Life of Pius X - F. A. Forbes

The Pope of the Suffering

As a young parish priest at Salzano, Don Giuseppe Sarto, during the cholera epidemic of 1878, had been the stay and comfort of his people. Consoling the grief-stricken, nursing the sick, burying the dead, utterly regardless of his own safety, his one thought had been for his suffering parishioners. This tender compassion for every kind of pain or sorrow was characteristic of him throughout his life. Not without reason was it said of him that he had "the greatest heart of any man alive." The very sight of suffering moved him even to tears; there was no trouble of body or soul that failed to awaken his sympathy.

While Patriarch of Venice he was walking one day through one of the poorest quarters of the city, speaking as was his wont to all whom he met, and giving a smile and a caress to the children who came up to receive his blessing. Suddenly from a very poor house at the end of a mean street arose the piercing cries of a child who was being cruelly beaten by its mother. The Cardinal strode down the street and pulled the bell vigorously. A window opened overhead and in the embrasure appeared the head of a woman, a regular virago, crimson with fury. "Stop beating that child at once!" was the indignant mandate. The woman, astounded at seeing the Patriarch standing on her doorstep, shut the window in some confusion and retired. For some time to come there was no more beating.

Anything like tyranny roused his instant indignation. When reports too circumstantial to be doubted reached him as to the condition of certain Indian tribes in South America, and of the atrocious treatment to which they were forced to submit, all the Archbishops and Bishops in the country were exhorted to do their utmost to put an end to what was nothing less than a cruel slavery.

"Every day I receive fresh news of the persecution that is raging in Asia Minor and in Macedonia," said the Pope one day sorrowfully at a private audience. "How many poor Christians are massacred! What cowardice and what barbarity are shown by this Sultan who trembles with fright, who begs as a favor that he may not be put to death, who is always whining 'I have never done anyone any harm!' He who had in his palace a secret room in which he himself assassinated his victims, where only a week ago he put a young girl to death!" These were some of the sorrows that wrung the heart of him "who bore the care of all the Churches."

All the calamities that befell the world awakened his sympathy, earthquakes, floods, fires, railway accidents, no matter what. The sufferers were comforted with kind words, and as far as possible with material help. It rejoiced him on these occasions to hear of acts of heroism, of Christian charity, and of piety. Even the papers and those least favorable to the Church noticed his personal and fatherly interest in the joys and sorrows of his people. His appeal to the charity of Catholics on the occasion of the Calabrian earthquake in 1908, which in a few moments totally destroyed Messina, Reggio, Sille and the surrounding villages, burying more than 100,000 people in the ruins, met with a magnificent response. The sum of 7,000,000 francs, which was generously offered, served to supply the immediate needs of the unfortunate survivors, who in many cases were left totally destitute.

But it was not only to make others give that the Holy Father exerted himself; he gave himself to the utmost of his power. The very day after the Messina disaster he sent a number of men with Monsignor Cottafavi at their head to investigate and report, to search out the victims most urgently in need of help and care and to bring them to Rome. Trainloads of sufferers arrived daily and were taken to the Papal hospice of Santa Marta, the Pope making himself responsible for over five hundred orphans. His Christ-like compassion, his grand initiative and masterly organization of relief, won a burst of praise in which even the anti-clerical Syndic of Rome joined; while the nations of Europe expressed their admiration. "This Pope, of whom it was said that his sole policy was the Gospel and the Creed, and his sole diplomacy the Ten Commandments, fired the imagination of the world by his apostolic fearlessness, his humility, his simplicity, and single-minded faith."

"Who that has seen him," wrote Monsignor Benson, "can ever forget the extraordinary impression of his face and bearing, the kindness of his eyes, the quick sympathy of his voice, the overwhelming fatherliness that enabled him to bear not only his own supreme sorrows, but all the personal sorrow which his children laid on him in such abundance?" An irresistible impulse seemed to drive the suffering to seek his presence and to ask his prayers, and they seldom failed to find the help that they sought.

Perhaps it was his ardent desire to help and comfort pain of any kind, united with personal holiness and fervent prayer, that made the touch of his hand or even his blessing so strangely efficacious for healing. It belongs to Holy Church to decide on the question of miracles, but the wonderful graces obtained through the prayers and the touch of "Il Santo" were the talk of Rome; and men and women who had seen the marvels with their own eyes bore witness to the facts.

Rumors of what was happening came to the ears of Catholics in other countries, and a young girl in England who had just been reading the Acts of the Apostles was seized with a great desire to go to Rome. Her head and neck were covered with running sores which would not heal. The shadow of St. Peter falling on the sick, she said, had cured them; the shadow of his successor would certainly cure her. Her entreaties at last prevailed with her mother who took her to Rome, where both were present at a public audience given to forty other pilgrims. The Pope passed slowly through the crowd, speaking a few words here and there as he went. To the kneeling girl he said nothing, but as he blessed her she felt that she was cured; and indeed, when on their return to the hotel, her mother removed the bandages in which the poor head had been wrapped, she found that the sores were completely healed.

