Giuseppe Sarto, Saint Pope Pius X

Giuseppe Sarto, Saint Pope Pius X

We are in the Vatican’s Pauline Chapel on August 3, 1903: a Cardinal is on his knees, in tears, absorbed in deep prayer. Approaching him, a young Spanish prelate, Monsignor Meny del Val, whispers a message to him from the Dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals-is he still determined to refuse the papacy if he is elected? “Yes, yes, Monsignor,” replies Cardinal Giuseppe Sarto, the Patriarch of Venice,” tell the Cardinal Dean that he would do me a favor not to think of me again.” Later that day, Cardinal Sarto, overcome with emotion, continued to hold out against the entreaties of his confreres, insisting that he was unworthy of the Sovereign Pontificate; incapable of bearing so overwhelming a burden. “So return to Venice if this is your wish,” Cardinal Ferrari told him gravely, “but you will return with your soul stricken with a remorse which you will be obsessed with for the rest of your life!”

The next day, the elections’ votes went, as anticipated, to Cardinal Sarto. The latter abandoned himself to the hands of God, declaring, “If it is not possible that this cup be taken away from me, may the will of God be done! I accept the Pontificate as a cross.” -“By which name do you wish to be called?”-“Because the Popes who suffered the most for the Church in the previous century bore the name Pius, I will take this name.” He thus became Pope Pius X.

Of quite humble origins, Giuseppe (Joseph) Sarto was born in Riese, a small village in the diocese of Treviso in Veneto state (northern Italy) on June 2, 1835. His father was a town employee, owning but a humble little house and a poor field. His parents’ only wealth was a simple and profound faith which they passed on to their children, ten in number. Giuseppe heard the call to the priesthood at a young age. He responded eagerly and received priestly ordination on September 18, 1858. Divine Providence led him to serve the Church in various levels of the hierarchy, successively becoming assistant priest, pastor, spiritual director at the seminary in Treviso, Bishop of Mantua, and finally Patriarch of Venice, before being elected Pope, an overwhelming responsibility which might justifiably frighten him!

The path to JESUS CHRIST

The Pope is the Successor of the Apostle Peter, to whom Jesus Christ said, I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven (Matthew 16:19). “The ‘power of the keys’ designates authority to govern the house of God, which is the Church.” (Catechism of the Catholic, CCC, 553). The Roman Pontiff receives a universal mission from Christ-he must announce the Gospel to the whole world and guide the entire Church, pastors and faithful, in fidelity to the Gospel. He speaks and acts, not by his own authority, but by virtue of the authority of Christ, whose Vicar he is!”

From his first encyclical, E supreme apostolatus, of October 4, 1903, Pius X made known to the whole world what the program of his pontificate would be: “To restore all things in Christ, so that Christ may be all and in all (cf. Ephesians 1:10 and Colossians 3:11)… To lead back mankind under the dominion of Christ; this done, We shall have brought it back to God… Now the way to reach Christ is not hard to find: it is the Church… It was for this that Christ founded it, gaining it at the price of His blood, and made it the depository of His doctrine and His laws, bestowing upon it at the same time an inexhaustible treasury of graces for the sanctification and salvation of men… The duty has been imposed of bringing back to the discipline of the Church human society, now estranged from the wisdom of Christ; the Church will then subject it to Christ, and Christ to God.”

To find a cure for ignorance

God desires the salvation of all through the knowledge of the truth. However, to God’s extraordinary benevolence there is a corresponding responsibility on the part of man: “It is in accordance with their dignity that all men, because they are persons, that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore bearing personal responsibility, are both impelled by their nature and bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once they come to know it, and direct their whole lives in accordance with the demands of truth” (Ibid., 2) One of Pius X’s major concerns, expressed in the encyclical Acerbo nimis, of April 15, 1905, was to ensure the knowledge and transmission of the faith by means of catechism. Religious ignorance, he declared, is “the chief cause of the present indifference and, as it were, infirmity of soul, and the serious evils that result from it… The will cannot be upright nor the conduct good when the mind is shrouded in the darkness of crass ignorance. A man who walks with open eyes may, indeed, turn aside from the right path, but a blind man is in much more imminent danger of wandering away. Furthermore, there is always some hope for a reform of perverse conduct so long as the light of faith is not entirely extinguished; but if lack of faith through ignorance is added to depraved morality, the evil hardly admits of remedy, and the road to ruin lies open.” In 1905, Pius X had a catechism published for the diocese of Rome, in which is still a model of its kind. Pope John Paul II shared this desire to provide everyone with a sure catechetical education. In 1986, during his trip to Lyon, he shared his grave concern: “Religious ignorance is spreading in a disconcerting manner. The need for a clear and firm presentation of the faith is making itself increasingly felt…” In response to this need the Holy Father published the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992, a systematic exposition of the truth of t he faith, a reference book for our times.

