Life of Pius X - F. A. Forbes

Pius X and the Priesthood

A personal friend of Pius X. was speaking to him one day with hot indignation of the abuse leveled at the Head of the Catholic Church by a Modernist writer. The Pope's answer was as characteristic as the smile that accompanied it.

"Come," he said, "did not he allow that after all I was a good priest? Now, of all praise, that is the only one I have ever valued."

"A man who hid a boundless ambition under a pretence of humility," wrote another of the defeated army that had challenged the Church of Christ. And in one sense most certainly Pius X. was a man of ambition, an ambition that had taken shape within him as he knelt before the altar of the Cathedral of Castelfranco to receive the sacred unction of the priesthood with all that it entailed. Study, prayer, labor, self-denial and unlimited self-devotion; charity, poverty, and loyal-hearted obedience to authority all these were part of that ambition—the ambition to be a good and fervent priest, to walk in the footsteps of his Master. It had been his guiding star through life; he had sacrificed everything to it; and in a certain sense it was true that this ambition, realized most perfectly in his holy life, had placed him against his will on the Throne of Peter.

A noble and worthy priesthood, according to his first great Encyclical, was to be one of the means towards that restoring of all things in Christ "which was to heal the wounds of the world." "The priest is the representative of Christ on earth," he said on one occasion to the students of the French Seminary in Rome; "he must think the thoughts of Christ and speak His words. He must be tender as Christ was tender, pure and holy like his Lord; he must shine like a star in the world." This was not easy, he acknowledged, for human nature; it needed a long preparation of study, of self-discipline, and of prayer. The spiritual weapons must be well tempered for the combat, for the fight would be hard and long.

"A holy priest makes holy people," he said on another occasion; "a priest who is not holy is not only useless but harmful to the world."

And it was not only the cultivation of virtue on which he insisted, but the cultivation of the intellect also. The man who all his life had curtailed his hours of sleep in order to study, had done it to perfect his priesthood, to fit himself to cope with the dangers that were abroad, to be armed at every point against error. Although his enemies were never tired of asserting that he was ignorant and unlettered, and he himself was quite ready to let the world believe it, his knowledge and the extent of his learning could not be concealed. Those who came in contact with him and with his personal work could not be otherwise than impressed with his depth of thought, the extent of his reading, his literary, and classical training, and his strong grasp of philosophy and theology. His wide and far-reaching appreciation of men and things in different countries all over the world was astonishing in a man who had not travelled, as many statesmen often remarked after conversing with him. He read French perfectly, although he felt shy at attempting to speak it, for want of practice. He was an excellent accountant. Refined in manner and in gesture, the delicacy and nobility of his dealings with others were unequalled. A certain apostle of the new learning, received by the Pope with his usual genial kindness, attempted once to worst him in an argument on philosophy and theology. Disgusted with the calm and unexpected firmness with which the Holy Father held his own, his opponent ended by losing his temper. "It is useless to continue this discussion," he exclaimed impatiently, "for I see that we shall never understand each other."

Pius X


"You are quite mistaken, my son," was the quiet answer, "we understand each other very well; so well, that I can give my approval and my blessing neither to you nor to your works."

