John Gayford gives a critical review of his life and his legend


Pope Pius X was venerated in his own life time and he was canonised in 1954 by Pope Pius XII when great crowds came to cheer for this occasion. He was the first pope to be canonised since Pope Pius V (Pope between 1566 and 1572 and canonised in 1712). In spite of his personal saintly life, history has shown him as a more controversial figure. Roman Catholic opinion became divided with the traditionalists seeing him as their patron and a cult developing giving rise to the Society of Saint Pope Pius X (SSPX) which is still seen in the Catholic world today. The majority of Catholics see him in a different light with his inhibition of modern theological development and needing the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) to correct the imbalance. In the eleven years of his pontificate (1903 -1914) he showed he was a reforming pope of his own church but had no ecumenical dialogue, not even with the Orthodox churches. 

Giuseppe Sarto was born in 1835, the second son of the local postmaster and his mother who was a seamstress in Riese in upper Venetia, Italy. There were ten children but not all of them survived to maturity. Poverty was a badge he was not ashamed to carry with him through life, saying he was born poor and would die poor. He had to walk nearly four miles to school each day, often carrying his shoes to save on their wear. Other pupils ridiculed his shabby clothes and poverty which also restricted his education. It would seem he wanted to be a priest from a young age, walking extra miles to attend the necessary Latin lessons. From the age of 10 he served at mass before school. Later he went on to organise the servers for Sundays and form a small choir to sing Gregorian chant. In 1850 he was given a place at the Padua seminary, where he was described as a diligent but average student. He was ordained priest in 1858 at the age of 23. For the next seventeen years he was engaged in pastoral work. Thus, when he became pope, he was the first pope for a long time to have had this pastoral priestly background with common people and especially children. He was without university education and had a distrust of academic interpretations of what the Church had taught for centuries. It was his character of simplicity, sincerity and forthrightness that stayed with him. 

Fr Giuseppe Sarto was a very hard working parish priest at Tombolo, made archpriest of Salzano, canon of Treviso, spiritual director of the seminary and chancellor to the bishop. While fulfilling all these roles, he increased his knowledge of Thomas Aquinas and canon law. In 1867 he restored the church building and hospital. There was a cholera outbreak in 1870 and he won local admiration for the way he ministered to the sick and dying. In 1884 he was appointed bishop to the rather rundown diocese of Mantua, a task he tackled with his characteristic zeal and personal example. He was appalled that priests retired to the taverns after saying mass on Sundays without giving catechesis to children. They were interrupted in this habit and sent back to their priestly work with the example of their bishop who in addition this took children for walks in the evening to prepare them for their first communion. His reform was so impressive that in 1893 Pope Leo XIII made him a cardinal and appointed him to the prestigious post of Patriarch of Venice. For 16 months he was unable to take possession of his see as the Italian government claimed the right to nominate the Patriarch of Venice, so he was not formally enthroned until 24th November 1894 when the government submitted. The nine years at Venice made little change to Cardinal Sarto; he still retained a love of Gregorian chant and appointed a musical director who supported him. Sarto had a fine voice and could sing the mass with dignity. His love for children continued and his simple catechism was developing. His devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary was becoming more evident. Cardinal Sarto showed his dislike for Liberal Catholics by calling them wolves in sheep’s clothing. 

When Pope Leo XIII died in 1903, Cardinal Sarto was a candidate for Papal election but Cardinal Rampolla who had been the previous pope’s secretary of state seemed to be favourite. The Austrian Emperor imposed his veto but although the conclave wanted to ignore this Cardinal Rampolla withdrew from the contest and Cardinal Sarto was elected, taking the name of Pius X. He took as his motto Instaurare omnia Christi (To restore all things in Christ Ephesians 1.10). One of the first things he did was to abolish secular interference in the election of popes. Within three month of becoming pope he published Tra le sollectudini showing his continued love of Gregorian chant as source of Christian Spirituality. He chose Joseph Pothier to supervise the Vatican edition of Gregorian chant. He simplified the Breviary and placed renewed emphasis on the mass and receiving communion which he saw as the safest and most assured way to heaven. He lowered the age of receiving communion to seven, as the age of consent when children could tell the difference between Eucharistic bread and common bread. For these actions he received the title ‘Pope of the Blessed Sacrament’. The Catechism of Pius was his simple way of teaching the faith. He is accredited with laying down the principles of ‘Catholic Action’ in the encyclical Il fermo proposito of 1905. The aim was to take the faith by lay people under episcopal control into the home, school and workplace. Unlike popes of his time, he did not dine alone but invited friends and engaged in conversation. Throughout his pontifical life three of his sisters cooked for him, the only honour he was prepared to accept for his family.