Don Sarto’s charity towards all was made apparent from the first year of his priesthood, to the point of becoming legendary. Quick to give everything away, he never had a penny in his pocket. He prided himself on being born poor and living poor. The call to exercise the greatest responsibility in the Church did not make him lose his kindness and humility, particularly towards those of low estate. Feeling responsible for the lot of all the poor, he gave with reckless generosity. When he was advised to moderate his charity so as not to send the Church into bankruptcy, he showed his two hands, and replied, “The left receives and the right gives, If I give with one hand, I receive much more from the other.” This inexhaustible charity flowed from his intimate union with God. Cardinal Merry del Val, his Secretary of State, testified, “In all his actions, he was always inspired by supernatural thoughts and showed that he was united with God. In his most important dealings, he would glance at the Crucifix and was inspired by it. When he was in doubt, he would postpone his decision, and had the habit of saying, as he kept his eyes fixed on the Crucifix, ‘He is the one who will decide.’

Evil in the heart of the Church

A vigilant shepherd of Christ’s flock, Pius X discerned what danger for the faith of the Church lay in a way of thinking which appeared towards the end of the 19th century. A group of intellectuals, under the pretense of adaptation to the modern mentality (from which derives the name “Modernists”), got the idea into their heads to radically change the dogmatic and moral teaching of the Church. Determined to remain in the Church so as to more effectively transform Her, they proposed to give her a new Credo and new Commandments, retaining the Catholic vocabulary, but transforming the underlying meaning according to their own ideas. After numerous charitable appeals to the straying sheep, and faced with their obstinacy, Pius X published, on July 3, 1907, the decree Lamentabili, which enumerated the Modernists’ errors. Two months later, the encyclical Pascendi explained authoritatively how this system was contrary to sound philosophy and the Catholic faith.

The Modernist system rests on erroneous philosophical principles. One- absolute agnosticism means that the human mind is incapable of reaching some certitude. The other immanentism, according to which God cannot be known objectively by proofs based on reason, but solely by the individual’s subjective experience. These principles lead to the denial of the existence of objective truth, and, as a result, the denial of the possibility of Divine Revelation. Lastly, religion is reduced to symbols. God Himself is no longer the transcendent Creator (meaning that He exists before and beyond the universe) but only an immanent force, “the universal soul of the world.” This error leads directly to pantheism, the identification of the world with God. Jesus Christ is just an extraordinary man whose historical person was transfigured by faith. From this comes the Modernist distinction between the Christ of history, who is no more than a man who died on a cross in Palestine, and the Christ of faith, whom the disciples imagine to be “resurrected,” and whom they “deify” in their hearts. In this way, Modernism leads to dissolution of all definite religious content. It is for this reason that the holy Pope defined Modernism as the synthesis and the meeting place of all the heresies which lead to the destruction of the foundations of the faith and the annihilation of Christianity.

A criterion of faithfulness to God

The steps taken by Pius X to find a remedy for this evil, which had “nearly [reached] the very bowels and veins of the Church,” resulted in the decline of Modernism in just a few years. The principle agitators were removed from teaching positions in the Catholic Church, and new impetus was given to philosophical and theological studies in keeping with the principles of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Firm in doctrine, Pius X showed great kindness towards those who had gone astray. In 1908, he recommended to the new bishop of Châlons (France): “You are going to be Father Loisy’s bishop (Loisy was excommunicated because of his persistence in Modernism.) Treat him with kindness and, if he makes one step towards you, make two steps towards him.” This was a concrete application of his principle: “Fight error, without touching the individual.”