"In order that Christ may be formed in the faithful," said the Pope in his first Encyclical, "He must first be formed in the priest," and with this end in view he set himself to the task which lay before him. The first six years of his Pontificate were chiefly spent in work which concerned the priesthood and sacerdotal institutions. Uniform rules of study, of discipline, and of ecclesiastical education, were given to all the seminaries of Italy, which were to be inspected carefully from time to time by apostolic men, who, like himself, had at heart the perfection of the priesthood. The small seminaries in dioceses incapable of supporting them on these lines were suppressed. The Bishops were exhorted to further the work by all the means in their power; care was to be taken in the selection of candidates for the priesthood, who, after a thorough training in the seminary, were to be wisely directed in the first exercise of their ministry, safe-guarded against rationalism and the errors of the day, and encouraged to keep up their studies without detriment to their zeal in active work. The Academy of St. Thomas in Rome and the Catholic Institute of Paris won special praise from the Holy Father for the excellence and thoroughness of their teaching. Special regulations were laid down for the examination of those about to be ordained. The study of Holy Scripture was to be pursued in the seminaries during the four years of the theological course, while especially gifted students were to be set apart for more advanced studies. Special rules were laid down for foreign priests residing in Rome, and retreats organized for the Roman clergy. Bishops and Archbishops were to proceed with caution, making sure before all ordinations that the candidates for the priesthood were not unworthy of their high calling. On those who were already, or about to be ordained, the Pope enjoined constant and fervent prayer, daily meditation on the eternal truths, the attentive reading of good books, especially of the Holy Scriptures, and diligent examination of conscience. The priest was to stand forth as an example to all by the integrity of his life, his deference and obedience to all legitimate authority, his patient charity with all men. It was not by a bitter zeal that they would gain souls to God; they must reprove, entreat, and rebuke, but in all patience; their charity must be patient and kind with all men, even with those who were their open enemies. "Such an example," said Pius X., "will have far more power to move hearts and to gain them than words or dissertations, however sublime." "The renovation of the priesthood," wrote the Pope a little before the celebration of his sacerdotal jubilee in 1908, "will be the most beautiful and acceptable gift that the clergy can offer to Us."

The beautiful gift that the Holy Father himself bestowed on the Catholic priesthood on this 'the 50th anniversary of his ordination was the wonderful Exhortation to the Catholic Clergy, published on August the 4th, 1908. It was a labor of love, and every word of it was his own. Embodying as it does the wisdom and experience of a lifetime spent in God's service, the Exhortation set before the Catholic clergy of the whole world the model of "the Man of God"—the perfect parish priest. Its fervent and eloquent appeal to the clergy of all countries to show themselves worthy of their high calling, by being truly the "salt of the earth and the light of the world," is followed by a clear and practical exposition of the means necessary to attain this great end. Fervent and assiduous prayer, daily meditation on the things of eternity, the reading of good books and especially of the Holy Scriptures, with frequent examination of conscience, will alone enable the priest to acquire and maintain the sanctity worthy of his sublime office. His ministry must be in deed as well as in word. He must remember that he is not only the servant but the friend of Christ, Who has chosen him that he may go and bring forth much fruit. And as friendship consists in unity of mind and will, it is the first duty of a priest to study the mind and will of his Master, so as to conform himself in all things to them. Stress is laid on the necessity of cultivating the passive virtues those which perfect the character of the man himself as well as the more active ones which are exercised outwardly, and which are called forth by contact with other people. ' The Exhortation, written for priests, by one who was a model of all priestly virtues, and given from the Throne of the Apostle, is a perfect rule of life for every priest who aspires to sanctity.

Once more he recommended, as he had so often done before, preaching to the people plain and simple Gospel truths rather than flowery and rhetorical sermons. Once more, but this time as Head of the Universal Church, he insisted on the necessity of clear and simple instruction in Christian doctrine to adults and children alike, again reiterating his conviction that the growth of unbelief in the world was largely due to ignorance of the teaching of Christ.

"It is in a time of sore stress and difficulty," he writes in his Encyclical of 1905 on this subject, "that the mysterious counsel of Divine Providence has raised up our littleness to bear the office of chief Shepherd over the whole flock of Christ. It is a common complaint . . . that in this age of ours there are very many of the Christian people who live in utter ignorance of those things, the knowledge whereof is necessary for their eternal salvation . . . we do not only mean the masses and those in the lower walks of life . . . but those who, though not without talent and culture, abound in the wisdom of the world, and are utterly reckless and foolish in matters of religion . . . They hardly ever think of the supreme Maker and Ruler of all things, or of the wisdom of the Christian faith . . . they in no wise understand the malice and the foulness of sin . . . a great many . . . fall into endless evil through ignorance of those mysteries of the faith which those who would be counted among the elect must needs know and believe."