More remarkable still because more public was the wonderful case of two Florentine nuns, both suffering from an incurable disease. They made the journey to Rome with great difficulty, their condition exciting the compassion of all with whom they came in contact. Admitted to a private audience, they begged the Holy Father to cure them. "Why do you want to be cured?" he asked.

"That we may work for God's glory," was the answer.

The Pope laid his hands upon their heads and blessed them. "Have confidence," he said, "you will get well and will do much work for God's glory," and at the same moment they were restored to health. Pius X. bade them keep silence as to what had happened, but the facts spoke for themselves. At their entrance, the two nuns had hardly had strength to drag themselves along; at their exit they walked like strong and healthy women. Their return was greeted with the greatest enthusiasm by those who had seen them enter; but their cab-driver, an unimaginative man of sturdy common sense, refused to take them back to their convent. "Not at all," he said, "I will take back the two I brought or their dead bodies."

"But we are the two you brought," they insisted merrily.

"Not at all," repeated the vetturino, "the two I brought were half dead; you are not in the least like them."

What happened in the end, whether the coachman relented, or the two nuns walked back to their lodgings is not recorded, but it was patent to everybody that they were quite capable of doing so.

At another of the public audiences given by Pius X. was a man who carried in his arms his little son, paralyzed from birth and unable to stand. "Give him to me," said the Holy Father; and taking the child on his knee, he began to talk to another group of pilgrims. A few minutes later the child slipped down from the Pope's knee and began to run about the room like any other child of his age.

That the touch of a holy man, or the garments he has worn, or even his shadow falling on the sick should have power to cure them, is vouched for by Holy Scripture?. "Perhaps so," say some, "but the age of miracles has passed." To the Catholic the age of miracles has not passed, nor will it ever while there is faith on the earth; for faith, as Jesus Christ Himself said, alone makes miracles possible. At Nazareth even His Almighty power could not work them, because of the unbelief of the people. Where the age of faith has passed, the age of miracles has passed with it, but in the Church of Christ they both endure.

More marvelous still than the graces obtained by the touch of Pius X. were those obtained sometimes at a great distance—by his blessing and his prayers.

In one of the convents of the Sacred Heart in Ireland was a young nun suffering from disease of the hip-bone. For eight months she had not put her left foot to the ground, as any weight on it caused acute pain. The disease, said the doctor, was making rapid progress; it appeared to have attacked the knee, which was also very painful. For some time the sufferer was able to drag herself about on crutches, but soon this was almost impossible, and she was forced to remain constantly on her back. Before the illness became apparent she had had charge of the children in the National School, who loved her dearly and were always asking when their dear Mother would come back to them. In the October of 1912 the Superior of the convent, having lately heard of a wonderful cure obtained through the prayers and blessing of the Holy Father, determined to have recourse to him. Knowing the Pope's love of children, she told a little girl of six years old, the daughter of the convent carpenter, to write to the Pope, asking him to bless the dear Mother who was ill, and to pray for her. The secret was so well kept that no one knew of it save the Superior, the child, and a Sister who taught in the National School.

During the night of the 29th of October the sick nun suddenly realized that the pain had entirely left the injured hip so entirely that she was able to turn and lie on it. The next morning she sat up in bed and asked to be allowed to try to walk, as she felt no pain at all. Receiving permission from the Superior, who was delighted at the marvelous effects of her plan, but who still kept the secret, the invalid, without any help whatever, rose, made her bed and walked to the church, where she knelt for some time in prayer. It was then that she was told of the letter to the Pope. "I did not know what had happened," she said, "all that I knew was that the pain was gone and that I could walk."

The joy and delight of the community at the sight of their invalid going about the house was great, their astonishment greater still. The children of the boarding school cheered till they were hoarse when they saw Mother M. walking about like everybody else; as for the children of the National School nothing would content them but to go straight to the chapel to thank our Lord for His goodness. The carpenter nearly wept when he heard the result of his little girl's letter; he brought his whole family to Benediction that afternoon in the convent chapel, where he was able to work off some of his excitement by blowing the organ.

X-ray photographs were taken of the affected bone, showing no trace of the disease whatever. These could be compared with those taken before the cure, when its effects were clearly visible.

A worker on the railway had a little boy of two years old who lay dangerously ill of meningitis. The doctor, who had given up all hope, asked the priest to break the sad news to the young parents, who at once cried out, "We will write to the Pope! We used to go to confession to him at Mantua when we were children, for, Bishop as he was, he used to hear the confessions of the poor." A simple and touching letter was written and posted to the Holy Father, who wrote with his own hands several lines in reply, bidding the young couple pray and hope. On the following day the child had completely recovered.

