Today is the feast day of one of the greatest Popes of the modern era, Pope St Pius X, whose eleven year Papacy was lived at the onset of turbulent and changing times. His great personal sanctity in daily life was the guide and inspiration of all his ecclesiastic undertakings, first as a young priest, then as Bishop (first of Mantua and later as Patriarch of of Venice), and finally as Supreme Pontiff.
When as a young priest he had been chosen by the Bishop to fill a vacancy as canon of the Cathedral, along with his duties at the cathedral, Monsignor Sarto now looked after other priests and the seminary as spiritual director. He threw all his energies into his new assignments, showing particular zeal in the formation of new priests. He was constantly heard stating: “The priest is a man obliged to hard work: ‘priest’ and ‘hard work’ are synonyms”, living out this dictate himself, even to the point of exhaustion.
Before applying rules of holiness to others, he put them into practice in himself with his ardent devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and his abiding trust in Her intercession under the specific title of ‘Our Lady of Confidence’; this he later defined as his motto in his encyclical, Ad Diem Illum Laetissimum, expressing his desire, through Mary, to renew all things in Christ. Pius X believed that there was no surer or more direct road than by the Virgin Mary to achieve this goal.
In Italy at the end of the nineteenth century, the anti-Catholic forces were mobilising to eradicate any influence of the Church on society. This persecution could be seen within the confines of the Church as well, with many modernists taking important posts in Catholic universities and seminaries, promoting many errors of the day, including secularism, liberalism and relativism, while asserting that Church teaching must conform itself to the present era. (Sound familiar? Yet how greatly things have deteriorated since those days!) The newly appointed Bishop Sarto of Mantua confronted these modernists head-on, boldly affirming the perennial teaching of Holy Mother Church amid the partisans of what he would famously call “the synthesis of all heresies.” Bishop Sarto first went about the task of uniting the clergy to fight these pernicious errors with a letter to the pastors of his diocese, enjoining his fellow ‘apostles’ that: “A priest’s life is a continual warfare against evil, which cannot fail to raise up powerful enemies. In order that they may not prevail against us, let us be united in charity amongst ourselves; thus we shall be invincible and strong as a rock.”
Later, he directly addressed the people of his diocese with powerful words that summarised the programme he would spend the rest of his life carrying out:
“We must fight the capital crime of our day, which is the substitution of man for God; we must illumine with the Ten Commandments, with the evangelical counsels, and with the institutions of the Church all the problems that the Church and the Gospels have so clearly and triumphantly resolved; in education, in family life, in private ownership, in rights and duties, we must restore Christian equilibrium among the difficult conditions of society; we must pacify the earth and inherit heaven: This is the mission that I must carry out among you, restoring all things to the reign of God, of Jesus Christ, and His Vicar on earth, the Pope.”
Bishop Sarto’s defence of Catholic principles earned him the respect even of the liberals and anti-clericals of his day. Catholics lionised him for his support of defending the rights of the Church. It came as no surprise that after the sudden passing of the Patriarch of Venice, Pope Leo XIII nominated Bishop Sarto for the post. Bishop Sarto, now elevated to cardinal, had to wait sixteen months before being allowed to enter the city and take his rightful place as the city’s patriarch.
At Venice, the anticlerical faction had seized power. The masonic lodges arranged blasphemous demonstrations in the city streets, openly mocking the Real Presence and other Catholic doctrines. To counteract these brazen attacks, Cardinal Sarto organised a Eucharistic Congress of Reparation for the week beginning August 8, 1897, that consisted of a series of grand processions, powerful sermons, and sublime liturgies. The Congress closed with an outstanding Eucharistic Exhibition at the Church of San Rocco. At the closing procession, Cardinal Sarto gave the solemn Eucharistic Benediction before throngs of faithful gathered at the banks of the Venetian lagoon.
This awe-inspiring culmination of the week of festivities honouring our Eucharistic Lord had repercussions throughout Italy and abroad. No one could doubt the future Pope’s incomparable devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and his unshakeable faith in the power of the well-executed ceremonials of the Holy Catholic Church to evangelise. Above all his other notable qualities, this event paved the way for Cardinal Sarto’s elevation to the papal throne as Pius X, the 256th Successor of Saint Peter, on 4th August, 1903.
The numerous good fruits of Pope Pius X’s eleven year Papacy are well known. He wasted no time in fulfilling his sworn promise to Instaurare Omnia in Christo (to restore all things in Christ) with his first encyclical titled E Supremi Apostolatus that unequivocally stated his position: “We champion the authority of God. His authority and Commandments should be recognised, deferred to and respected.” With his uncompromising confidence in the Queen of Heaven, he reminds us:
“The Virgin will never cease to help us in our trials, and to carry on the battle fought by her since her conception, so that every day we may repeat: ‘Today she again crushed the head of the serpent’.”
