ Exhortation to the Catholic Clergy in 1908 came out after his refutation of Modernism and laid out his idea of the priesthood as first and foremost a source of holiness for all around. He wrote “The priest is not a man who can be good or bad just for himself alone; it is impossible to realize what an influence his manner and habit of living have on the faithful. A genuinely good priest is a treasure beyond compare!…” (Ibid, p. 163).
SCOURGE OF MODERNISM
The intellectual turmoil of the secular life had begun its insidious seepage into the Church long before Pius X ascended the Papal Throne. As early as 1876, Pius IX had tried to head off the spread of false teachings with his Syllabus of Errors. Fr. Sarto, so involved in seminary work, was well aware of the dangers to the Church in so-called modern ways of thinking. As Pope, Pius X decided to meet the challenge head on.
The whole movement was attempting “to deform the beauty of the Spouse of Christ by forcing upon her the empty glitter of a new culture, a pseudo-science.” This is Modernism, “the seed-plot of errors and perdition” which “broods like poison in the bowels of modern society, alienated from God and from His Church” (Ibid, p. 46). Laity and clergy were succumbing to this growing cancer.
Protestant and Catholic theologians dissected Christianity from all sides, analyzing it with so-called modern study techniques supposedly to enhance its veracity but in effect as an attempt to debunk it. All authority was held in askance. In general, it was thought that the Church needed updating to suit the current intellectual fancies, much to the detriment of traditional faith.
Pius first wrote of it in 1904, but as heretical thought multiplied its stranglehold on the Faith, he came forward with the decree, Lamentabili Sane, in July of 1907, listing several erroneous ideas proposed as part of the new age of “belief.”
Within two months of Lamentabili Sane, Pius X systematically refuted all the tenets of Modernism in a long encyclical entitled, Pascendi. Like a good shepherd, he did not leave his flock unattended. In Pascendi, he also outlined a means of rescuing the Church from the snare of heresy.
The heart of his solution was the priesthood. A sound clergy meant a sound Church and sound clergy formation was where the Pope envisioned a saving grace. He stressed increased scholastic studies, employment of only orthodox seminary instructors, the outlawing of modernistic teachings and writings, censorship, limitations on clergy activities and outside gatherings, the establishment of Councils of Vigilance and the imposition of an Anti-Modernist Oath upon teachers and clergy and those with authority within the Church in 1910, he reiterated his views in other writings.
The external sails of Modernism collapsed without the winds of discussion.
While Eucharistic devotion and Modernism are most likely the most familiar of Pius X’s writings and activities, he also saw to the codification of Canon Law, many canonizations, promotion of Sacred Music and Sacred Art, the Society of St. Jerome. He paid special honor to the Immaculate Conception and was known for his concern for emigrants about whose faith he was gravely worried.
NOT FOR THE CHURCH ALONE
The Pope is not just for the Catholic Church however; he is Christ’s representative to the world. Paralleling Pius’ efforts to restore all things in Christ among the faithful, were his efforts in secular affairs, toward establishing a Christian civilization. He firmly believed the “social well-being suffers just to the extent that it abandons its Christian sources” (Ibid, p. 126).
Turmoil best describes the political situation during the time of Pius X’s reign. Conditions affecting Catholics in France and Italy had deteriorated and each case required careful attention.
Within a few short years, the republican government of France had seen to it that religious schools were secularized, religious orders forbidden to teach and finally suppressed. Divorce was legalized and a law separating Church and State – in in violation of the Concordat – was passed and Church property seized. Persecution was a reality.
Pope Pius X lost no time in speaking out on the French situation in two encyclicals delineating the errors of the government activities. Following his lead, Catholics in France withstood the government persecution.
CHRISTIAN INFLUENCE NEEDED
In Italy, a different situation existed with anti-Catholic Freemasonry at the helm. Because of the violation of Papal Sovereignty regarding the Papal States many years before, the Vatican had forbidden Catholics from taking part in Italian politics, lest such participation be construed as supporting the government’s illegal actions. Even voting was frowned upon and as a result, Catholic representation in Italian Parliament was nil.
Pius X felt otherwise and aimed for a gradual change in policy in order to achieve a truly Christian influence in government. Toward this end, he promoted the “Catholic Action of the Laity” or more clearly, Catholic involvement whether in labor unions or socioeconomic efforts. At the heart of this movement, of course, was spiritual strength. Good Catholics in politics would bring their Faith with them, the Pope reasoned. Catholic youth societies also were encouraged by Pius X, primarily as examples of Christianity to the world. Pius kept stressing that holiness is the core of life for rich and poor alike. Holiness would compel a person to reach out in Christ’s name to help others.