"The erring will of man has need of a guide who shall show it the way . . . this guide is none other than the intellect. But if the intellect itself be lacking in the true light . . . it will be a case of the blind leading the blind, and both will fall into the ditch . . . It is only the doctrine of Jesus Christ that makes us understand the true and wondrous dignity of man . . . and is it not the doctrine of Jesus Christ again that inspires in proud man the lowliness of mind which is the origin of all true glory? From this doctrine we learn the prudence of the spirit whereby we may shun the prudence of the flesh, the justice whereby we may give to everyone his due, the fortitude whereby we are made ready to endure all things and may suffer with gladness for the sake of God and eternal happiness; and lastly the temperance by which we may love poverty itself for the kingdom of God, and may even glory in the Cross, despising the shame . . . Since then such dire evils flow from ignorance of religion and . . . the necessity of religious instruction is so great, because no one can hope to fulfill the duties of a Christian without knowing them, it only remains to ask whose duty it is to eliminate this deadly ignorance from the minds of the people and to impart to them this necessary knowledge."

The answer is obvious that duty falls on the priesthood, and this the Pope most clearly points out. "There is nothing nearer or dearer than this to the heart of Jesus Christ," he continues, who said of Himself through the lips of Isaiah, 'to preach the Gospel to the poor He hath sent Me.'"

Having laid down in strong and urgent words the duty of the shepherds to feed the flock committed to their care, the Pope expounds the mission of the Catechist, its beauty and its power for good. Having promulgated several rules for the ensuring of uniformity in this matter and impressing the necessity for special instructions to adults, he quotes the words of St. Gregory the Great on the apostles of Christ. "They took supreme care to preach to the ignorant things easy and intelligible, not sublime and arduous," ending the Encyclical with the saying of his great predecessor, St. Peter, "as every man hath received grace, ministering the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God."

It was the Pope himself who took the first step towards the introduction of a uniform Catechism into Catholic schools, revising with his own hands that in use in Northern Italy, which he prescribed for the dioceses of the Roman province and recommended for general use. It is a most practical little Catechism, containing an introductory part that even infants can understand, with two more for younger and older children respectively, arranged so that the later parts develop the teaching of the earlier.

To Pius X. the Breviary had always been a book of predilection. It is said that as a child he had often seen Cardinal Monico with his Breviary in his hands, and had wondered vaguely what beautiful stories there could be in the big book that so engrossed the attention of the Prelate. And when in later days he opened its cover for the first time himself, his childish dreams found their fulfillment. For the Breviary is the story of the Church and her saints, and the whole Psalter enwraps it like a glory. It was to the treasures of that great book that he went all his life for his morning meditation until he knew it as one knows the heart of a friend. And loving it with the love of a true friend, and seeing faults amidst its beauties, he would let it also share in his great scheme, "the restoring of all things in Christ." For over four hundred years a redistribution of the Psalter throughout the week had been sighed for, but so far every scheme had failed. Pius X. appointed a Commission to deal with this problem, giving certain general lines on which to base the reform, with the result that in a few years the New Breviary was issued. The rearrangement secures the recitation of the whole Psalter once a week, the length of the Office on Sundays and ferias has been reduced, while the complexities of the Calendar have also been much simplified.

"No one can fail," wrote the Pope, "to be stirred by those numerous passages of the Psalms which proclaim so loudly the immense majesty of God, His omnipotence, His ineffable justice, His goodness and clemency . . . Who can fail to be inspired . . . by those thanksgivings for benefits received from God, by those lowly and trustful prayers for benefits desired by those cries of the penitent soul deploring its sins? Who is not kindled with love for the picture of Christ the Redeemer so lovingly shadowed forth, and whose voice Augustine heard in all the Psalms, praising or mourning, rejoicing in hope, or yearning for accomplishment? With good reason in past ages was provision made by Decrees of the Roman Pontiffs, Canons of Councils, and monastic laws, that members of both sections of the clergy should chant or recite the whole Psalter every week."

Having dealt with the reasons which prevented this, the Pope spoke of the many pleas that had reached him that the old custom might be restored, and of the work that had been done to this effect, which was but a prelude to a farther emendation of the Breviary and the Missal. The reform of the Roman Curia was another undertaking which did much to simplify the government of the Church.

