Pope St. Pius X: The Great Reformer

When most Catholics hear the name of Pope St. Pius X, they think of the great saint who pulverized modernism, that “synthesis of all heresies” in the early twentieth century.  Many are also aware of his Eucharistic reforms, which promoted frequent communion and communion for young children.  Some may also be aware of his conflict with the anti-clerical French State, which led to the Law of Separation and the subsequent material impoverishment of the French Church.  Fewer are aware that Pius X, in his short eleven year reign, ranks as one of the greatest reforming popes in history.  These reforms which he initiated were important, timely, and needed.  Pius X contributed to reforms in papal elections, seminary life, Eucharistic practice, sacred music, biblical studies, the breviary, catechesis, the organization of the Roman Curia, and Canon Law.  Many of these reforms arose from needs which he saw in his pastoral work as curate, pastor, canon, spiritual director at the seminary, diocesan chancellor, bishop, metropolitan, cardinal, and pope.

The Pastoral Career of Pope St. Pius X
Giuseppe Melchiore, the oldest of eight surviving children, was born to Giambattista and Margherita Sarto on June 2, 1835 in Riese, a town lying in the Venetian plain.  Giambattista was employed as a cursore, a minor village official in the Austrian administration, for Venetia was then under the political control of the Austrian Empire.  In time, he was confirmed and then made his First Communion.  While attending the College of Castelfranco, about seven kilometers from Riese, Beppi displayed his academic excellence.  In his eight examinations over the four years, Sarto always held the first place.  Devoted to the Blessed Sacrament and the Virgin Mary, he also grew in piety.  It came as no surprise that he was considering a priestly vocation.

pope-saint-pius-xThe Sarto family was not in a position to finance Giuseppe’s seminary studies.  Providentially, he was awarded a scholarship at the Seminary of Padua, one of the very best in all of Italy.   While studying there he was especially drawn to the study of Scripture, the Fathers, scholastic philosophy, as well as sacred music.  In time, he was ordained at Castelfranco on September 18, 1858 by the Bishop of Treviso, Msgr. Zinelli.  As his first assignment, Don Giuseppe worked as curate in Tombolo, assisting the pastor, Don Antonio Constantini.  Under the gentle hand of Don Antonio, Sarto learned how to preach in the plain and simple style which was so effective with the people, and which he would encourage his own priests to utilize later.  After an apprenticeship of less than ten years, Don Giuseppe was named the pastor of Salzano in 1867.  Here he instituted classes on Christian doctrine for both children and adults.  At Salzano, he first formed a schola cantorum of men and boys at the church to sing Gregorian music.

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Greatly pleased with the fine work of Don Sarto as a parish priest, Msgr. Zinelli, in April of 1875, called on the priest to take up more important duties in Treviso.  He was not only appointed canon of the cathedral and chancellor of the diocese, but also spiritual director at the seminary.  Seeing that the spiritual formation of Treviso’s future priests was his charge, he put heart and soul into this work.  As the health of both the bishop and vicar general declined, the lion’s share of the diocesan administrative work devolved upon Sarto.  In this way, he was initiated into running a diocese well before he was named bishop.  In September of 1884 he received a letter appointing him Bishop of Mantua.  He was genuinely disconcerted and did not think himself equal the task.  Yet, he submitted.  After a time of preparation, he traveled to Rome and was consecrated bishop on November 16.

Rome regarded Mantua as a serious trouble spot, where the state of the clergy was perilous.  Mgsr. Sarto could not take possession of his diocese until April 1885, when he received the royal exequatur, the government’s authorization of his episcopal appointment.  Early on, the young bishop focused his attentions on improving the spiritual life, the academic rigor, and the discipline in the seminary as the means of the future restoration of the clergy.  As a means of rejuvenating the spiritual life of the Mantuans, he held two pastoral visitations and a diocesan synod.  In May of 1893, on account of his fine management of a problematic diocese, Leo XIII appointed Mgsr. Sarto to the Patriarchate of Venice.

After Sarto arrived in Rome in early June, he met with Leo XIII, who, in a secret consistory, created him cardinal and then publically nominated him to the patriarchal see of Venice.  Yet once again, Cardinal Sarto had to wait till November of 1894 to enter his see, for the exequatur arrived well over a year later.  Finally, on November 24 the people of Venice provided their new patriarch with a grand welcome.  Having pronounced, “There is too much preaching and too little teaching,” he directed his priests to avoid flowery language and to preach the truths of the Gospel in a straightforward and simple style, noting that the eternal salvation of their flocks should be their focus.  While in Venice, Cardinal Sarto brought about a reform of church music.  In Venice, Sarto also exhorted the faithful to frequent communion, and even began to encourage young children to communicate.  Many of his papal musical and Eucharistic reforms found their origin in his Venetian experience.