Pius X thus carried out his mission to “preserve God’s people from deviations and defections and guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error” (CCC 890). However, the Supreme Pontiff’s paternal solicitude must be matched by a filial attitude of docility and submission on the part of the faithful. Jesus Christ said to His apostles: Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects Him who sent me. (Luke 10:16). Obedience to the Magisterium of the Church and especially to Her visible leader, the Pope, is an essential criterion for faithfulness to God. Pius X emphasized this in a speech on May 10, 1909: “Do not allow yourselves to be deceived by the cunning statements of those who persistently claim to wish to be with the Church, to love the Church, to fight so that people do not leave the Her… But judge them by their works. If they despise the shepherds of the Church and even the Pope, if they attempt all means of evading their authority in order to elude their directives and judgments…, then about which Church do these men mean to speak? Certainly not about the established on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20).”

Still widespread

Yet Modernism, so vigorously denounced by Pius X, did not disappear. In 1950, Pius XII, in the encyclical Humani generis, warned against various errors, many of which were related to Modernism. The philosopher Jacques Maritain wrote in his book Le Paysan de la Garonne (1966) that “the Modernism of Pius X’s time was a mere hay fever” in comparison to the neo-Modernist movement. During the General Audience of January 10, 1972, Pope Paul VI denounced “errors which could completely ruin our Christian conception of life and history. These errors were expressed in a typical manner in Modernism which under other names is still widespread. ” On September 14 of the same year, Cardinal Heenan, Archbishop of Westminster, echoed the Pope’s declaration, observing that, although the word “heretic” is no longer used in our times, “heretics have by no means ceased to exist. Heresy number ONE is what we are accustomed to calling Modernism…Modernism is back, and will appear again as the primary threat to the Church of tomorrow. As authority of all sorts has become universally unpopular, the climate has never been more favorable towards a renewal attack against the authority of God and the Magisterium of His Church. The Resurrection, the Holy Trinity, the immorality of the soul, the sacraments, the Sacrifice of the Mass, the indissolubility of marriage, the right to life of unborn children, of the elderly and the incurably ill-all these doctrines accepted without problem by Catholics till now, will very likely be the object of attacks in the Church of tomorrow.” The experience of the last thirty years reveals the truth of this analysis, and should arouse a renewed interest in the teachings of Saint Pius X.

Bold initiatives

Some writers have portrayed Pope Pius X as an enemy of progress, and his pontificate is said to have been polarized by ” a Modernist witch-hunt.” In reality, Pius X was a Pastor who was most attentive to the realities of his time, and was guided solely by the spiritual good of souls. Convinced that Tradition is living, he boldly undertook important reforms that he deemed necessary for the “rejuvenation” of the Church.

“My people must pray in beauty,” the saint was fond of saying. Observing that sacred music does not always attain its goal, which is to emphasize the liturgical text and thus to dispose the faithful to greater devotion, the Pope, without ruling out other legitimate forms of sacred chant, recalled in the Most Proprio Tra le sollecitudini, of November 22, 1903, the Gregorian chant eminently works toward the end of the liturgy, which is the glorification of God and the sanctification of the faithful. He consequently encouraged restoration of the chant. The Second Vatican Council would likewise affirm: “The Church recognizes Gregorian chant as being proper to the Roman liturgy. Therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.“ (Sacrosanctum concilium, 116).

In 1905, in accordance with the wishes expressed by the Council of Trent, but until then not enforced, Pius X, through the decree Sacra Tridentina Synodus, seized a pastoral initiative of great importance. Contrary to an age-old practice, he offered access to frequent, even daily, Communion, for all those who desired it. One merely need to be in a state of grace and to have the proper intent, meaning to receive Communion “not as a matter of habit, or of vanity, or for human reasons, but to satisfy the will of God, to unite oneself to Him more intimately through charity and, by means of this divine remedy, to do battle against one’s faults and weaknesses.” It is equally necessary to observe the proscribed fast (today, at least one hour before Communion) and to be suitably dressed. Five years later, Pius X authorized children to make their First Communion from the age of discretion. Until that time, it was customary to wait until the age of 12 or 13. The Pope considered this reform to be an inestimable grace for the souls of children: “The flower of innocence, before it has been handled and stained, will go to seek shelter near Him who loves to live among the lilies. Entreated by the pure souls of little children, God will restrain His arm of justice.” It is thus for good reason that Saint Pius X is sometimes called “the Pope of the Eucharist.”

