After a short illness he died on 20 August 1914. His cause for canonization opened in 1923. He was proclaimed blessed by Pope Pius XII on 3 June 1951 and declared a saint by the same Pope on May 29, 1954. His body is venerated in the Basilica of Saint Peter.
Giuseppe Melchiorre Sarto was born in Riese, a town near Treviso, Italy that is now called Riese Pio X, on 2 June 1835. He was the second of 10 children born to Margherita Sanson and Giovanni Battista Sarto. His father, who was the town messenger, also grew crops on a small plot of land in his free time.
From a young age, he displayed strength of character and tenacious will. He serenely withstood the sacrifices imposed by his family’s poverty; every day for years, he would walk the road that connected Riese to Castelfranco, often barefoot, just to attend school.
An excellent student, he was helped by a few priests and later by the patriarch of Venice, who also was from Riese. The latter offered him a full scholarship to attend the Seminary of Padua, one of the best in Italy at the time. Once again, the richness of his well-balanced character was soon noted.
In 1852, when he was 17 years old, his father died and the administrators of the small town of Riese offered young Giuseppe the job his father once had as a way to help support his large family.
But his heroic mother Margherita stepped in and rejected the offer. Young ‘Bepi’, as she called him, was to pursue his calling as a priest, and she would provide for the family by working day and night as a seamstress.
Sarto became an ordained priest at 23 years old (September 1858) and was immediately appointed the chaplain of Tombolo, a small countryside parish near Padua. He arrived on 29 November 1858, pouring his youthful energy into spreading the word of God and his priestly ministry for nine years.
The best man for the job, in 1867 he was appointed parish priest of Salzano, a large town in the province of Venice, where he stayed for about nine years.
Graced with iron-clad health, boundless energy that never waned, and an impressive ability to relate to others, he poured his body and soul into his work, inspiring the admiration of his parishioners and fellow priests.
He carried out his duties with dedication and skill, and he was so proactive that he often brought home files that had yet to be processed, which he worked on late into the night. His excellent health allowed him to be regain his energy after just 4-5 hours of sleep.
His way of doing things, fully comprehensive of others, and his particular love for the poor, earned him the affection and respect of all, so that no one was surprised when Pope Leo XIII appointed him bishop of Mantua in September 1884.
The diocese of Mantua was going through a particularly rough time, both internally and in its relationship with civil powers, but the modest priest Giuseppe Sarto, known for his fame as a brilliant orator and for his exceptional charity, proved to be a leader with a realistic spirit who was ready to confront the problems head on and find practical solutions, with smiling kindness that, where needed, he could accompany with innate firmness.
He knew what people needed to be at peace with themselves, and he launched a deep-reaching renewal of Christian life throughout the diocese while also encouraging the formation of workers cooperatives. Trained under Pope Pius IX during the reactionary context of the Habsburg monarchy (which ruled the Veneto region until 1866), Monsignor Sarto was considered a ‘hard-liner’ who condemned the liberalism and the spirit of being open to the modern mentality.They were problems that distressed the post-Papal-States Church, and the gust of modernism coming from many sectors of society created a clash of ideologies in Italian dioceses, with some bishops being more permissive and others inflexible when it came to change.
Appreciating Sarto’s actions, Pope Leo XIII appointed him cardinal on 12 June 1893, assigning him the titular church of San Bernardo alle Terme, and on 15 June he appointed him Patriarch of Venice, which was also going through its own particular challenges.
However, Sarto could fully step into that role only on 24 November 1894, as the Italian government hadn’t given its consent. Umberto I, King of Italy, claimed to have the right to choose the Patriarch under an old privilege of the Venetian Republic. In the end, after 17 months, the two sides reached a compromise.
Despite having nurtured some degree of sentimental attachment to Franz Joseph (the Austrian sovereign of his first 30 years of life) as opposed to the Roman Curia, Patriarch Sarto had a more conciliatory attitude towards the House of Savoy and the young King of Italy, convinced that there would be no turning back.
He believed it was necessary to pave the way to a progressive reconciliation between the new Italy and the Holy See, resolving the ‘Roman Question’ and safeguarding everything that was essential in a spiritual sense, but abandoning that which was transitory in the positions taken by Pope Pio IX after the occupation of the Papal States, and also pursued by Pope Leo XIII.
Unconcerned by the criticisms and astonishment of some, he didn’t hesitate to persuade Venetian Catholics to ally themselves with moderate liberals to bring about the fall of the Masonic municipal government, which had banned catechism in schools and removed crucifixes from hospitals.
He mobilized the parish priests and the groups of Azione Cattolica, he multiplied committee meetings, presided over the Catholic press: his drawing closer to the public officials of Italy was determined by pastoral realism and not out of fondness for liberal, modernist ideology (which he personally consistently rejected).
Venice became the site of a flowering of religious life: adults were instructed on matters of faith and organized into religious associations; children were prepared for their first communion and confirmation with particular dedication; and liturgical celebrations took on new decorum with the solemnity of sacred chants.
During this period, Sarto met the young Lorenzo Perosi, whose musical talent he greatly admired. He helped Perosi and encouraged him to become a priest, entrusting him with the reform of liturgical music in Venice and later Rome.
He loved the poor, giving them everything he possessed. When he reached Venice, he didn’t want a new cardinal purple, but instead had his two sisters (who had moved there with him) modify that of his predecessor. He then donated the equivalent sum of a new one to the poor.
While hostile to socialism and liberalism, he never failed to take care of all that which could improve the lives of workers, as he did before in Mantua. He encouraged the opening of parish Workers Funds, mutual aid companies, employment offices, and, to nudge the clergy in that direction, in 1895 he created a teaching post for economic and social sciences at the Seminary.