Modernism in religion became a term used in the Roman Catholic Church during the late 19th century and early 20th century associated with Pope Pius X. Initially it was encouraged by the intellectual Pope Leo XIII (pope between 1878 and1903) until he saw some of its dangers to Catholic theology and philosophy. Pius condemned modernism in two formal documents, Lamentabili and Pascendi, of 1907 carried into effect by the motu proprio of 1910 Sacrorum Antistitum which imposed an Anti-Modernist oath on all clergy. The term modernism included any form of biblical criticism and acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution, reducing teaching to fundamentalism. This ban officially remained in place until 1960 which inhibited even minor biblical criticism in seminary teaching. A.F. Loisy (1857-1940) is accredited with being the ‘Father of Catholic Modernism’ within the Roman Catholic Church, wanting to broaden philosophical concept beyond Aquinas. He was primarily a biblical scholar having support from fellow academics and an archbishop in France. Modernists did not present a unity of ideas but aimed to bringing Catholic belief into a closer relationship with what was modern at the time in terms of philosophy, history and science. Loisy’s ‘little books’ were placed on the Catholic Church’s Index of Prohibited works in 1903 and he was excommunicated in 1908. In England they were chiefly represented by Baron von Hugel who as a layman was not subject to the oath against modernism and became the first Roman Catholic to receive an honorary doctorate from Oxford University since the Reformation. Teachers in seminaries were frightened of the reaction of their students. Monsignor Umberto Benigni is projected as being in charge of Sodalitium Pianun known as SP (fellowship of Pius really referring to Pius V but also to Pius X); this allowed a network never as many as 50 but with the function of spies who could open private letters and report. This sent fear among the clergy as report cases could result in dismissal from office. Fortunately in 1960 the Second Vatican Council marked the end of the anti-Modernist period. Roman Catholic studies had been inhibited for 50 years but this vigorous pruning has given rise to much healthier plant in modern times. Pius X is projected as suspecting many of modernism and some would claim this had paranoid features. After his death, papers were found that laid accusations against his successor Benedict XV and other future popes of modernism but there is no evidence that they had actually been seen by Pius X. Researchers are divided on how much Pope Pius X knew of the work of Monsignor Umberto Benigni and the SP. Pope Pius X refused the US President an audience when he declined to cancel visit to a Methodist congregation in Rome.

In 1905 he recommended frequent communion, daily if possible, with suggested prayers before the Blessed Sacrament. The lovers of Gregorian chant have much to thank him for in the support of Dom Prosper Gueranger (1805-1875) who had done wonderful work to restore Gregorian chant at Solesmes Abbey in France. Unfortunately at that time the chant was sung in a stodgy, unattractive way. Long had gone what Hildegard of Bingen called ‘a feather on the breath of God’. In Italy and other places the High Mass had an orchestra introducing music from current popular opera sung by singers imported from the theatre. The sung mass had become the poor person’s concert. Tra le Solectitodine was a Motu Proprio promulgated by Pope Pius X on 22 November 1903 on instructions on sacred music and led to the Vatican edition of the chant for Mass and the Offices. There were a number of liturgical changes made by Pius X, the psalms in the Breviary were radically rearranged so that the Offices were shorter, and scriptural readings were provided proper to the season. Each day had its own Psalms with only interruption for major feasts. Some project him as herald of the ‘Liturgical Movement’. Pius X in 1909 founded the Biblical Institute for Scriptural Studies which he entrusted to the Jesuits. The code of Canon Law was close to the heart of Pope Pius X and he employed the best canonists to assist him which included the future Pope Pius XII. This task was not completed in his lifetime but the work went on after his death and it was left to his successor, Pope Benedict XV, to promulgate the completed work in 1917. 

Pope Pius X had a myocardial infarction (heart attack) in 1913 and his health deteriorated. After a few months bronchitis developed and he died on 19 August 1914, at the age of 79. He had been very distressed at the prospect of the outbreak of the First World War which officially started in July 1914. Although he knew little of politics, he knew that this conflict would involve Catholics killing Catholics. 

Pope Pius X was venerated as a saint with attributed miracles in his own lifetime. There can be no doubt that Pius X lived a saintly life venerated in his own life time but there is controversy in the way he handled the modernist crisis or possibly how others manipulated it in his name. It has always been the duty of the Pope to be a guardian of the faith and this was something Pius X took very seriously indeed. In retrospect the actions taken seem draconian and led in part to the Roman Catholic Church being isolated from the rest of Christendom for some years. We may view the traditionalist Pius X as Pius by name and deeply pious by nature. 


Suggested Further Reading:-

Cumming, J. St. Pius X. in Butlers Lives of the Saints (New Full Edition) August, Burns & Oates. The Liturgical Press Collegeville. Minnesota. 1998.

Duffy, E. Saints and Sinners; A. History of the Papacy (fourth edition) Yale University Press, London. 2014.

Kelly, J.N.D. Pius X. Saint. Oxford Dictionary of Popes, Oxford University Press Oxford 1986.