Giuseppe Sarto was born in Riese in 1835 into a large family of limited means. He studied in Castelfranco, displaying remarkable academic abilities while still very young. From 1850 – 1858, he studied at the seminary in Padua and was ordained at twenty-three years of age. As a country priest in a cattle town called Tombolo, he taught the illiterate people how to read and write. For a fee, he asked them to stop swearing. He was later transferred to Salzano and in 1875, to the town of Treviso where he preferred to wear a worn black cassock rather than one bordered in silk. Sarto not only identified with the poor but wished to live as they lived. The cassock was one indication of his humility, which along with his unending charity, were his hallmarks as a young priest and bishop.
In 1893, Leo XIII made him Patriarch of Venice and cardinal priest of St. Bernardo alle Terme. He chose his predecessor’s old cape, patched by his sisters, and pawned his gold watch. Sarto worked tirelessly to care for his priests and people. In a spirit of poverty he ran his diocese and was known for his pastoral and administrative abilities.
Pius was deeply concerned about the growth of socialism and equally distrusted liberal thinking and modernist intellectuals and philosophy. Decidedly conservative, he told his priests in Venice to be proud of being called papists, clerics, retrogrades and intransigents. Although formally at odds with the government, he found ways to work with them and with moderate Catholics to try to keep the Socialists in check.
Shortly before his death, Leo XIII predicted Sarto would succeed him. In 1903, he proved to be correct. When a conclave gathered upon Leo’s death, it appeared that his Secretary of State, Cardinal Rampolla would be the likely candidate. This would have signaled the continuation of Leo’s policies in the Rerum Novarum social justice encyclical. Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria vetoed Rampolla through the Cracow (Poland) cardinal. There ensued a strong showing for the deeply religious Sarto. He was a warm-hearted peasant with a lifetime of pastoral ministry to his credit. Leo had been an aristocrat and was considered to be remote. Giuseppe Sarto was the opposite. A French cardinal told Sarto he’d never be elected since he didn’t speak French. Sarto humbly and humorously retorted that he had bought a round-trip ticket to Venice, so that was okay. When it became apparent the election was moving towards him, he tried very hard to dissuade the cardinals, believing he did not possess qualities that enabled him to be pope. On the seventh ballot, they elected him and with intense emotion he accepted their wishes. He chose to be called Pius X in solidarity with the recent popes of that name who had suffered so much in the preceding century. The choice of his name was also a clear indication of his philosophical and spiritual preferences, rejecting those of Leo XIII’s papacy known for its intellectual and diplomatic strengths. Pius was sixty-eight years of age and would rule for eleven years.
The cardinals chose Pius X in 1903 and by May 29th, 1954, Pius XII had canonized him—the last pope to be canonized. There were many reasons for this occurring. Pius made it clear from the beginning of his papacy that he intended to be a religious pope, not a political one. He remained a prisoner of the Vatican. Like Pius IX and Leo XIII, he refused to acknowledge the unlawful usurpation of the Papal States by the Kingdom of Italy in 1860 and 1870. Not as adept at diplomacy as his predecessor, Pius soon was at odds with European governments. He believed Leo XIII’s policies of appeasement were a failure. Together with his Secretary of State, Rafael Merry del Val (1865 – 1930), he proceeded in an unyielding manner with governments regarding the Church’s rights. In 1904, diplomatic relations with France failed. The 1801 concordat was annulled and church property was confiscated. In 1906, against the advice of most bishops, he denounced the Law of Separation and refused any compromise. Materially the Church in France was ruined but its values were not compromised. He narrowly avoided a similar situation in Portugal. In 1911 a formal separation of church and state occurred there. In Italy, aware that he needed to come to some agreement with the government he began to permit Catholics to participate in elections, hopefully to vote against the socialists who were gaining prominence. He angered Russian and British governments when he supported the Catholic minorities in Ireland and Poland. He offended Americans by refusing to receive former President Teddy Roosevelt after he had lectured in a Methodist church in Rome.
Pius was opposed both theologically and socially to a liberal movement known as Modernism which he viewed with great alarm. This was a movement begun in France that sought to reconcile liberal philosophy and ideas with Catholic teaching. Pius not only denounced the movement calling it a synthesis of all heresies, but also placed the writings on the Index and condemned sixty-five modernist propositions in the encyclical, Pascendi in 1907. In 1910, in a final attempt at suppression he imposed an oath on all clergy requiring them to disavow modernism. What followed was widespread harassment of intellectuals and scholars. Some of the finest scholars in the Church were silenced if they deviated from the orthodox point of view set forth by the pope and his confidantes. This oath was in effect until 1964. Clearly the direction of the papacy had assumed a markedly conservative tone.
Alongside this decidedly debatable orientation, Pius was also responsible for renewing the internal life of the Church in remarkable ways and introducing new and innovative changes. His administrative abilities were highly admirable as he reorganized the Curia, streamlining its central administration. He sought the advice of Catholic universities and revised and codified Canon Law (published in 1917, though nearly complete at the time of his death). One of its revisions was the elimination of the veto traditionally exercised by Catholic powers during papal elections. His interest in pastoral care led him to reform the seminaries and to improve the spiritual and moral level of the clergy. He worked to prepare a new catechism and catechetical instruction. He was the forerunner of the Catholic Action groups that sought to involve the laity in the apostolic life of the church. He reintroduced Gregorian chant as a model of church music and reformulated the breviary to make it more accessible to hard-working clergy.
Pius X was obviously interested in the spiritual well-being of Catholics. Known as the Eucharistic Pope, he not only encouraged daily reception of the Eucharist, but also sought to allow children to receive it at the age of reason (seven years of age) rather than the customary twelve to fourteen years. In 1914, he also revised the missal. In total, his initiatives were so far-reaching he was hailed as a pioneer.
A deeply conservative man who was so transparently good and humble, he was highly regarded for his holiness during his own lifetime. Many miracles were credited to him even while still alive. He died at the beginning of World War I and was devastated at its outbreak. Rather than bless the Austrian troops who sought his blessing, he simply stated, I will bless peace. He was seventy-nine years of age and was buried initially in the Vatican grottoes. In the 1950’s his body was transferred, along with Blessed Innocent XI’s and (eventually) Blessed John XXIII’s to three altars in St. Peter’s Basilica where their relics are venerated in glass sarcophagi.
The Church celebrates his memorial feast day on August 21st.