At the venerable age of 93, Pope Leo XIII died on July 20, 1903.  The Conclave opened on July 31.  The favorite going into the conclave was Cardinal Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro, the former Secretary of State for Leo XIII.  As Rampolla closed in on 50% of the votes, Cardinal Puzyna, Bishop of Cracow exercised, in the name of the Emperor Franz Josef, the veto of exclusion (ius exclusivae) against Rampolla.  After the fourth scrutiny, Cardinal Sarto began to make significant gains, amassing a clear 2/3 majority in the seventh scrutiny.  He could see this coming.  At first, he was unwilling.  Nevertheless, after it became clear that this was the will of God for him, he accepted the burden, taking the name Pius in honor of the great popes who recently suffered so much.  Next year, in the Constitution Commissum Nobis (1904), Pius X abolished the veto and threatened any cardinal who attempted to exercise it with excommunication.  His first great reform, then, involved papal elections themselves.  After a period of discernment, he chose Raphael Merry del Val, a gifted linguist with a cosmopolitan background, as his Secretary of State.

The Reforms of Pius
In his opening encyclical, E Supremi apostolatus (1903), Pius X claims that the program for his pontificate is “to reestablish all things in Christ” so that “Christ may be all things and in all.”  To his fellow bishops, he states that all other tasks must yield to “forming the clergy to holiness.”  For that reason the bishops’ seminaries must be the “delight of their hearts.”  He had specific reform plans for the seminaries, including residency requirements, discipline and curricula.  Within a few years of his pontificate, he issued the Apostolic Letter Quoniam in Re Biblica (1906), in which he outlined a systematic program for biblical instruction in seminaries.  Among other things, he maintained that a course in sacred scripture should be incorporated into each seminary year.  Shortly before his death, in the wake of the Modernist controversy, he issued the Motu proprio Doctoris Angelici (1914), in which he manifestly insisted on Thomistic philosophy being the foundation of theological studies in all Catholic educational institutions.

More than anything else, it was Pius X’s reforms on the Eucharist which had the greatest impact on the daily lives of Catholics.  At that time, many people only received communion three or four times a year.  With his decree Sacra Tridentina Synodus (1905), Pius placed the last nail in the coffin of Jansenism, by promoting frequent and daily communion.  He stated that Holy 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.”  In his decree Quam singulari (1910), the pope laid out guidelines on the age of children who are to be admitted to Holy Communion.  Pius said, “The age of discretion for receiving Holy Communion is that at which the child knows the difference between the Eucharistic Bread and ordinary, material bread, and can therefore approach the altar with proper devotion.”  In the past children, or better adolescents, received their first communion when they were between the ages of 12-14; now they might be as young as 7.

Concerning sacred music, Pius issued the Motu proprio Tra le Sollecitudini (1903).  In the opening of this document, Pius declares, “Nothing should have place, therefore, in the temple…which is thus unworthy of the House of Prayer and of the Majesty of God.”  Among those things designated antithetical to sacred music, he lists the use of the piano, percussion instruments, female singers, the theatrical style, and any form of profane music.  The organ, however, was to be allowed.  He mentions that the proper aim of sacred music is “to add greater efficacy to the [liturgical] text, in order that through it the faithful may be the more easily moved to devotion and better disposed for the reception of the fruits of grace belonging to the celebration of the most holy mysteries.”  On that account, he mentions that Gregorian chant is the supreme model of sacred music, closely followed by classical polyphony, especially that of Palestrina.  As a means of establishing these reforms throughout the universal church, Pius established an institute of sacred music (1911) in Rome for the purpose of training teachers of chant.

Since he was a seminary student, Pius particularly enjoyed the study sacred scripture.  Moreover, following the wishes of Trent, Pius was interested in a critical edition of the Vulgate.  As this would be a long-term, multi-generational task, involving the study and comparison of various manuscripts, Pius placed the revision of the Vulgate in the able hands of the Benedictines.  In order to further promote biblical studies, a plan both of his and his predecessor, Pius founded the Pontifical Biblical Institute in 1909 to train professors of sacred scripture.  This was put in the competent hands of the Jesuits.

Following upon the wishes of the Fathers of the First Vatican Council, Pius took steps to reform the breviary in his Apostolic Constitution Divini Afflatu (1911), the first major reform since the time of Pius V in 1568.  In his day the multiplication of the offices of the saints made it difficult to fulfill the duty of reciting all 150 psalms every week.  Aims of the this reform included: Completion of the entire Psalter every week, reduction of the length of the liturgical offices, restoring Sundays and ferial days to their rightful place, and the lessons of Sacred Scripture were to be restored to their proper season.

