Perhaps nowhere in the history of the Church is there a better example of a man possessed of so many of the saintly virtues—piety, charity, deep humility, pastoral zeal, and simplicity—than in this holy Pope. Let us remember his life and follow his example of faithfulness to the Lord.
Father Giuseppe Sarto was ordained at the cathedral in Castelfranco on Sep 18, 1858. The young priest’s first assignment was as curate at Tombolo, a parish of 1500 souls in the Trentino district of Italy. Eight years later, he became pastor of Salzano, one of the most favored parishes in the diocese of Treviso. There, he arranged for the instruction of young and old in the fundamentals of Christian Doctrine, because it was his firm conviction that devotion meant little if it’s meaning was not understood.
Later, he was appointed Canon of the Cathedral, Chancellor of the diocese and spiritual director at the seminary. In spite of these many duties, he remained ever the teacher. He often journeyed from the seminary into the city to teach catechism to the children, and he organized Sunday classes for those children who attended public schools, where religion had been banned. When the diocese of Mantua fell vacant in 1884, Pope Leo XIII named Canon Sarto as bishop of that diocese.
Those days in Italy there was a general government opposition to religion which was manifested in many ways. This negative atmosphere helped allow dangerous errors of thought to creep into the clergy, and these faults of the shepherds eventually spread to the flock. In general, a pall of religious indifference and secularism spread over the diocese. With his characteristic energy and spiritual strength, Bishop Sarto sought to correct these errors, giving first attention to the seminary. By his own example of zeal and teaching, he won back the clergy to full and faithful service. He then noted a laxity in the faith of the people which he attributed to the neglect of parish priests in the instruction of the catechism. This led to Bishop Sarto establishing the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) in all parishes where he often taught the classes himself.
God blessed this work, and in 1893, Leo XIII elevated Bishop Sarto to Cardinal and Patriarch of Venice. Social and economic problems were of prime concern to the new cardinal, and any worthy social action organization was assured of his help. When the Workingmen’s Society was founded in Venice, the name of Cardinal Sarto was at the top of the list and he paid regular dues as a member!
On July 20, 1903, the world mourned the death of a great Pontiff, Leo XIII. Bishop Sarto was elected by the Cardinals on August 9, 1903, and he accepted and took the name of Pius X. The world was now the parish of the new Pontiff, and in his first encyclical he announced the aim of his reign. It was his desire, in the words of St. Paul, “to restore all things in Christ.” (Eph 1:10). The prime means of accomplishing this restoration was through the clergy, and so he exhorted bishops to reorganize the seminaries: only through a trained and disciplined clergy could a program of return to Christ be realized.
The religious instruction of young and old became the second most important means toward the Christian restoration: the evils of the world were traceable to an ignorance of God, he said, and it was necessary for priests to make the eternal truths available to all and in a language that all could understand. Ever an example, he himself gave Sunday instruction to the people in one of the Vatican courtyards. However, no reform of Pius’ was more widely acclaimed than the Decrees on Holy Communion, and Pius X is thus often called “the Pope of the Eucharist.” These decrees allowed the reception of first Holy Communion at an earlier age than had formerly been required, encouraged the frequent reception of the Holy Eucharist by all Catholics, and relaxed the fast for the sick.
The Pope likewise vigorously promoted reforms within the liturgy of the Church. In his Motu proprio on the Restoration of Church music, he listed the aims of such music to be sanctity, beauty of form, and universality. Gregorian Chant, the Pope felt, was the music best suited to attain those aims. However, an attempt to make all Church music Gregorian was exaggerated, and modern compositions were always welcomed as long as they fulfilled the prescribed norms. Pius also reformed the Breviary, and was founder of the Biblical Institute for the advancement of scholarship in the study of the Scriptures. He initiated and closely supervised the construction of the Code of Canon Law.
The crowning achievement of the Pontiff was his encyclical “On the Doctrines of the Modernists.” In this work, which was a death blow to the philosophy of Modernism, which pretended to “modernize” the Church and to make it keep pace with the changing times, but in reality its end would have been the destruction of the foundation of faith. The Pope gave a systematic exposition of the errors involved, their causes, and provisions for combating these errors by definite preventive measures.
Sadly, a little more than a month after the outbreak of the First World War, the Pope died on Aug 20, 1914. The inscription on his tomb in the crypt of the basilica of St. Peter’s gives the most eloquent testimony to a life spent in the service of God:
“Born poor and humble of heart,
Undaunted champion of the Catholic faith,
Zealous to restore all things in Christ,
Crowned a holy life with a holy death.”