The various Roman Congregations were founded by Sixtus V. to study the questions submitted to the decision of the Pope and to deal with any legal questions that might arise. As the proper administration of justice required that persons of experience and mature judgment alone should deal with these matters, various committees were formed, each of which attended to its own particular branch of business. But time had rolled on, and the organization of the different Congregations needed to be adapted to the requirements of the present day. Pius X., with the practical spirit which distinguished all his undertakings, completely remodeled the Curia, fixing the number of the Congregations at thirteen, and while defining clearly the work of each one, provided for the better exercise of its functions. The Constitution "Sapienti consilio "on this matter instituted also many other important reforms in the tribunals and offices of the Curia.

The purchase of the Palazzo Mariscotti, near the Church of San Francesco alle Stimmata, and assigned to the Cardinal Vicar of Rome and his officials, enabled Pius X. to carry out another long-cherished plan for the thorough reform of the Roman Vicariate, inadequate in its organization to the needs of the present day. Want of space, which had been the chief difficulty in the way of reorganization, having been thus supplied for, the necessary reforms were at once set on foot. In many other important matters the needs of modern times called for the simplification and amendment of methods that had become obsolete.

The reform and codification of Canon Law was another laborious work carried on by the Pope for eleven years, and brought to a triumphant conclusion by his successor Benedict XV.

The needs of emigrants were also taken into consideration, and an office or department founded in one of the Roman Congregations to find out their necessities and to apply a remedy to the existing evils.

Family life, too, found in Pius X. a strenuous defender. The discipline of the Church regarding Christian marriage was renewed in the "Ne Temere "Decree, special rules being laid down which greatly simplified the regulations on this matter, and safe-guarded the integrity and sanctity of the marriage contract. The great feature of the Decree was that it established a uniform law for the whole Church.

As might be expected, it has been attacked with a good deal of virulence in non-Catholic countries.

With affectionate interest the Pope watched the progress of Catholicism in England.

"If there is any Church in the whole Christian world," he wrote in January, 1912, on the occasion of the founding of the two new ecclesiastical provinces of Birmingham and Liverpool, "which merits the special care and forethought of the Apostolic See, it is certainly the Church of the English, which, happily founded among the Britons by St. Eleutherius and still more happily established through apostolic men by Gregory the Great, was subsequently made famous by the numbers of its children distinguished by the holiness of their lives, or by the martyr's death courageously suffered for Christ."

"It is with the greatest pleasure that I greet you, my dear children of Great Britain," he said at an audience given to four hundred English pilgrims presented to him by the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, "worthy descendants of your Catholic forefathers who during ten centuries remained constantly faithful to the Church and the Holy See, and who, by the purity of their faith and by personal holiness, gave many saints to God. And although through the blind passion of an unworthy King your country has fallen into schism, the Faith is still alive in her midst, for are you not the children of those valiant Christians . . . who gave their lives for the truth, and won for Great Britain her title of "the Island of Saints"?

When the Bishops and clergy of France, sacrificing everything that the world holds dear at the word of the supreme Pontiff, professed themselves ready to stand by their Chief through good and ill report, their representative in Rome could bear witness to the joy of the Pope. In the clear sunshine of the winter morning he stood, erect and white, reading and re-reading the address, his eyes bright with unshed tears. "Beautiful, most beautiful!" he said over and over again as he read his children were loyal, they had not disappointed his hopes. And when, a few months later, he consecrated in St. Peter's fourteen French Bishops in presence of three thousand of their compatriots, that promise and that loyalty received their final seal.

The beatification of the Maid of France in April, 1909, was one more token of the Pope's love of the country that had given so much for God, and the presence in Rome of forty thousand of her children, led by sixty-seven of her Bishops, was but another proof of her true spirit. And when at the end of the ceremony, borne in the Sedia Gestatoria through the crowd, the Holy Father, leaning forward, lifted the fold of the French flag that had been lowered at his passage and reverently kissed it, the enthusiasm knew no bounds. That flag had stood for much that was not noble; the memory of its origin was still in the minds of many. But by that kiss it was consecrated for ever blood shed in battle for the right was to wash out the stain of blood shed in mad passion—it stands now for the soul of France.

