Pope St. Pius X

(1835-1914)

In the 1960s, everybody was captivated by the winning charm of the rotund, outgoing, shrewd Pope John XXIII. Because of his lack of solemnity, Pope John was thought to be unique among popes. Actually, two generations before him, Pope Pius X had been admired for much the same reasons. “He was one of those chosen few men,” wrote one who knew him well, “whose personality is irresistible.”

If John XXIII proved to be a “pastoral” pope, Pius X had had even more extensive experience as a parish priest. He, too, was a native of northern Italy: Giuseppe Sarto, the second of ten children of a poor village postman. When little Giuseppe walked to school each day — a five-mile trip — he used to carry his shoes over his shoulders until he reached the schoolhouse so as to save the leather. Called to the priesthood, he was ordained a year early and then spent 17 years as an assistant pastor and pastor, learning the skills of shepherding from the ground up. He did so well that in 1884 he was named bishop of Mantua, and then, in 1892, promoted to Archbishop of Venice and created a cardinal.

When the cardinals met in 1903 to elect a pope to succeed Leo XIII, they were sharply divided along political lines. To achieve consensus, they looked for a nonpolitical candidate, settling on Cardinal Sarto. It was a providential compromise.

Taking the name Pius X, the new pope brought his skills as a country pastor into play as “parish priest of the whole world.” The motto he adopted was: “To renew all things in Christ.” Pius took a pastoral approach even to political issues. Thus, he forbade any future interference by monarchs in papal elections. He allowed Italian Catholics to vote in the local elections of the Kingdom of Italy, despite this government’s earlier offenses against the Church. Also, when the anticlerical government of France proclaimed separation of Church and state in order to further harm the Church by withdrawing public funding, Pius X turned defeat into a victory. He personally consecrated 14 French bishops hitherto impeded by government finagling.

St. Pius is remembered particularly for his prompt efforts to uproot the heresy that he termed “theological modernism.” Basically, this was an outlook which, by the imprudent application of new scientific methods to religious studies, reached the radical conclusion that what is a truth of faith today may cease to be so tomorrow. It is unfortunate that this necessary campaign against modernistic errors became, in the hands of some lesser enforcers, a sort of witch hunt. During the campaign, unwarranted charges were registered against, or even worse, whispered about, some perfectly orthodox churchmen. One victim of these accusations was the Lithuanian bishop George Matulaitis. Pope John Paul II would beatify him in 1987. Another victim of character assassination was Angelo Roncalli, the future Blessed John XXIII!

Other phases of Pius’ renewal of the Church were the codification of Church law and the adoption of a worldwide catechetical program. But he became best known as the “pope of the Eucharist.” He launched a reform of church music. He initiated a revision of the Latin bible. Most of all, he encouraged frequent communion. For a couple of centuries, the rigoristic heresy of Jansenism had produced among Catholics the custom of infrequent communion. Pius X countered this attitude by urging frequent communion and by allowing children to receive the Eucharist as soon as they had reached the age of reason. Today we automatically accept this idea. But it was a novelty to our grandparents in the first decade of the 1900s.

Pius, a man of simple life, was not fond of the ceremonious aspects of the papal court. Thus it had been customary for earlier popes to confer noble titles on their families. This rural mailman’s son refused to make his three spinster sisters princesses. He insisted that the just be called “the sisters of the pope.” But even he could not prevent his master of ceremonies from referring to them as “Their Excellencies, the Sisters of the Pope.”

During his regime as pope, people attributed cures to this witty, kind and deeply spiritual pontiff. He died at the outbreak of World War I, and perhaps even as a result of the shock that it caused him. From the time of his entombment in St. Peter’s, pilgrims visited his grave to leave flowers and pray for his intercession. Pope Pius XII canonized this pastoral successor of St. Peter in the Holy Year of 1950. He was the first pope to be declared a saint since 1672.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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