But these are only a few of the many graces obtained in the same way. The cure of a Redemptoristine nun in the acute stages of cancer by the application of a piece of stuff that had been worn by Pius X. was borne witness to by Cardinal Vives y Tuto. The sudden return to life and speech of Don Rafael Merry del Val, father of the Cardinal Secretary of State, at the prayer of his wife, who, when everyone else had given up hope and death was declared imminent, tried the same remedy; a French lady who was dying of heart disease, and denied the very existence of God, was not only cured by the Pope's blessing, but reconciled to the Church and henceforward a fervent Catholic: these are only a few of the marvels obtained.

The Holy Father did his best to hush the matter up. "I have nothing to do with it," he continually exclaimed; "it is the power of the keys."

"I hear that you are a 'Santo' and work miracles," said a lady to Pius X. one day, with more enthusiasm than tact.

"You have made a mistake in a consonant," replied the Pope, laughing, "it is a 'Sarto' that I am." No less witty was his reply to a gentleman who came to solicit a Cardinal's hat for one of his friends. "But I cannot give your friend a Cardinal's hat," said the Holy Father. "I am not a hatter, but only a tailor."

The Portuguese revolution in 1911 was a fresh heartbreak to the Pope.

"At the opening of the year 1910 a discontented and disorganized nation was ruled over by a disorganized Government, which in its turn was ruled by alternate gangs of corrupt politicians who exploited the people in the most shameless manner," writes M. Leon Poinsard in his book "Le Portugal Inconnu." The appointment of a dictator, in which lay the only hope of the country, cost Don Carlos his life. His successor, Don Manoel, was too young and inexperienced to deal with the almost impossible situation. The majority of the Portuguese people, although desiring the necessary reforms, did not desire a revolution, nor did they want a republic. The revolution was in fact engineered and carried out by a small clique of men belonging to secret societies, united in a bitter hatred of the Catholic Church and of everything for which it stood.

"It would be useless to deny," wrote Senhor Homem Christo, a Portuguese officer, an agnostic and a republican, "that there were revolutionary elements in the army. But those elements were small in number and bad in quality."

"In Lisbon," writes an Englishman who was travelling in Portugal at the time of the revolution, "the crowds that paraded the streets, sacked the convents and took on themselves the work of arresting everybody who looked like a priest, were unquestionably street-loafers of the worst type."

"Why did the revolution take place at all?" he pertinently asks; "it expelled a King who was doing no harm at all, and retained a gang of corrupt politicians who were notoriously ruining the country. If they had expelled the politicians and kept the King, there would have been something to say for them."

The chief characteristic of the Portuguese Republic was that it was bitterly anti-Catholic and anti-clerical. The first action of its representatives was to expel the religious Orders and to confiscate their buildings and belongings. This was done in the most brutal manner, defenseless nuns being driven off to the State prisons, after their convents had been looted and some of the inhabitants put to death. Many died of the privations endured, while others testified to the humanity of their gaolers by going mad. Religious instruction of any kind was prohibited in the Government schools; priests were arrested and imprisoned; the Bishop of Oporto was driven from his diocese. The Separation law of Church and State, which fell more heavily on the Church in Portugal than even that of France, made it impossible for priests to discharge their duties, depriving them of the rights of common citizenship. It was the kind of law to be expected from a Government which counted amongst its Ministers a man who openly declared that "the religious sentiment is a lie, and every kind of Church a farce." Its object was the elimination of the Christian faith from Portuguese society.

These things fell heavily on the heart of the Father of Christendom, who sorrowed with his sorrowing children. He protested against the injustice in his Encyclical "Jamdudum in Lusitania," in which he set forth and condemned the oppressive measures of the Republic. A touching letter of, thanks expressed the gratitude of the persecuted hierarchy of Portugal for the Pope's courageous protest. That some of the harshest features of the law seemed in a fair way to be relaxed during the years that followed was some small consolation to the Holy Father.

In the autumn of 1912 a pilgrimage of French working men came to Rome to ask the Pope's blessing.

"Your presence here," said the Holy Father in his address to them, "rejoices my heart. You are workers in factories and workers in the fields, occupations blessed by God Himself, since our Savior when He came to redeem the world lived the life of a working man. Although the toiler in the field and in the factory, through the sin of our first parents, must earn his bread in the sweat of his brow, if, after the example of his Lord, he bears his burden willingly and is contented with his lot, his life will be peaceful and happy. Because it is so with you, and you try to walk in the footsteps of Christ, I congratulate you and rejoice. May you find in your life of hard work the treasures of peace, of contentment and of happiness. I bless you, your labor, your families, and all whom you hold dear, and I wish you all strength and comfort." After the audience the members of the pilgrimage sat down to a banquet which had been prepared for them in the hospice of Santa Marta, Cardinal Ferrata, who had said Mass for them that morning at St. Peter's, presiding.

