In modern society, we overuse words of praise. Everyone is “elite” at what they do, just as every athlete is described as a “great” player. We Catholics are no different. We believe that every Pope is the active choice of the Holy Spirit (a dangerous idea the Church has never taught), and as a result, every Pope is great, or at least better than the one who came before. The terrible crisis of modernism had many believing the idea that the most modern thing is always the best. As a result, words of praise because a tired cliché: of course he is great, but isn’t everyone?
The problem is that sometimes the only way to describe something is “great.” Babe Ruth was great at baseball and anything less than great simply wouldn’t do it justice. Likewise, if you describe the pontificate of Guiseppe Sarto as anything below “great”, you should probably have your head examined. By any possible metric, his pontificate was a success, and there is a reason he was the first Pope to be canonized a saint since the 16th century.
This week began the 100th year since his death, as well as the celebration of his feast day on August 21st. Sadly, only a few liturgical wonks and traditionalists even commemorated the feast with any significance. I also find it unfortunate that for my traditionalist brethren, they only focus on a narrow reason for his greatness: his crusade against modernism. Important as that is, that is not what made Pius a saint and one of the (easily) top ten popes in the history of the Church. The reasons for his success are far more timeless. Indeed, if we wish to be a robust and great Church, we should keep in mind the lesson of St. Pius X more than anyone not named Jesus, Mary or an Apostle.
With the current pontificate of Pope Francis, many talk about his defense of the poor and humble lifestyle as if this was something unheard of in Popes. When asked to describe his life, St. Pius X stated “I was born poor, I lived poor, and I will die poor.” This was not just a cliché for Pius. From the day of his ordination, he acted as a humble parish priest who despised the trappings of power. Precisely for that reason, he was awarded more and more responsibility, first as a Bishop, then a Cardinal, then a Patriarch, and finally Pope. When he first became Pope, he scandalized those at the Vatican with his simple pectoral cross and with how accessible he was to the people. Pope Francis kisses little children: Pope Pius X walked down the street giving them candy and then a catechesis lesson. He always gave children a prized spot during his general audiences, taking the command of Christ to “suffer the little ones to come unto me.” (Mark 10:14)
In today’s Church, we try to classify popes in thousands of ways. One popular way is to differentiate between a “teaching pope” and a “governing pope.” This distinction would have been curious to Pius X, as he was that rare breed who excelled at both. (Arguably, no pope has been able to do that since.) On the teaching side, many of the things we faithful Catholics take for granted began in Pius’ pontificate. Under his teaching and directives, lay faithful were encouraged to take communion frequently as a way of growing in holiness, and children were instructed to receive communion sooner and with greater frequency. While we take these ideas for granted today, they were controversial in many quarters when he introduced them.
If you enjoy singing during Mass, you can probably thank Pius X. (If you hate the person singing next to you, you will then blame Pius X.) When his pontificate began, much of the Mass really was inaccessible to the ordinary people. Many churches had masses which were far more suitable to an orchestral hall than being the representation of Calvary. He restored the simplicity of Gregorian Chant to its place of primacy, wishing to return the liturgy to a more noble simplicity (consistent with authentic development) without compromising any of the things that make the Mass the most beautiful thing this side of heaven.
Out of all of the things we know him for from the teaching perspective; none rank higher than his emphasis on catechesis. From his very first days as a priest, he was big on catechesis above all else. While a capable administrator, his job was to spread the Gospel, and one of the ways he did it was through his catechesis lessons. For Pius, catechesis was a life-altering event, whose primary purpose was to help people amend their life so they conformed to Christ. (Acerbo Nimis) To see that this happened, he mandated that every parish offer weekly catechism classes, especially to children. As Pope, he even put out a catechism, the lovely Catechism of St. Pius X. While never made mandatory for the Church, it has long held a special place in the hearts of Catholics, even until today as Cardinal Burke’s recent praise suggests.
On the governing side, his accomplishments against modernism alone would stand to make him the greatest administrative Pope since Pius V. In addition to these things, he carried out sweeping reforms of the Curia, Catholic education and seminary life. (Sadly many of those changes in seminary life lasted barely half a century.)
Most importantly, he was the driving force behind the first universal code of canon law for the Western Church. (While promulgated by his successor Benedict XV, it was primarily his work.) This doesn’t seem a big deal to modern man, especially since the same was done with the 1983 code currently in force. Yet before the work of Pius X, ecclesial law was one hot mess that varied from region to region, and had little if any predictability. The unification of Church law was a major step towards good governance, and was probably one of the big reasons the Church had what could be called a 50 year golden age during the pontificates of Pius X, Benedict XV, Pius XI and Pius XII.
It is the hope of this author that this little journey through the life of St. Pius X has proven enlightening. The next 52 weeks should be a very holy time, as we reflect on the life of one of the Churches greatest reformers, and ask that, through his intercession, our present Church may benefit from similar reform.