St. Pius V was pope from 1566 to 1572. He lived in an age like ours – one following a reforming ecumenical council; and like popes Paul VI and John Paul II, he had the duty of making the council work, no matter what.
Antonio Ghislieri was the son of a poor farmer of northern Italy. As a boy this future shepherd of souls tended his father’s sheep. When he was only fourteen he entered the Dominican order. Here he soon proved his intellectual brilliance and his administrative skill. The Council of Trent, the great council that replied to the Protestant Reformation by establishing the Catholic Counter Reformation, ran from 1545 to 1563. Father Ghislieri had meantime been made a bishop, and in 1557 he was called to Rome and created a cardinal. One of his duties was to lead the battle against theological error as the head of the Holy Office.
Cardinal Ghislieri was elected pope in 1566. From the outset, he announced his intention to enforce the reformist decrees of the “Tridentine” Council. He brought to this the approach of a man noted for his personal holiness and austerity of life.
Recent popes had often entertained lavishly at the Vatican. Pius V ruled that the pope should eat frugally and alone – a regulation observed up to recently. (It is said that as pope he continued to wear the white cassock of his Dominican order, thus establishing the modern custom of popes dressing in white.) He clamped down on bishops who had not been residing in their sees; he drove unworthy persons out of papal officialdom; he saw to the reform of religious orders; he followed through on the council’s legislation for priestly training by establishing seminaries. As ruler of the papal states he put down crime, and, at his own expense, he imported food in times of famine. Some Romans accused him of trying to “make everybody a monk.” But despite his strictness, he was revered for his admitted holiness. Witnesses in 1570 said that by then he had already changed the whole atmosphere of the city of Rome for the better.
Two of Pius V’s greatest accomplishments were liturgical and catechetical. Liturgically, he authorized the publication of the Roman Missal that, with certain later modifications, was to serve the Latin Church up until Vatican II; and the breviary, the prayer book used by priests. Catechetically, he saw to the circulation of the “Catechism for Pastors,” the brilliant “Catechism of the Council of Trent” that served preachers so well for the next 300 years.
Perhaps because of his unworldly monastic background, St. Pius was not so comfortable in matters of world politics. He excommunicated Queen Elizabeth (1570), but his action, based on incomplete knowledge of what was going on in England, backfired and caused much grief to British Catholics. He was more fortunate in the support he gave to the Holy League, a coalition of Western Christians that took a stand against the Muslim Turks, then on the verge of conquering all of Europe. He gave his blessing to the vast Christian fleet that met the enemy in the Gulf of Lepanto, Greece, on October 7, 1571.
When this naval engagement, one of the greatest and most crucial in naval history, was about to take place, Pius encouraged everybody, especially in Rome, to pray the rosary intensely for a Christian victory.
At the moment that the engagement was taking place off Greece, the pope in Rome was having a business meeting with some of his cardinals. Suddenly he arose and looked out the window into the sky. After a few minutes he returned to the table. “This is not a moment in which to talk business,” he said. “Let us give thanks to God for the victory He has granted to the arms of the Christians.” He had had a vision of the Muslim defeat the very time it occurred.
In gratitude to Mary for this great victory, the pope instituted the feast of Our Lady of Victory (later renamed the feast of the Most Holy Rosary). He also inserted the title “Help of Christians” in the litany of the Blessed Virgin. Pius V had already encouraged the rosary devotion generally in a decree of 1569. From his day, therefore, this wonderful devotion assumed its present form and popularity.
The Liturgy is of primary importance in the Church. Ranking next to it is the meditative praying of the rosary, which has so often won the ear and the intercession of Our Lady.
Have you prayed your rosary today?
–Father Robert F. McNamara