By CAROLE BRESLIN
This month the Catholic Church celebrates the 100th anniversary of the death of Pope St. Pius X who had so many things in common with the last few Popes. Like Pope Francis, he had a special affinity for the poor — especially since he came from a poor family. Like Pope John Paul II, who updated the Code of Canon Law, Pope Pius X initiated the organization of all of canon law into one Code for the universal Church. Like Pope Benedict XVI, he fought the errors of modernism, stressing the importance of faith and reason.
On June 3, 1835, Giovanni Battista Sarto and his wife, Margherita, took their day-old son, Giuseppe Melchiorre, to the church in Riese to be baptized. He was the second of ten children born to the simple cobbler who also served as postmaster; his wife was a seamstress.
Because of the family’s poverty, the local priest took young Giuseppe under his wing to educate him. Since Giuseppe excelled so quickly and demonstrated such piety, the pastor arranged a scholarship for the lad at Castelfranco, about eight kilometers from his home. He walked this distance twice daily, carrying his shoes over his shoulders so that they would not wear out too quickly. Only when he arrived at school did he wear them.
The bishop of Treviso gave him his “tonsure” at the age of 15, inducting him into the seminary of Padua, where he continued to pursue classical, philosophical, and theological studies. By the time he was ordained on September 18, 1858 at the cathedral in Castelfranco, his father had passed away.
Giuseppe was appointed to be curate at Tombolo, during which time he continued to study St. Thomas Aquinas and canon law on his own. He performed his duties so well that the pastor told people that he learned from Giuseppe rather than Giuseppe learning from him. He loved serving the poor. He also started night classes for the catechesis of adults and organized a choir, teaching its members the finer points of Gregorian Chant.
The pastor remarked, “Someday he will wear the miter, of that I am sure. After that, who knows?”
In 1867 he became archpriest of Salzano, working to restore the church, educate the parishioners, and expand the hospital. He himself worked to pay for the hospital by begging, laboring, and providing funds from his personal savings. When the cholera plague of the 1870s swept through northern Italy, he worked among the sick and dying to care for them.
After nine years at Salzano, he left to serve as canon at the cathedral of Treviso, providing spiritual direction, presiding as rector of the seminary, and as examiner of priests. Once again he also focused on catechesis for both youth and adults, in the country and the city.
Giuseppe taught dogmatic and moral theology until Pope Leo XIII sought his appointment as bishop of Mantua in 1884. Because of his lack of higher education, Giuseppe requested a papal dispensation which the Pope refused. As a result, when he became Pius X, he was the last Pope who did not have a doctorate.
Nine years later — though he was named a cardinal, the civil government opposed the appointment — he took office as patriarch of Venice and cardinal priest of San Bernardo alle Terme. He worked tirelessly once again, performing charitable works, forming the clergy, and educating the adults and children under his care.
Ten more years passed and then he was elected Pope on August 4, 1903. He declined not only because he felt unworthy but because he was also saddened by the Austro-Hungarian veto which secular authorities were able to exercise at the time. Finally, on August 9, 1903, he was installed taking the motto, “To restore all things in Christ.”
Like Pope Francis, he simplified the routine activities of the Pope by cutting down on the numerous ceremonies, wearing a simple metal cross rather than a gold one, and refusing to make his sisters “papal countesses,” saying, “I have made them sisters of the Pope; what more can I do for them?”
He continued to walk around the city, carrying candy for poor children. The courtyard of San Damaso became the site of various catechism classes. The Pope also insisted that the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine be set up in every parish.
One of his most memorable accomplishments was promoting frequent reception of Confession and daily reception of Holy Communion, and reducing the age for First Holy Communion to seven or the age of reason. In addition, he issued the encyclical Ad Diem Illum, to restore all things in Christ through Mary. The encyclical explains that since all the faithful are members of the Mystical Body of Christ, Mary is our mother since she is also the Mother of the Body of Christ. On November 22, 1903, he issued the motu proprio Tra le sollecitudini, reaffirming the primacy of Gregorian Chant over classical and Baroque compositions, and barring the use of some instruments, including the piano and drums.
Remembering the problems of the veto of his election, Pius X sought to reduce the power of the secular governments over the operations of the Catholic Church. In 1905 the Church broke relations with France. When he issued a proclamation limiting mixed marriages, this had repercussions throughout Ireland, Poland, Ethiopia, England, and Russia.
On the political front, he partly lifted the prohibitions on Italian Catholics voting, thereby allowing Catholics to vote for government officials, but he never recognized the Italian government.
The many documents he issued as Pope sought to restore orthodox belief as well as devotion among the clergy and the laity, reforming the breviary and emphasizing the Holy Eucharist, writing, “Holy Communion is the shortest and safest way to Heaven.”
He fought modernism with its promulgation of relativism, skepticism, and rationalism. He refused to accept that the Church had to adapt to modern times, affirming that Truth does not change, only the methods of communicating that same Truth.
Like Pope Benedict XVI who came one hundred years later, he said that there must be a marriage between faith and reason.
In 1904 he began the first-ever universal collection and synthesis of the Code of Canon Law. However, he was so heartbroken over the outbreak of World War I that he died on August 20, 1914 before it was published (on May 27, 1917).
Up until his death, the protocol was to remove the organs of the deceased Pope for embalming. Pope Pius X forbade that any of his organs be removed from his body, thus changing what had been the practice up to this time.
Pope St. Pius X was canonized on May 29, 1954, with his feast day assigned to August 21. A champion of sacred music, sound catechesis, and the importance of faith and reason, he lights the way “to restore all things in Christ.”
Dear Pope St. Pius X, with so many errors being promoted in both our culture and the Church, guide us. May we read, study, and implement what you have written that is so relevant for our times. By following your example, may we, too, restore all things in Christ. Amen.
+ + +
(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)