Dear as were all his priests to the heart of Pius X., he had a special love for apostolic men.

Monsignor Blanc, a Marist Father and missionary in Oceana, wrote thus to his clergy after an audience with the Pope: "My attention was completely captivated by his expression and his eyes. I could not tell you what the room was like nor what the Holy Father wore; I could see nothing but those eyes, and the light of them I shall never forget. He made me sit down beside him, and I spoke to him of our people, our natives, the country that I love. If the life of the missionary is sometimes hard, let us remember that the Pope has said 'the missions are my great consolation.' He was full of interest in all I had to tell him of your work, your zeal and your devotedness. I spoke of our schools and he was delighted. 'Tell them to devote themselves there without counting the cost,' he said: 'it is the most important thing of all.' With touching graciousness and cordiality he gave his blessing to you, to our people, to all for whom I asked it."

"You cannot go near him without loving him," said another priest, "his kindness and sweetness are irresistible." Father Boevey Crawley, a South American priest, and an ardent apostle of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, went to Rome to obtain the Pope's blessing on his mission. His story was a strange one. Attacked while quite young by a serious form of heart disease, he was sent to Paris by his superiors to consult a specialist. The American doctors had told him that he had but a few months to live; the Paris specialist confirmed their verdict. Father Crawley had an overwhelming devotion to the Sacred Heart and to Blessed Margaret Mary. He went straight to Paray-le-Monial to ask through her intercession the grace of a holy death. Scarcely had he knelt down in the little chapel, when he felt himself shaken from head to foot. He was cured. That very night while kneeling in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament he received a divine intimation from our Lord. He was to go forth and conquer the world, family by family, to the love of the Sacred Heart. To preach love, that, he said, was henceforward to be his mission, for what is devotion to the Sacred Heart, but love of the Love of Christ? The conversion of his father, who was a Protestant, was the first fruit of his apostolate.

Kneeling at the Pope's feet, he told him the story of his life, asking, like a loyal son of the Church, permission to begin the work to which he was called.

The Holy Father listened with the deepest interest until he had finished. "No, my son," he said, "I do not give you permission."

Father Crawley looked up at him in utter consternation; the Pope's eyes were shining, and there was a little smile lurking in the corners of his mouth. "But, Holy Father . . ." pleaded the priest.

"No," repeated the Pope, "I do not give you permission." Then, seeing the distress of Father Crawley he opened his arms and took him to his heart. "I do not give you permission," he said again. "I order you to do it. Do you hear? I am the Pope, and I command it. It is a splendid work; let your whole life be consecrated to it."

The young priest he was only thirty went out as one inspired. His mission had been solemnly blessed by the Head of the Universal Church. With nothing but that blessing and the ardent love of God which consumed him, he travelled from country to country winning hearts to Christ. He said simple things quite simply, and the miracle was worked. The force of a holy personality that force which, as Pius X. himself so often said, is the strongest in the world for good, did the rest.

"He had the greatest heart that it was possible for a human being to have," was said of Pius X., not once but many times. Even for treachery he had no condemnation. A betrayal of trust which had affected him deeply came to his knowledge after the death of the culprit. Folding his hands he prayed silently for the departed soul. "He is dead," he said gently, "may he rest in peace."

He met with a sad smile an indignant accusation of treachery against one who was still living; an accusation which could not be denied. "Traitor is a hard word," he said, "let us say that he is a man of many skins like an onion . . ."

One more picture—drawn by a master hand!—but drawn from life. A young priest, tortured by doubts, knelt shaken with sobs at the feet of the Pope. The white figure bent compassionately over the kneeling man, the strong and gentle hands of the Holy Father held the head of the suppliant closely to his heart. "Faith, faith, faith," repeated the ringing voice over and over again. "Faith, my son, must be your place of refuge."