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Pius X, St

A Dictionary of Popes

J. N. D. Kelly,

Michael J. Walsh

Pius X, St 

(4 Aug. 1903–20 Aug. 1914)

Born at Riese, Upper Venetia, on 2 June 1835, son of the village postman and a seamstress, Giuseppe Melchiorre Sarto went to school at nearby Castelfranco, studied 1850–58 at the seminary at Padua, and, after ordination (18 Sept. 1858), spent nine years as a country curate at Tombolo, eight as parish priest of Salzano. After serving 1875–84 as chancellor of Treviso and spiritual director of its seminary, he became bishop of Mantua, a run-down diocese which he speedily revitalized. In June 1893*Leo XIII appointed him patriarch of Venice and cardinal priest of S. Bernardo alle Terme, and for a decade he proved a hard-working pastor, absorbed in his clergy and flock, collaborating discreetly with the Italian government, and in local politics advocating an alliance of Catholics and moderate liberals against socialism. At the conclave following Leo XIII's death Cardinal Rampolla, his secretary of state, seemed at first the favourite, but on 2 Aug. the veto of Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria was announced. This did not prove decisive, however, for the cardinals (including Rampolla) protested energetically against the intervention and continued voting. It soon became apparent that a powerful body of opinion favoured a pope of a different style from Leo, and at the seventh ballot the choice fell on Sarto. He called himself Pius X out of regard for recent popes of that name who had bravely resisted persecution.

Adopting as his motto ‘to restore all things in Christ’ (Eph. 1: 10), Pius made clear from the start his intention of being a religious rather than a political pope. He regarded Leo XIII's policy of appeasing secular governments as a failure, and set himself, with his secretary of state, the Spaniard, but English-educated, Rafael Merry del Val (1865–1930), to insist unyieldingly on the church's rights. This soon led to a diplomatic break with France (30 July 1904), where the situation was ripe for it, with the annulment by the ministry of Émile Combes (1902–5) of the 1801 concordat, and the transfer of the church's property to lay associations (9 Dec. 1905). Pius denounced (11 Feb. 1906) the Law of Separation and, against the advice of most of the bishops, prohibited (10 Aug. 1906) any compromise settlement, thereby securing the church's independence at the price of material ruin. He protested equally forcibly against the separation of church and state in Portugal (1911), while his support of Catholic minorities in Poland and Ireland angered the Russian and British governments. Public opinion in the USA was offended (1910) by his refusal to receive ex-President Theodore Roosevelt after he had been lecturing in the Methodist church in Rome. In Italy, however, while standing firm on the Roman question, as the conflict between church and state in Italy since 1870 had come to be called, he introduced a gradual détente between the Vatican and the government; moved partly by fear of socialism, he permitted bishops (11 June 1905) to relax at their discretion his predecessors' ban (the Non expedit) on the participation of Catholics in elections.

Pius was no less intransigent in the theological and social fields. While at Venice he had viewed the liberalizing movement known as Modernism with alarm. After repeated warnings and placing suspect writings on the Index, he branded it as a ‘synthesis of all heresies’ in the decree Lamentabili (3 July 1907), which condemned 65 modernist propositions, and in the encyclical Pascendi (8 Sept. 1907); the suppression was completed by a motu proprio (Sacrorum antistitum: 1 Sept. 1910) imposing on clergy an oath disavowing Modernism. There ensued a widespread, often embarrassing, harassment of scholars which widened the breach between the church and the intelligentsia. Pius' friend and confidant, Mgr Umberto Benigni, established a secret spy network, the Sodalicium pianum, also known as La Sapinière (‘the fir tree plantation’) to report to the Vatican any deviation from the orthodox line, though whether the pope himself knew of this organization is unclear. Although favouring the Catholic movement in Italy, he sought to detach it from close political involvement and to subject it to the hierarchy. Paternalistic in his approach, he emphasized in Il fermo proposito (11 June 1905) that the chief objective of social groups should be ‘to replace Jesus Christ in the family, the school, the community in general’. He therefore suspended (28 June 1904) the Opera dei congressi, which coordinated Catholic associations in Italy, condemned (25 Aug. 1910) Marc Sangier's Le Sillon movement in France, which aimed at reconciling Catholicism with left-wing political ideas, and set his face against interconfessional trade unions.

If these measures were largely defensive, Pius was also responsible for a constructive renovation of the internal life of the church. First, he reorganized the curia, redefining its congregations and tribunals, eliminating obsolete offices, and streamlining the central administration (Sapienti consilio: 29 June 1908). Secondly, assisted by a special commission and the advice of Catholic universities, he thoroughly revised and codified the canon law; publication of the new code had to be held back until 1917, but work on it was virtually complete at his death. Significantly, his legislation included a prohibition of the veto traditionally exercised by Catholic powers at papal elections which had recently caused offence at his own (Commissum nobis: 20 Jan. 1904). Thirdly, a pastor himself before everything else, he took steps to improve the spiritual and moral level of the clergy and their pastoral effectiveness. This he achieved by reforming seminaries and their curricula, reorganizing catechetical instruction, and instigating the preparation of a new catechism. He also became a forerunner of Catholic Action by seeking to enlist layfolk, under the hierarchy, for collaboration in the apostolic tasks of the church. Fourthly, he gave a lasting stimulus to the spiritual life of Catholics generally (a) by numerous decrees enjoining frequent, even daily, communion, the admission of children to communion at the age of reason, and the easing of communion of the sick; and (b) by his reform of church music (22 Nov. 1903) and restoration of the Gregorian chant as the model, his recasting of the breviary (Divino afflatu: 1 Nov. 1911), and his initiation (1914) of a revision of the missal. These initiatives were so far-reaching that he has been hailed as a pioneer of the modern liturgical movement.

In many ways deeply conservative, and so regarded by contemporaries, Pius was also one of the most constructive reforming popes. A man of transparent goodness and humility as well as resolution and organizing ability, he was spoken of as a saint and credited with miracles in his lifetime. The process of his canonization was begun in 1923; he was beatified on 3 June 1951, and canonized on 29 May 1954. Feast 21 Aug.

Further Reading

ASS 36–41 (1903–8)Find this resource:

    AAS 1–6 (1909–14)Find this resource:

      Lettere, ed. N. Vian (Rome, 1954)Find this resource:

        R. Bazin, Pie X (Paris, 1928)Find this resource:

          E. Vercesi, Il pontificato di Pio X (Milan, 1935)Find this resource:

            R. Merry del Val, Memories of Pope Pius X (ET, London, 1939)Find this resource:

              C. Ledré, Pie X (Paris, 1952)Find this resource:

                Schmidlin iii. 1–177Find this resource:

                  DTC xii. 1716–40 (É. Amann)Find this resource:

                    EC ix. 1523–30 (G. Urbani)Find this resource:

                      EThC 127–8 (R. Aubert)Find this resource:

                        Levillain ii. 1197–9 (M. Guasco)Find this resource:

                          NCE xi. 387–92 (C. Ledré/R. Fastiggi)Find this resource:

                            O. Chadwick, A History of the Popes 1830–1914 (Oxford, 1998), 332–405Find this resource:

                              Émile Poulat, Histoire, dogme et critique dans la crise moderniste (Tournai, 1969)Find this resource:

                                id., Intégrisme et catholicisme integral (Tournai, 1969)Find this resource: