Pope St Pius X: The reluctant pope
August 20 marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Pope St Pius X. GUNTHER SIMMERMACHER looks at the life and papacy of the man born Giuseppe Sarto.
A world war had just begun when the saintly pope closed his eyes, drew his last breath and ended his pilgrim journey on earth. It was August 20, 1914. Pope Pius X had served as the Vicar of Christ for 11 years, following the long, in many ways progressive pontificate of Pope Leo XIII.
And he almost didn’t become a pope, a job he was not particularly interested in anyway. The conclave of 1903 was actually well on its way to electing Pope Leo’s secretary of state, the competent and powerful Cardinal Mariano Rampolla, who was a few weeks short of his 60th birthday.
Cardinal Rampolla had widely been expected to succeed Pope Leo. But during the conclave, Cardinal Jan Puzyna de Kosielsko, the prince-archbishop of Krakow, pronounced the veto of the emperor of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Franz Josef I.
Three European states had a right to veto a papal election the others were France and Spain. The reasons for Austria’s objection to Cardinal Rampolla are unclear; speculation ranges from Rampolla’s bias towards France to his refusal to give the emperor’s son, who had died of suicide, a Catholic burial. It likely was a combination of factors that triggered the veto.
Instead, the conclave elected Cardinal Giuseppe Melchiorre Sarto, the 68-year-old patriarch of Venice, who took the name Pius X.
Pius was not pleased at the way he had become pope, and quickly abolished the veto powers of states, with the threat of excommunication for any politician who tries to interfere in a papal election.
The new pope’s choice of name, Pius X, gave an immediate indication of the direction his pontificate would take: a return to the ways of Pius IX, who had fought liberalism, both secular and theological, and insisted on absolute papal supremacy. This was going to be a conservative pontificate.
Central in Pius papacy was his war on modernism, which he decreed a heresy, in the Church. Modernism, a term Pius first used in his 1907 encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, is not easy to define, nor did so-called modernists present a cohesive group. Some who were thus labelled doubtless flirted with heresy; others merely proposed reforms which today we take for granted. To Pius, modernism represented the synthesis of all heresies.
Those who referred to modern philosophical systems in their theology, who were open to reconciling science with faith, who did not read the Bible literally, or sought progressive reforms within the Church were liable to feature on the blacklist.
After Pope Pius died, it is said, his successor, Pope Benedict XV, had a curious look at the list of people suspected of being modernist heretics. He was taken aback to find his name on it.
Another suspected modernist was Fr Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII.
It is fair to say that the campaign against modernists, at least in its execution, was not the most edifying element of Pius X’s pontificate.
But there is no doubt as to his personal qualities of holiness. Pius was a humble, down-to-earth man who resented the isolation from the world which was the way of the papacy. Since Italy’s unification in 1871, with its annexation of the Papal States, the popes did not move out of the Vatican. That changed only in 1929 with the Lateran Treaty.
On the day of his coronation, Pius caused widespread shock when he turned up with a simple pectoral cross of gilded metal. He brushed off protests by saying that this was the only pectoral cross he owned.
He resented the pomp that surrounded the papacy. Look how they have dressed me up, he lamented to a friend on one occasion. It is a penance to be forced to accept all these practices. They lead me around surrounded by soldiers like Jesus when he was seized in Gethsemane, he told another friend.
At the time when Pius became pope, pontiffs didn’t even eat with others. He quickly changed that, inviting friends to dine with him.
Pius defined himself by his background of poverty. He was born on June 2, 1835 in Riese, then still part of the Austrian empire, but now in the northern Italian region of Treviso. With his postman father, devout mother and seven younger surviving siblings, the young Giuseppe grew up in poor circumstances.
Giuseppe was 15 and a top pupil when the local bishop chose him for the priesthood, sending him on a scholarship to a seminarian school in Padua. He was ordained in 1858, and soon became well-known for his remarkable sense of charity and his catechetical work.
In 1884 he was appointed bishop of Mantua by Leo XIII, who in recognition of his handling of a difficult diocese made Sarto a cardinal in 1893, and appointed him patriarch of Venice.
As bishop in Mantua and then Venice, Sarto had been renowned for his rapport with children, for whom he always had sweets in his pocket. As pope he always sought out children at his audiences, and included them in his weekly catechism lessons in the courtyard of the San Damaso church in the Vatican.
Pius promoted the reception of daily Communion. This was revolutionary in a time when most Catholics would receive Communion three or four times a year. He effectively lowered the age at which children would receive Communion, from around 12-14 to an age of discernment, at about seven.
Holy Communion is the shortest and safest way to heaven, Pius said, and he is still known as the Pope of the Blessed Sacrament.
Pius also had a special devotion to the Blessed Virgin, to whom he devoted his second encyclical, Ad Diem Illum Laetissimum (1904). He decreed that every parish should have catechism classes, another novel reform which we take for granted today.
A keen promoter of Gregorian chant, Pius banned the use of the piano or percussion instruments and any form of profane music. The organ was exempt from exclusion, but not women, whom he banned from singing in church choirs.
Other reforms concerned the structure of the curia, the Code of Canon Law (though this was completed only after his death) and scriptural scholarship.
Pope Pius suffered a heart attack in 1913, the same year Cardinal Rampolla died. His health never fully recovered from that.
The outbreak of World War I depressed the pope profoundly. On August 15, the feast of the Assumption, he fell seriously ill. On August 20, the day the German army invaded Brussels, he died at the age of 79.
Pius X was buried in a simple tomb in the crypt below St Peter’s basilica. It was moved in 1952 to the chapel of the Presentation inside the basilica.
The move to canonise Pius X followed within a couple of years after his death. Devotion to the late pope in the subsequent decades was widespread. In 1923, when his sainthood cause was officially launched, a huge monument was erected in his memory in St Peter’s.
In 1944 Pius body was exhumed. Although it had not been embalmed and the organs not removed, it was in a good condition; so good, that in 1944 it went on public display for 45 days. During that time the German occupiers were expelled from Rome, an event which attracted further devotion.
In short order Pius was beatified in 1951 and then canonised in 1954, both by Pope Pius XII. The canonisation, on May 29, was televised internationally.
Pius X was the first pope to be canonised since Pope Pius V in 1712, and the last until the canonisation of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II this year. In order to avoid competition with St Bernard on August 20, St Pius X’s feast day is August 21.
SA’s churches of St Pius X
Six churches in South Africa are dedicated to St Pius X; all of them were founded between 1955 and 56, within a couple of years of the saint’s canonisation.
Hilton, Aliwal North
Plumstead, Cape Town