The Greatness of St. Pius X


pius3In 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.


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  • noelfitz

    Kevin, great article Thanks.

    It is interesting to note that in tthe history of the Church only two popes are known as great, Leo and Gregory.

    St Pius X was a wonderful man,and he was canonized or his sanctity. His introduction of frequent Communion and of receiving first Communion at a young age were marvelous initiatives, but did he put back Catholic scholarship for years?

    • Not really. A lot of people make that claim with his crusade against modernism. What’s interesting is most people look at those lines of scholarship he took a strong stance against, and we look at them as intellectually bankrupt. On issues such as liturgical scholarship, he actually did a lot to help move things forward.

      Today, the Biblical Scholarship of the Catholic Church is actually doing a pretty good job, and it would have never been able to had clear boundaries not been set by those like Pius X. The Church allows a pretty wide range of inquiry on matters, as long as you do so within certain guidelines. Far from putting things back, it allows things to move forward i would argue.

  • noelfitz

    Many thanks for your reply to me.I really appreciate that you took the time to reply to

    I admit things have improved from Providentissimus Deus of St Pius X.
    to Dei Verbum now published over 40 years ago.

    Pius is credited with the establishmenmt of both the Pontifical Biblical
    Commission and Institute. He supported the Jesuits, but was critical of the
    Dominicans (e.g. Fr Marie-Joseph Lagrange) who have published solid work from the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem.

    I fully agree that Catholic Biblical Scholarship is very healthy now.

  • Shawn McElhinney

    Hi Kevin,

    This is a solid article of the sort I expect from you 🙂 That noted, here are a few of my quibbles:

    [that is not what made Pius a saint and one of the (easily) top ten popes in the history of the Church]

    I doubt with all due respect that looking at every parameter of a pope’s reign if Pope Pius X would be a top 20 pope to say nothing about a top 10 one. (I refer here to purely what he did as pope, not his personal holiness of which there is no doubt.)

    If I were to make a list of the top 20 popes historically, it would start with these fifteen in chronological order:

    St. Victor I (189-199)
    St. Callistus I (217-222)
    St. Damasus I (366-383)
    St. Leo I (440-461)
    St. Hormisdas (514-523)
    St. Gregory I (590-604)
    St. Nicholas I (858-867)
    St. Gregory VII (1073-1085)
    Alexander III (1159-1181)
    Innocent III (1198-1216)
    John XXII (1316-1334)
    Gregory XIII (1572-1585)
    Benedict XIV (1740-1758)
    Leo XIII (1878-1903)
    Bl. John Paul II (1978-2005)

    If I were to expand the list to twenty, I would add these five names to it -again in chronological order:

    St. Julius I (337-352)
    St. Leo III (795-816)
    Sylvester II (999-1003)
    St. Pius V (1566-1572)
    Ven. Pius XII (1939-1958)

    And if a further five names were added to expand the list to twenty-five, I would add these five names in chronological order:

    St. Celestine I (422-432)
    Bl. Urban II (1088-1099)
    Eugene IV (1431-1447)
    Clement XI (1700-1721)
    St. Pius X (1903-1914)

    In essence, St. Pius X by my reckoning would be in the top 10% of popes historically but not in the top ten numerically.

    [Likewise, if you describe the pontificate of Guiseppe Sarto as anything below “great”, you should probably have your head examined.]

    See my previous comments. Papa Sarto was a very good pope and a saintly man but I would not ascribe in toto his pontificate as great. Very good most definitely but to be great is as you said a term that should not be thrown around too loosely.

    [By any possible metric, his pontificate was a success,]

    Not exactly. Biblical studies suffered under his pontificate (despite the founding of the Pontifical Biblical Commission) as did historical scholarship.The Holy See’s relationship with virtually every nation on earth worsened under the pontificate of Pius X over what they had been in the pontificate of Leo XIII. Unlike his predecessor who was truly one of the great popes of all time and who was a pope of consequence both within and without the Church, Pius X was mostly an afterthought throughout much of the world: not exactly the hallmark of a great pope.

    Furthermore, the very sort of thing you cannot stand when people today engage in a sort of suspicious witch hunt of sorts against folks of a Traditionalist persuasion (whereby they treat such folks as being of questionable orthodoxy apriori) that sort of thing took place in spades throughout the pontificate of Pius X against anyone who did not mimic all the proper externals that were considered “proper” or who did not mindlessly mimic the approaches to biblical studies, historical studies, or theology that were put forward by the neo-scholastics: an unfortunate excess that came about from Pope Leo XIII’s attempt to reinvigorate scholasticism in the Church that really went awry under the pontificate of his successor.

    A lot of good folks’ reputations were tarnished or destroyed as a result of the sort of witch hunts that took place and things were so bad in this area that Pope Benedict XV’s first encyclical sought to (and to a good extent did) put an end to a good amount of that crap but by no means all of it. Furthermore, Pope Benedict XV should not have had to address this issue to begin with and that he did is not a credit to the environment in many parts of the Church during the pontificate of Pope Pius X. No less a luminary in the Church than Cardinal Pietro Gasparri (the primary codifier of canon law under the pontificates of Pius X and Benedict XV) had this to say at the beatification tribunal of Pius X in arguing *against* beatifying Papa Sarto:

    “[Pope Pius X] approved, blessed, and encouraged a secret espionage association outside and above the hierarchy, which spied on members of the hierarchy itself, even on their eminences the cardinals; in short, he approved, blessed and encouraged a sort of Freemasonry in the Church, something unheard of in ecclesiastical history.”

    In short Pope Pius X’s pontificate was not great “by every possible metric” and the great things accomplished by his pontificate were primarily of a pastoral or legal nature (read: codification of canon law, restoring church music, lowering the age of communion reception and encouraging frequent communion, catechism lessons being taught in the vernacular, etc.) and were all inner-church matters. These are not unimportant by any stretch but a pope cannot be limited to them and have a claim for being great: great popes are popes of consequence within as well as beyond the Church and in the case of the latter, Pope Pius X did not fit the bill.

    [and there is a reason he was the first Pope to be canonized a saint since the 16th century.]

    Well, a few bits on the canonization deserve to be noted here in brief. The first is that the modern day “cult of the pope” started with Pope Pius IX and prior to Pius IX’s pontificate, the average Catholic did not have the sort of attachment to popes that has been the norm since that time. (That is one reason there was not a call amongst the faithful to canonize very many popes prior to Pius IX’s time.) Second of all, Pius X benefited from that cult of the pope factor in the swell of ordinary persons who called for his canonization in the aftermath of his passing. Thirdly, causes for popes are originated by later popes and it was in listening to the public’s call for sainthood for Pius X which is what prompted Pope Pius XI to formally start the process in 1923 after support for it grew during the pontificate of Pope Benedict XV. All of these as go together to explain why Pius X was canonized. Obviously his personal and well-attested to holiness was a key component too but without the other elements I mentioned above, Papa Sarto would not have been canonized.

    Again, I want to clarify that what I have outlined here constitutes only minor quibbles with the substance of your article which sketches out well a number of the accomplishments of Pope St. Pius X. Oh and noelfitz, Proventissimus Deus was not an encyclical of Pope Pius X but instead was from his predecessor Pope Leo XIII.