The Roman Curia had last been thoroughly reorganized by the energetic Sixtus V in 1587.  At that time the Curia also governed the Papal States.  Nevertheless, many important changes had occurred in the intervening 300 years, not the least of which was the loss of the Papal States.  With the Curia now needing to be streamlined and modernized, Pius, with a facility for administration and organization, instituted reforms in the congregations, tribunals, and offices of the Curia through his Apostolic Constitution Sapienti Consilio (1908).  With the pope himself, Cardinal Gaetano de Lai would oversee this reform.  Among other things, he reduced the number of congregations from fifteen to eleven and clearly laid out each of their duties.  Furthermore, he removed the U.S., Canada, Newfoundland, England, Ireland, Holland, and Luxembourg from the authority of the Congregation de Propaganda Fide.

In the preparatory phase of the First Vatican Council, many of the bishops had requested that the canon law of the Church be codified.  Not long after his election, in his Motu proprio, Arduum Sane Munus (1904) Pius X announced his plan for codifying the canon law.  As the name of the document suggests, it was a “truly difficult task.”  He placed Pietro Gasparri, a canonist with amazing energy and perseverance, over this herculean project.  Pius drew on the bishops throughout the entire Church as consultants in this undertaking.  Some of these laws were no longer relevant, some had varying authority, and other needed to be adapted to modern life.  This simplification, streamlining and codification of canon law were indispensable to the growing modern Church.  Much of the work was completed before the death of Pius, but it was his successor Benedict who actually promulgated the Code in 1917.  As Owen Chadwick remarks, “It took canon law out of the mysterious realm of the experts and made it available to diocesan administrators.”

From his earliest years as a priest through his succeeding years as a bishop, the catechesis of both children and adults was close to the heart of the pontiff.  He had implemented it everywhere he went.  Therefore, Acerbo nimis (1905), Pius’ encyclical on teaching Christian doctrine was a natural choice for one of his earliest encyclicals.  Toward the beginning of the encyclical, Pius notes that many Christians are completely ignorant of the “truths necessary for salvation.”  He notes this concerns not only the masses, but also many people who are, otherwise, well-educated in secular pursuits.  Furthermore, he also stresses the essential duty of priests to teach the faith to the young.  He commands, “On every Sunday and holy day, with no exception, throughout the year, all parish priests and in general all those having the care of souls, shall instruct the boys and girls, for the space of an hour from the text of the Catechism on those things they must believe and do in order to attain salvation.”  Even when he was pope, he made time to teach the catechism to the children in the courtyard of San Damaso in the Vatican.

Death, Beatification, and Canonization
As the Great War began to unravel in late July, 1914, the pope’s health deteriorated.  He was extremely sorrowful at the prospect of such a vast war.  According to his doctor, before he died, he said, “I am offering my miserable life as a holocaust to prevent the massacre of so many of my children.” In the early morning of August 20, 1914, with the names of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph on his lips, he breathed his last.  In his will he stated that he wanted to be buried in St. Peters and he did not want his body embalmed.  In 1944, when his body was exhumed, it was found “excellently preserved.”  Pius X was beatified by Pius XII on Sept. 3, 1950 and he was canonized on May 29, 1954 by that same pope.

Pope St. Pius X passed through the ecclesiastical cursus honorum, step by step, bringing a wealth of pastoral experience to his papacy as few other popes ever could claim.  He held the positions of curate, pastor, canon, spiritual director at the seminary, diocesan chancellor, bishop, metropolitan, cardinal, and pope.  His practical experience in overseeing three important Italian episcopal sees provided him with a keen appreciation of pastoral needs.  Furthermore, this pope, who held office for only eleven years, ranks as one of the greatest reforming popes in history, certainly the greatest since the Council of Trent. If any modern pope should be called the “Great,” Pius, on account of his holiness and his comprehensive and beneficial reforms, let alone his courageous and firm defense of the faith and rights of the church, surely has the first claim.

Author’s note: Sources used for this column include Claudia Carlen, ed. The Papal Encyclicals, vol. 3 (Ypsilanti, MI: Pierian Press, 1990); Owen Chadwick, A History of the Popes, 1830-1914 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998); Yves Chiron, Saint Pius X: Restorer of the Church, trans. Graham Harrison (Kansas City, MO: Angelus Press, 2002); Raphael Cardinal Merry del Val, Memories of Pope Pius X (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1951); F.A. Forbes, Pope St. Pius X (Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1987); Hubert Jedin and John Dolan, eds. History of the Church, vol. 9 (London: Burns & Oates, 1981).


  • Joseph F. X. Sladky

    Joseph F. X. Sladky holds a Ph.D. in Church History from the Catholic University of America. He teaches at Chelsea Academy in Front Royal, Virginia.

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