Pope Francis: Reform in the Footsteps of St. Pius V

Unknowingly, my family had a sneak preview of the results of the recent Conclave. During the week prior, my one year old son, Austin, kept going up to our bookshelf and pulling off a particular book, no matter where it was shelved. My wife, Anne, beginning to wonder why this was happening, decided to look more carefully at the book. It was Robin Anderson’s short biography of Pope St. Pius V. Inspired to read it, she was even more inspired by Pius, the great Dominican Pope who led a reform that successfully implemented the Council of Trent. His reform began in Rome by his own humility, simplicity, and holiness.

Anne began praying for a Pope that would follow in the footsteps of Pius V, who would help us in our pivotal time, primarily through heroic personal witness. When Pope Francis stepped out on the balcony, the commentator immediately remarked that wearing a simple white cassock was reminiscent of Pius V (and John Paul I as well, of course). Anne turned and looked at me at that moment and we knew that Austin had been on to something. Francis announced, during his brief remarks on the balcony, that he would entrust the city of Rome to Our Lady the next day. He went to Santa Maria Maggiore to venerate one of the most cherished icons in Rome, Salus Populi Romani. After this moving veneration he then went to venerate the tomb of one of his predecessors in the Papacy, none other than Pius V. Then I knew that Austin had really been on to something.

Since the beginning of Francis’s Pontificate, I have thought more and more of his connection with Pius. We are in many ways still in need of a full implementation of Vatican II. Walter Cardinal Kasper pointed this out in the April 11th edition of L’Osservatore Romano, stating that Pope Francis was beginning a new phase of the implementation of Vatican II. Francis himself confirmed this during a homily on April 16th. After 50 years, he asked, “have we done everything the Holy Spirit was asking us to do during the Council?” He answered “no.” The beginning of his reform can already be seen in his appointment of eight Cardinals to make recommendations for the reform of the Curia. Thus, Francis’s Pontificate is poised at a similar juncture as was seen under Pius after the Council of Trent. The Church of the sixteenth century was racked not only by heresy, but also great corruption within the Church itself.

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St Pius V by El Greco 1605Pius certainly left many tangible legacies from his implementation of Trent, especially a new Breviary, Catechism, and Missal. Nonetheless, his reform movement really began with himself, eschewing the pomp of the Papacy, such as the sedia gestatoria (the chair on which the Pope was carried), and pushing apostolic simplicity and penance to the dismay of the Curia. His reform was a moral and spiritual reform that shook Rome, not just the Curia, but also the city itself. This moral reform ordered toward Rome can already be seen in Francis, who speaks of himself regularly as the Bishop of Rome and is showing much pastoral solicitude for his Roman flock, speaking of the need to evangelize the city. Francis has also received much attention, especially from the secular world, for his break with Papal protocol and his demand for simplicity, epitomized by his refusal to move into the Papal apartments. Pius himself fought to keep silk linens out of the papal apartments.

Both Popes, at the beginning of their Pontificates, demonstrated a more collegial approach with their collaborators. Pius’s first address to the Cardinals after his election made clear that he considered them brothers and that they could approach him individually rather than in public audiences, as was the custom. Francis greeted the Cardinals the day after his election standing to show the same brotherhood. Pius also vigorously opposed abuse and corruption of ecclesial power, especially for political purposes, initiating Curial reforms and choosing his collaborators with great scrutiny. Francis has already spoken out against careerism in the Church and refused to reconfirm immediately the heads of Curial departments, keeping them on, rather, in a provisional state.

Pius’s spirituality was rooted in his Dominican background (hence the Papal white which he initiated, keeping his own religious habit). The Church has not had a Pope from a religious order in over a hundred and fifty years and never a Jesuit one. A Jesuit Pope itself harkens back to the time of Pius, as the Jesuits were at the center of the Counter-Reformation. Francis, in taking his name from St. Francis of Assisi, also wants to be seen as continuing the legacy of the mendicant reform, of which Pius himself received. Both Pius and Francis approached the Papacy with a strong spirituality rooted in their faithful observance of religious life.

Finally, we see in both Popes a great care for the poor. As already mentioned, they have both embodied this pastoral care first in their own practice of poverty and simplicity. Moreover, they both saw the need for an evangelical poverty, a spiritual focus ordered toward the mission of the Church, which can be seen in the Church’s own embrace of poverty in service of the poor. Pius did so by abolishing papal banquets and giving the money instead to the poor. Francis’s hallmark moment with the poor, thus far, can be seen in his choice to wash the feet of juvenile prisoners, who embody Christ in all of the poor, even the non-Christian.

Pope Francis has received an especially warm welcome from the secular world. Some Catholics, however, look at his papacy with trepidation, fearing a break with tradition. I would argue, however, that looking back to Pius V gives us the perfect image of how to view Francis’s papacy. Like Pius, he is a Pope that seems to embody reform first in himself. His reflection on why Vatican II has not been fully implemented centers on the need for holiness: “The Spirit pushes us to take a more evangelical path but we resist this.” Rather, we need to “Submit to the Holy Spirit, “which comes from within us and makes us go forward along the path of holiness.” Francis’s own response to the Holy Spirit, found in his simplicity and poverty, cannot be confined to the normal operations of papal protocol. This breaking of the mold may be just the way that the Holy Spirit will lead us to another watershed moment of reform in the life of the Church. Francis is willing to be bold in following Christ. He leads in his own life first and already we are beginning to see how this boldness is flowing out into the rest of the Church.

Editor’s note: The image above of St. Pius V was painted by El Greco in 1605.


  • R. Jared Staudt

    R. Jared Staudt, PhD serves as Director of Content for Exodus 90. He is author, most recently, of How the Eucharist Can Save Civilization (TAN, 2023) and editor of Renewing Catholic Schools (Catholic Education Press, 2020).

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