Pope Pius X soon had to openly engage in a battle against the Church’s external enemies such as the anti-Catholic government of France that had confiscated all Church property in the country. In his encyclical Vehementer, he manifested his resistance. But his next fight moved to the battle inside the Church, where modernists whom he had continually fought still spread their errors. The decree Lamentabili was his opening salvo, explicitly condemning sixty-five erroneous doctrines, followed by the encyclical Pascendi Diminici Gregis which represented a devastating blow to these dissenters.
Perhaps one of the saintly Pope’s most well-known zealous moves to build up the Church as a remedy for the many evils threatening the world, was his encouragement of a more frequent reception of Holy Communion, and the lowering of the age for children from thirteen to seven to make their First Holy Communion. He affirmed:
“Children have need of Him that they may be formed in habits of virtue; youth have need of Him that they may obtain mastery over their passions; maidens have need of Him that they may preserve their innocence untarnished; all men and women have need of Him that they may advance in virtue and carry out faithfully the duties of their state in life; there are none who can afford to neglect this great source of spiritual strength, none who can do without Him.”
(It is reported that the saintly life of the tiny Irish girl, Little Nellie of Holy God, was the sign from Heaven that Pope Pius asked for to go ahead with this decree.)
So much more could be told about this outstanding Pope, who even during his life, the faithful from many lands attested to miracles worked through his intercession. However, many witnessed his deep sadness of heart at the impending war he foresaw by many years, and was unable to avert. His humility, courage, passionate love of God and the Blessed Virgin, together with his unstinting devotion to duty, leaves us a legacy our poor afflicted world is still enjoying today amidst its assaults on all sides from the wages of sin.
Perhaps the words from the discourse of Pope Pius XII at the canonisation ceremony of St Pius X on 29th May, 1954, would be a good reminder and final tribute to this holy man of God:
“As a humble parish priest, as bishop, as the Supreme Pontiff, he believed that the sanctity to which God called destined him was that of a priest. What sanctity is more pleasing to God in a priest of the New Law than that which belongs to a representative of the Eternal High Priest, Jesus Christ, Who left to His Church in the holy Mass the perennial memorial, the perpetual renovation of the Sacrifice of the Cross, until He shall come for the last judgment; and Who with this Sacrament of the Blessed Eucharist has given Himself as the food of our souls: “He that eateth this bread shall live forever.”
A priest above all in the Eucharistic ministry: this is the most faithful portrait of St. Pius X. To serve the mystery of the Blessed Eucharist as a priest, and to fulfill the command of Our Saviour “Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19), was his way. From the day of his sacred ordination until his death as Pope, he knew no other possible way to reach such an heroic love of God, and to make a such generous return to that Redeemer of the world, Who by means of the Eucharist “poured out the riches of His divine Love for men” (Council of Trent, Session 13, chapter 2). One of the most significant proofs of his priestly sensibility was his ardent concern for the renewal of the dignity of worship, and his concern to overcome the prejudices of an erroneous practice, by resolutely promoting the frequent, and even daily, Communion of the faithful at the table of the Lord, without hesitation, leading children thereto, lifting them up, as it were, in his own arms, and offering them to the embrace of God hidden on the altars. From this, sprang up a new springtime of the Eucharistic life of the Bride of Christ.
In the profound vision which he had of the Church as a society, Pius X recognised in the Eucharist the power to nourish substantially its interior life, and to raise it high above all other human associations. Only the Eucharist, in which God gives Himself to man, can lay the foundations of a social life worthy of its members, cemented by love more than by authority, rich in its works and aimed at the perfection of individuals: a life, that is, “hidden with Christ in God.”
A providential example for today’s world, where earthly society is becoming more and more a mystery to itself, and anxiously searches for a way give itself a soul! Let it look, then, for its model at the Church, gathered around its altars. There in the sacrament of the Eucharist mankind truly discovers and recognises its past, present, and future as a unity in Christ. Conscious of, and strong in his solidarity with Christ and his fellow men, each member of either Society, the earthly and the supernatural one, will be able to draw from the altar an interior life of personal dignity and personal worth, such as today is almost lost through insistence on technology and by excessive organisation of the whole of existence, of work and even leisure. Only in the Church, the holy Pontiff seems to repeat, and though Her, in the Eucharist which is ‘‘life hidden with Christ in God,” is to be found the secret and source of the renewal of society’s life.”
Sancte Pie Decime, ora pro nobis!