Saint Pius X, Pope

The future Pope Pius X was born Giuseppe Melchiorre Sarto at Riese, near Venice, on 2 June, 1835. He was the second of 10 children in a poor family, his father being the village postman.

On 18 September, 1858, Giuseppe Sarto was ordained priest and became curate at Tombolo. While there, the young priest deepened his knowledge of theology by carrying out most of the functions of his parish pastor, who was quite ill. In 1867, he was named Archpriest of Salzano. He became popular with his people when he worked to help the sick during a cholera plague that swept northern Italy in the early 1870s.

In 1875, he was made Chancellor of the Diocese of Treviso. In 1878, Bishop Zanelli died, leaving the bishopric vacant. In 1879, Sarto was elected as Vice-Capitular to take responsibility for the diocese until a new bishop was elected, and he held the post until June, 1880. After 1880, Sarto taught dogmatic theology and moral theology at the seminary in Treviso. In 1884, he was made Bishop of Mantua.

On 12 June, 1893, Pope Leo XIII made him a cardinal in a secret consistory and he was named Cardinal-Priest of Saint Bernardo alle Terme. Three days later, Cardinal Sarto was publicly named Patriarch of Venice. This caused difficulty however, as the government of the reunified Italy claimed the right to nominate the Patriarch based on a privilege formerly exercised by the Emperor of Austria. Sarto was finally allowed to assume the position of Patriarch in 1894.

As Cardinal and Patriarch, Sarto avoided politics and gave his time to social works and strengthening parish finances. In his first pastoral letter to the Venetians, he argued that in matters pertaining to the Pope:

There should be no questions, no subtleties, no opposing of personal rights to his rights, but only obedience.

On 20 July, 1903, Pope Leo XIII died. During the conclave to elect his successor, Cardinal Rampolla seemed the favourite, but his nomination was blocked by the Emperor Franz Joseph and, on the fifth ballot, Giuseppe Sarto was elected the 257th pope on 4 August, 1903. He was at first reluctant to accept the post but, after urging from fellow-cardinals and deep prayer, accepted the nomination. He took the name Pius out of respect for his predecessors with this name, especially Pius IX whom he admired. He took as his motto Instaurare Omnia in Christo (‘To restore all things in Christ’, a quotation from the Letter to the Ephesians, 1:10).

Many of his achievements as pope were directed towards the fulfilment of this ideal. They included the encouragement of more frequent reception of Holy Communion and the admission of children to the Sacrament from the age of seven (an age at which it was felt children could understand the meaning of the Sacrament).

Pius also worked for the reform of Church music, encouraging the revival of Gregorian chant and, to a lesser degree, of classical polyphony. Classical and Baroque compositions had long been favoured over Gregorian chant in ecclesiastical music. Pius announced a return to earlier musical styles, championed by Don Perosi, director of the Sistine Chapel choir. This led to the adoption of the Solesmes School of Gregorian Chant.

He also began the reform of Canon Law, which would be promulgated by his successor Pope Benedict XV, and the reorganisation of the administration of the Vatican. As well, he gave new life to Catholic Action and pointed it in new directions beyond the merely social and political.

In the area of Christian doctrine, he condemned the error of Modernism in the encyclical Pascendi and the decree Lamentabili. Modernism and relativism were trends which wanted to assimilate modern philosophers into theological research in the way Aristotelianism had been used by thinkers like Thomas Aquinas in the past. Modernists claimed that Church beliefs were in a continuous process of evolvement. Following these encyclicals, Pius ordered that all clerics take the Sacrorum antistitum, an oath against Modernism. He also encouraged the formation and efforts of Sodalitium Pianum (or League of Pius V), an anti-Modernist network of informants.

Unfortunately, these condemnations led to the orthodoxy of many outstanding Catholic scholars being questioned for many years afterwards. It took the coming of the Second Vatican Council for a number of outstanding theologians to be reinstated.

In 1908, the papal decree Ne Temere came into effect. Marriages not performed by a Catholic priest were declared legal, but religiously invalid, a move which worried many about the status of ‘mixed marriages’ outside a Catholic church. Priests were given discretion to refuse to perform mixed marriages, or lay conditions upon them, commonly including a requirement that the children be raised Roman Catholic.

Also in 1908, the Catechism of Christian Doctrine was first issued. In less than 50 pages it dealt with questions of faith and morals in simple language, one reason for its continuing popularity. Later Joseph Ratzinger would say that Pius’ characteristics were “simplicity of exposition and depth of content”.

In the area of Church-State relations, Pius sacrificed church property in France for the sake of independence from state control, in the process asking both clergy and faithful to make considerable sacrifices. In France, he also condemned what he saw as the extremes of the liberal movement called Sillon (Furrow) and the extreme right-wing thinking of Action Francaise. The latter condemnation did not become public until some years after Pius X’s death.

In 1913, Pius suffered a heart attack from which he never fully recovered. In 1914, the Pope fell ill on the Feast of the Assumption (15 August). The outbreak of the First World War only worsened his condition, and the 79-year-old pope became deeply depressed. He died on 20 August, 1914, just a few hours after the death of the Jesuit superior general, Franz Xavier Wernz.

In his will he wrote:

I was born poor, I have lived poor, and I wish to die poor.

Much of the pomp and ceremony of the Vatican he found profoundly distasteful.

Pius X was buried in a simple tomb in the crypt below St Peter’s Basilica. He had forbidden the removal of organs for the embalming process, a custom followed by his successors.

He was being acclaimed a saint immediately after his death, and the crypt could not hold all those wanting to venerate his tomb. Masses were held near his tomb until 1930.

On 19 August, 1939, Pope Pius XII delivered a tribute to Pius X at Castel Gandolfo and on 12 February, 1943, he was given the title “Venerable”. In 1944, his coffin was opened and, although he had not been embalmed, his body was found after 30 years to be in an excellent state of conservation. Following the confirmation of two miracles, he was beatified on 3 June, 1951.

On 29 May, 1954, less than three years after his beatification, he was canonized, following the recognition of two more miracles. Pius X thus became the first pope to be canonised since Pope Pius V in the 17th century. Pius X’s feast day, initially assigned to 3 September, was moved to 21 August, closer to the day of his death, in 1969.

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