In the spring of 1918 the health of the Pope gave cause for anxiety; an attack of influenza which had greatly weakened him, being followed by a relapse with symptoms of bronchitis. From every part of the world came assurances of prayers and sympathy, while in Rome the anxiety felt by poor and rich alike lay like a weight on the city. But the Holy Father, who, during his illness retained all his spirit and vigor of mind, made a quick recovery. He was not a good patient, and his doctors had the greatest difficulty in keeping him quiet. No sooner was he convalescent than he accused them of being pitiless tyrants, whose only idea was to make him waste the time that belonged to the Church. Over and over again they would find that in their absence he had disobeyed orders and received some Prelate or settled an urgent piece of business.

"Just think of our responsibility before the world!" said Dr. Amici one day to his recalcitrant Patient.

"Just think of mine before God," was the energetic answer, "if I do not take care of His Church!"

They began to talk to him seriously, trying to make him promise to be obedient in the future.

"Come, come," said the Holy Father with his irresistible smile, "don't be cross; surely it is my interest to get well quite as much as it is yours to make me so."

It was during the winter before this illness that Donna Rosa Sarto, the Pope's eldest sister, died of an attack of paralysis. She had been with her brother nearly all his life, having gone at the age of seventeen to keep house for him when he was a curate at Tombolo, and afterwards accompanying u' to Salzano. During the years when he had been successively Vicar-General at Treviso and Bishop of Mantua, she had lived with her mother, whom she tended until her death, after which she came to Venice with her two younger sisters and her niece to live with the Patriarch. On Cardinal Sarto's election to the Papacy the little group had made their home in Rome in a small apartment not far distant from the Vatican, where they led a quiet life given up entirely to charity and good works.

Those who went to pray beside the dead woman were equally struck by the humble surroundings and the peace that prevailed there. A small room, a common iron bedstead, a sweet, almost transparent old face framed in a plain white cap, violets scattered here and there over the white recumbent figure. The funeral took place at the Church of St. Laurence without the Walls, the Requiem Mass being celebrated by Monsignor Zampini, sacristan to the Pope. All the Cardinals in Rome were present, together with a great crowd consisting of members of the Diplomatic Corps, priests and religious, eager to do honour to one so near and dear to the Holy Father, while Requiem Masses were celebrated in many of the Roman churches.

The Pope alone could not be present. Following in spirit the funeral procession he knelt in his private Oratory praying for the soul of his sister. Telegrams from every part of the world bore witness to the sympathy felt for the sorrow of the Pope who had made the sorrows of the world his own. This hearty demonstration of filial love and interest was a comfort to him in his grief, and touched him deeply.

But a fresh blow was in store for Pius X. in the sufferings of his children in Mexico. Carranza, the State Governor of Coahuila, had headed a revolution against Huerta, the President of the Mexican Republic. An ex-bandit named Villa who was Carranza's chief supporter soon turned against him and started a counter-revolution of his own, followed by a systematic persecution of religion. Many priests were forced to flee the country, ten Bishops crossed the frontier into the United States to save their people from a favourite trick of the insurgents, who, arresting a Bishop and relying on the people's love of their pastor, would demand an exorbitant ransom. Horrible outrages followed; priests were shot, hanged, or thrown into prison; churches were converted into barracks, the sacred vessels were carried off to the bar-rooms as drinking cups. The venerable Archbishop of Durango was compelled to sweep the streets; religious were shot for refusing to betray the hiding places of their brethren, while the fate of many of the nuns is not to be described. Although the revolutionary government set up a press bureau in the United States and subsidized writers to deny these facts and to fill the mails with calumnies against the Church, the truth became gradually known not in all its entirety until after the Pope's death but enough to wring the brave old heart with a fresh pang of anguish.

". . . The Sedia advanced," wrote one who was present about this time at a function in St. Peter's, "bearing the Pope aloft above the heads of the people. He was clothed in a red cope and wore a high golden mitre. His face was sweet and sad; his soul, far away from all this pomp and splendor, seemed lost in the contemplation of the distance that separates the things of earth from the things of Heaven, while his hand moved from right to left in blessing. The sadness was so deeply engraved on that pensive face that it seemed as if no smile could ever lighten it; truly he bore on his shoulders the weight of the world's grief. Suddenly a movement in the crowd brought the procession to a halt; the thoughtful face was raised as if the Pope had awakened from his silent contemplation; he bent forward. A smile of infinite sweetness and kindness, like a ray of sunshine in a winter sky, lit up for a moment those sad features, while beneath me I heard two Italians murmur, "O Father, dear, dear old Father!"