Other popes encouraged Pius X’s Catholic Action. Pius XII, in particular commented: “Oh, the good works which await you! To reconstruct society on a Christian foundation; to renew men’s esteem for the Gospel and its morals; to renew the family, restoring the crown of sacramental dignity to matrimony, giving back to spouses the sense of their obligations and the consciousness of their responsibility;…this is your tomorrow. And to do this, you will need prayer, good example, ever-ready charity, helpfulness toward the humble and the afflicted, the perfect accomplishment of your duties in the family, at work, in society.”
An excellent example of Catholic Action is the life of St. Gianna Molla, who was a leader of Catholic Action while at University. All her free time was devoted to apostolic work, planning conferences, retreats, excursions for young girls. She worked for the good of souls. When she became a pediatrician, her nurse said St. Gianna “continued her assistance to the sick till the last day before entering the clinic for the birth of her last child [St. Gianna died a week after the birth]. If the patient was poor, besides a free examination, Gianna gave him medicines and money.” (No Greater Love, by Ann M. Brown, New Hope Publications, New Hope, Ky., 2001.) Gianna Molla was canonized in 2004.
Toward the end of his Papacy, one festering worry of Pius X was the imminent war which would involve the world – a war he predicted three years before it began. Hostilities abounded. Italy occupied Tripoli, touching off problems in the Balkans; the Portuguese government initiated anti-Catholic laws similar to those of France; the French situation at the time wasn’t very inspiring. Europe’s stability was quivering.
The stage was set and when war was declared against Serbia in l9l4, Pius knew his prophecy had been fulfilled. He also know he would soon be dead. In August, not even two months after World War I became a reality, Pius X fell ill; complications set in swiftly and on August 20, he died.
That Pius X was considered a living saint by Catholics and non-Catholics should come as no surprise. From diplomats meeting him after his election to those working with him daily, all came away with a certainty of his holiness.
Nor should the idea that Pius apparently possessed some supernatural gifts be surprising. He is known to have cured the physical ailments of some of his visitors. In one incident, a man with a paralyzed arm approached him during an audience and begged, “Holy Father, cure me, so that I can go to work and earn a living for my family!”
“Go along now,” Pius said. “Have confidence in the Lord!” He touched his arm and added, “Have faith. The Lord will heal you.” It was as he said (Ibid, p. 211).
In another incident, it was reported to him that a woman’s foot ailment was cured merely by touching her foot with one of his socks. To this Pius commented, “I put on my stockings every morning and my feet still hurt” (Ibid, p. 211-212).
Pius X was a man consumed – ignis ardens according to the alleged prophecy of St. Malachy (Ibid, p. 175) – by his love for Christ. There was nothing he wouldn’t do or say in both the Church or secular world to make the Savior known, loved, and most importantly, restored as head of civilization.
In the years after his death, talk of Pius X’s canonization steadily grew. The cause was officially opened in 1
944 with the exhumation of his remains for the purposes of identification. The body “was found incorrupt, authentic in all respects, with the skin a delicate white. The physician of Pope Pius XII, in order to maintain the condition of the corpse, injected a special preserving chemical which, unfortunately, turned the body a medium brown. The incorruption however, has been maintained. The body is shown in a side altar of St. Peter’s Basilica where it is visible to the public. The face was covered with a bronze mask and the body was covered with fine vestments” (Letter, 1984, Joan Carroll Cruz, author of The Incorruptibles and Relics).
Within seven years, Pius was beatified and his solemn canonization was decreed May 29, 1954. His feast is celebrated August 21.
CHRIST OUR VITAL MISSION
More than a century has passed since Pius X first called the world to Christ. Yet the desire of his to restore all in Christ is still as vital a mission now as it was then. The world still grumbles with war, materialism is devouring mankind, crudeness, ignorance, and brutality bespeak a need for divine education. Poverty envelopes many just as it did so many years ago, while the august programs of Christian social justice cry out for implementation. And the sands of Modernism are still sifting dangerously beneath the surface, undermining faith in teachers, in clergy, and laity alike.
To these and all other ills, Pius X’s bold voice still speaks in his writings and his example, upholding the timeless remedy for man’s ills: Placing Christ first in everything. Through the intercession of St. Pius X, may this be done!
Saint Pius X, pray for us!
This article, PIUS X: BURNING FIRE FOR CHRIST is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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