By Larry Peterson
The two most beloved Popes of the twentieth century lived during the beginning and at the end of that century. We all know of Pope St. John Paul II who guided the Church from 1978 into the new millennium. However, not as many people know about the man who became pope during the beginning of the century. His name was Pope St. Pius X who was elected in 1903. He went on to be known as the Great Reformer who called the modernism of the day, “the synthesis of all heresies.”
He only reigned as pope for eleven years, but during his pontificate, he initiated reforms in sacred music, biblical studies, seminary life, Canon Law, and the Holy Eucharist making it available for all starting at the age of seven. Before that, the minimum age was twelve.
Giuseppe Melchiore Sarto was the oldest of eight surviving children of Giovanni Battista Sarto and Margarita Sanson. He was born June 2, 1835, in the Lombardy-Venetian area of Italy. The family had little because Giovanni supported them by working for the government as the local postman. The pay was steady, but it was barely enough to live on.
While still a pre-teen, Giuseppe studied Latin with his village priest. In time he received his Confirmation and Communion (at the time First Communion could not be received until the age of 12). The priest recognized the keen mind Giuseppe had been blessed with, and before long, the boy was in the upscale secondary school known as Castelfranco Veneto.
Throughout his four years at the school, he always held the number one rank in his class. He developed a deep devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and to the Blessed Virgin, and when he announced he was considering becoming a priest, no one was surprised.
The Sarto family were in no position to finance their son’s seminary studies when the hand of providence reached in, and Giuseppe found himself with a scholarship to the Seminary of Padua, considered among the best in all of Italy. He was ordained to the priesthood on September 18, 1858, by the Bishop of Treviso, Monsignor Zinelli.
His priestly career began as a parish priest, then he became a pastor, then a canon, moved on to be the spiritual director at the seminary, then diocesan chancellor. Pope Leo XIII appointed him Bishop of Mantua on November 6, 1884. Lastly, on June 12, 1893, Bishop Sarto was elevated to Cardinal by Pope Leo. All the positions he had held leading up to this point had prepared him well for a future he never could have imagined.
Pope Leo XIII, after serving as Pontiff for 25 years, passed away on July 20, 1903. He had issued eleven papal encyclicals on the Rosary and earned the title, The Rosary Pope. He also wrote the Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel and the famous encyclical, Rerum Novarum (Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor). His successor would have a tough act to follow. On August 4, 1903, Cardinal Giuseppe Sarto was elected to the Papacy. He became Pope Pius X.
Pope Pius X was deeply concerned at the cultural Modernism infecting the church and society. He decided it was essential to focus on apostolic problems and to defend the Catholic Church against all attacks which had become many. There was much backlash from the Modernists, the intellectual elites who were trying to reinterpret Catholic teaching. However, Pope Pius was determined to withstand the onslaught.
Modernism was ambiguous because it had no particular definition. People had begun to reject the doctrinal and moral teachings of the church and embrace what felt good for themselves. In 1907, the Holy Father issued the encyclical, Pascendi Dominici Gregis (Feeding the Lord’s Flock).
He wrote this because he recognized how Modernism rejected the morals and doctrines of the church. He wanted Catholics the world over to know that doctrine is unchanging and does not evolve and not to be fooled by the ever-changing culture. He wrote:
“It is an error to believe that Christ did not teach a determined body of doctrine applicable to all times and to all men, but rather that He inaugurated a religious movement adapted, or to be adapted, to different times and different places.”
Pope Pius had a deep love for the Holy Eucharist and wanted it to have a daily impact on Catholics everywhere. At the time people only received about three or four times a year. He wrote a decree, Sacra Tridentina Synodus in 1905 which promoted Holy Communion on a daily basis. He said Communion was not a reward for good behavior but, as the Council of Trent noted, “it is“the antidote whereby we may be freed from daily faults and be preserved from mortal sins.”
This was followed by Quam Singulari in 1910. Inspired by a three-year-old girl named Nellie Organ aka “Little Nellie of Holy God,” he lowered the age for receiving First Holy Communion to seven. That is still the way it is today.
Of course, we have the miracles that were attributed to this holy man. There were the miracles reported after Pope Pius’ passing but let us just focus on ones that occurred while he was still alive:
- During a papal audience, Pius X was holding a paralyzed child. Suddenly the child started squirming and wiggling and then broke free from the Pontiff’s arms and began running around. The child was cured, and it was spontaneous and inexplicable.
- Another time the Holy father received a letter from a couple, he knew from when he was Bishop of Mantua. Their two-year-old child was dying from meningitis, and they asked the pope to pray for him. Two days later, the child was cured.
Much more can be written about Pope St. Pius X. His holiness and contributions to the welfare of the Church entrusted to him is everlasting. When his body was exhumed in 1944, it was perfectly intact. As per his request, it had never been embalmed.
Pope St. Pius X, we ask for your prayers and protection as we travel forward through the 21st century.
copyright©Larry Peterson 2019