In order to scientifically respond to the objections of science and Modernist exegesis, the holy Pope founded the Biblical Institute in 1903, to which he gave the mission of advancing studies in linguistics, history, and archeology, thus promoting better understanding of Sacred Scripture. He was firmly convinced that the most modern methods of research could and must be placed in the service of the faith.

So as to render the Church ever more prepared for and open to mankind’s progress towards Jesus Christ. Saint Pius X ordered the ecclesiastical laws, which had become numerous and complex over the course of the centuries, to be updated and codified. This work would be brought to completion by his successor, Pope Benedict XV, in 1917. In addition, to make priests’ ministry easier, he carried out a reform of the Roman Breviary, reallocating the psalms for each day and revising the rubrics.

Let us lose the churches, but save the Church!

In 1905, France, controlled by forces hostile to the Church, broke diplomatic relations with the Holy See, declared the separation of Church and State, and sai it would hand ecclesiastical property over to “worship associations” where the bishops would no longer have real authority. By means of the Encyclical Vehementer, of February 11, 1906, Pius X condemned these unjust actions. The proposition of the separation of Church and State, he said, was “absolutely false.” In fact, “the Creator of man is also the Founder of human societies… We owe Him, therefore, not only a private cult, but a public and social worship to honor Him…” In addition, civil society “cannot either prosper or last long when due place is not left for religion, which is the supreme rule and the sovereign mistress in all questions touching the rights and duties of men.” Pius X refused the “worship associations” as well as the 40 million francs a year earmarked for religion by the French government; the latter in turn soon confiscated all Church property, reducing the clergy to living from alms. Pius X’s refusal stunned the Church’s enemies, but saved her unity and freedom. “I know that some are preoccupied with the goods of the Church,” he said. “As for me, I am preoccupied with the good of the Church. Let us lose the churches, but save the Church.”

At the beginning of his pontificate, Pius X wrote, “To seek peace without God is an absurdity.” Having often foreseen and foretold a great war between European nations, he stepped up diplomatic measures to prevent this tragedy. Nonetheless, in the summer of 1914, the First World War broke out. The Holy Father’s heart was broken. In his distress, he repeated day and night; “I offer my miserable life as a sacrifice, to prevent the massacre of so many of my children… I suffer for all those who fall on the battlefields…” On August 15, he felt unwell, and on the 19th, he was on the verge of death. “I place myself in the hands of God,” he said with otherworld tranquility. Around noon, he was given the last Sacraments, which he received, calm and serene, in complete lucidity and admirable devotion. On August 20, at one o’clock in the morning, making a slow sign of the Cross and joining his hands, as if he were celebrating Mass, having kissed a little Crucifix, the Holy Pontiff entered into eternal life.

Beatified in 1951, Pius X was canonized by Pope Pius XII on May 29, 1954. During a pastoral visit to Treviso in 1985, Pope John Paul II praised the saint in these words: “He had the courage to proclaim the Gospel of God amidst numerous conflicts… He worked with great sincerity to expose the deceptive recesses of the theological system of Modernism, with great courage, prompted in his commitment solely by desire for truth, so that the Revelation might not be distorted in its essential content. This great purpose compelled Pius X to continual interior labor, in order not to seek to please men. We know well what adversity he had to endure precisely for the unpopularity to which he exposed himself by his decisions. As a faithful disciple of Jesus the Master, he wished to be pleasing to God, who tests our hearts.”

Let us ask Saint Pius X to inspire us with the desire to please God alone, as well as a spirit of filial submission to the Holy Catholic Church.

Dom Antoine Marie, osb


This entry was posted in Benedictine Monks of Clairval. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply