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Catholic Heroes… Pope St. Pius X

March 30, 2021 saints No Comments


“He saith to him again: Simon, son of John, lovest thou me? He saith to him: Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love thee. He saith to him: Feed my lambs. He said to him the third time: Simon, son of John, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved, because he had said to him the third time: Lovest thou me? And he said to him: Lord, thou knowest all things: thou knowest that I love thee. He said to him: Feed my sheep” (John 26:16-17).
His family knew him as “Bepi.” Giuseppe Melchiorre Sarto, born in 1835 near Venice, was the second eldest son of a poor Italian postman and his dressmaker wife. Two of his ten siblings did not survive to adulthood. Two of his sisters would become nuns and a nephew a priest, so clearly his family was devout.
Bepi was also bright, graduating first in his class at high school and first in his class at seminary, which he had entered at age 15. He was ordained at age 23 and a dispensation had to be made, because he finished a year early.
Even during his first assignment at a humble parish, he revealed his devotion to teaching children about the faith and the Eucharist. He began classes for children and adults, teaching them about the faith, writing: “How many and how grave are the consequences of ignorance in matters of religion! And on the other hand, how necessary and how beneficial is religious instruction! It is indeed vain to expect the fulfillment of the duties of a Christian by one who does not even know them.”
In 1910 in Quam Singulari, as Pope Pius X he would lower the age of First Communion so children could receive at ages six to eight, instead of waiting until age 12, and he encouraged in his first writings as Pope that the Eucharist be received often, daily if possible. In doing so he put the last nail in the coffin of Jansenism, which was still a specter haunting Europe.
Later, building on his years of knowledge, in 1908 he would institute a papal catechism, one which is rock solid and can even be purchased today on Amazon (Catechism of Saint Pius X). The catechism is succinct and to the point. He instituted CCD, or the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, to teach catechism in every single parish worldwide — this we all know well from growing up Catholic.
And as Pope he taught weekly catechism to children in the Vatican courtyard. What joy it brought to him, and no doubt to the children as well. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, when asked, commented there’s no reason this catechism should not be considered just as valid now as well as over a century ago. The faith is the faith.
Before he was Pope, Don Sarto never really changed in the essentials. His first parish, in Tombolo, Italy, had about 1,500 souls. There he took on another project — that of reforming the music in the parish and resurrecting Gregorian Chant. Later in his first three months as Pope, he would issue the famed motu proprio reforming Church music, entitled Tra le sollecitudini (“Among these concerns”). Then the tendency existed for grand music to overwhelm the Mass. Even opera was being performed at church.
Today the music — in folk Masses, for instance — is also very much a distraction, with lame lyrics and loud guitars. Many do not realize that Pius X forbade certain instruments from being used, piano and percussion included. Others, like the organ, he praised, while urging chant and composers like Palestrina. Would that this motu proprio were required reading in the seminaries today!
Pope St. John Paul II, in 2003 on the centenary, remarked on the “need to ‘purify worship from ugliness of style’” and praised the moto proprio, urging bishops’ conferences throughout the world to implement Pius X’s excellent document. Then, he said, we may realize the true “‘purpose of sacred music,’ that is, ‘the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful’.”
After serving for a time as parish priest, Don Sarto would be named canon and chancellor of the Diocese of Treviso, as well as the head of the seminary. When the post fell vacant, he was appointed bishop, a post he would rather not have held and, not long after, the bishop of Mantua. He asked Rome to please reconsider and received a one word answer: “Obey!”
Even as Bishop Sarto, the future Pius X was at heart a priest and stayed close to his clerical roots. As bishop he still taught at the seminary. This would serve him well. As Pope he would revise the breviary and the missal, as well as construct the Code of Canon Law. The Code went into effect in 1917 and remained the guiding rule until 1983.
He had a gift for seeing what was needed — for instance, teaching the tenets of Catholicism — which alone could have filled his entire life. But even after instigating reforms there and there, he continued to add reform upon reform and in only eleven years as Pope made an astounding difference.
Given the name early on in his life of “Perpetuum Mobile” or “Machine in Perpetual Motion,” Pius X was constantly active. The challenge in this short column is to impart the character of the man along with his many achievements. No column on his life would be complete without commenting on what many would focus, his reputation as the Pope best known for combatting the errors of modernism.
He was named cardinal secretly, due to issues affecting Church and state in Italy, in 1893. His mother lived long enough to see him made cardinal, his father having already passed away. Little did he ever expect that on the death of Pope Leo XIII, he would be elected to the Chair of Peter at age 68 in 1903. One of his first acts was to ban interference of any monarchs, Catholic or otherwise, during a conclave. This had caused him to be elected Pope but in the future such an act would be an offense punishable by excommunication. He chose as his motto: “Restore all things in Christ.”
During his life he was a champion of the Church, carving out the first 15 dioceses in the United States so that it was no longer mission territory. He wrote sixteen encyclicals, one of them, Pascendi Dominici Gregis (“On the Doctrine of the Modernists,” 1907). This defined modernism as synthesizing and embracing every modern heresy, which he condemned. Key in understanding modernism is that it believes that truth comes not from God but rather is based on one’s subjective experience and involves radical reform, instead of conforming oneself to the teachings of the Magisterium.
Pius X was a bulwark, but he had a heart for children, and it was these he worried about most as Europe grew closer to World War I. In 1913 he had a heart attack and in 1914 he would eventually succumb to the effects of poor health. The date was August 20. The next day Germany declared war on Belgium and France. During his lifetime Pius X reportedly healed three persons miraculously, two of them children.
His last will and testament contains the words, “I was born poor, I have lived in poverty, and I wish to die poor.” He had stated he did not wish to be embalmed, a practice Popes continue to this day. Yet when his tomb was opened thirty years later per protocol for the canonization process, his body was in good condition. Four more miracles led to his beatification and canonization, which was broadcast in 1954 by NBC television in the United States. His feast is August 21.

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