In Venice, he loved everyone and was loved by everyone. On 15 October 1893, the cardinal was at the bedside of his elderly dying mother, who had asked to see her son dressed in his cardinal robes before she died. He wished to make her happy, suddenly showing up that morning. Upon seeing him, she exclaimed, with wonder: ‘Oh Bepi! You’re all red!’, to which he replied: ‘And you, mother, are all white!’
On 20 July 1903, at over 93 years old, Pope Leo XIII, who had been head of the Catholic Church for over 25 years, passed away, and Sarto, as the Patriarch of Venice and a cardinal, set off for Rome. At the railway station, a large crowd gathered around him to see him off. Moved, he reassured them that ‘Dead or alive, I’ll come back.’ After all, the train ticket he had been given was round trip.
Those words were prophetic because Patriarch Sarto wouldn’t in fact return to Venice: he was to be elected Pope. But one of his successors, Pope John XXIII, also a former Patriarch of the lagoon city, authorized the return of the remains of saint Pius X, which triumphantly took place on 12 April 1959. Displayed in Saint Mark’s Basilica, the body stayed in Venice for a month, until 10 May, for veneration by his beloved Venetians.
The 1903 papal enclave was one of the most dramatic in history, as it was the last in which the ‘right of exclusion’ (veto) of a Catholic monarch was exercised in relation to an unwanted pope.
The most likely candidate to succeed Leo XIII was his Secretary of State, cardinal Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro, who the Habsburg royals saw as a continuation of the policy of supporting Christian-socialists in Austria and Hungary and favourable to the independence aspirations of the Slavs in the Balkans; the cardinal of Krakow acted as the bearer of the imperial veto against Rampolla, amid the protests of the Dean of the College of Cardinals and other cardinals over the interference of a civil power.
In any case, on 3 August 1903, the four-day conclave voted the Patriarch of Venice into the papacy, despite his pleas not to vote for him. Ultimately he accepted, taking the name Pius X.
He spent 11 years in the position, breaking his personal cadence for his previous roles, which were strangely always 9 years: 9 years at Seminary, 9 as the chaplain in Tombolo, 9 as the parish priest of Salzano, 9 as the canon and director of the Seminary in Treviso, 9 as the bishop of Mantua and 9 as a Patriarch of Venice.
He was 68 years old when he sat in the Pontifical Throne, establishing a line of conduct that in some respects was continuous with the two long papacies before him, those of Pius IX and Leo XIII, especially in terms of politics, but also in terms of breaking with certain established patterns, such as: despite being from humble origins, he always refused to extend benefits to his family, as a criticism of some more or less obvious examples of nepotism and favouritism practised until then.
His secretary of state, cardinal Merry del Val, whose appointment was a clear reaffirmation of the rights of the Church and sign of a wide-ranging strategy to re-establish social order according to the will of God.
Faced with the great advances of prevalently anti-religious liberalism, prevalently materialist socialism and presumptuous scientism, Pius X felt the need to set up the papacy in opposition to modernity, destroying any attempt at launching an effective compromise between Catholics and modern culture.
With the Pascendi encyclical in 1907, he condemned that very ‘modernism’; in politics, he brought back the unbudging position of Pius IX, he regarded the separation of Church and State as sacrilege and gravely injurious in relation to God, to whom one must render not only private but also public worship.
The reaffirmation of papal power, after the events surrounding the fall of the Papal States, led, with the thought of Pius X, to the identification of the papal institution with the entire Church, the Holy See with the people of God.
It would be impossible to provide a complete overview of his papacy here, which began with the dawn of WWI and the rise of the Russian Revolution, amidst the emergence of new movements in thought such as modernism, liberalism, infiltrated by materialism and anti-religious spirit, with rampant Freemasonry.
Hundreds of books have been written about that lively period; we’ll mention one of them: Crisi modernista e rinnovamento cattolico in Italia by Pietro Scoppola (Bologna, 1961).
On 20 January 1904, just after the dramatic conclave that elected him, Pope Pius X established that no external lay power could impose a veto in papal elections, and vowed to excommunicate any cardinals that acted as representatives to so much as the simple wishes or instructions of a state.
Though he loved to present the image of a ‘good country parish priest’, Pius X had notable gifts and wasn’t by any means without culture: he was well read, he spoke and read French, he had fine artistic taste and protected the Church’s artistic treasures; a music enthusiast, he loved liturgical chants and song.
A man of great morality, he lived in God and of God, he embodied Christian values to the point of heroism, with humility that had become second nature without the slightest trace of ostentation; effective poverty and a stance of detachment in his own regard that he never abandoned; faith and trust in Providence, the source of his admirable interior serenity; and charity that inspired wonder in Vatican dignitaries.
‘Instaurare omnia in Christo’ (to restore all things to Christ) was Pope Pius X’s motto, and with the strength and consistency that he was known for, he tried to bring the restoration of Christian society to all fields, starting with the Church. He enacted far-reaching reforms to the Roman Curia and the various congregations, he had a new Code of Canonical Law drafted; he applied norms for frequent Communion and extended it to children; he reformed the Liturgy, removing many useless traditions from the Mass, he brought back the Sunday cycle, which had been usurped by the cycle of Saints; he encouraged chanting and music in holy functions; he made catechism obligatory for children and adults, which was called the ‘Catechism of Pius X’.
Towards the end of his papacy, the dark clouds of war had begun to form over Europe, involving conflict between many Catholic states.
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo was followed by the Austrian attack on Serbia on 28 July 1914. Gradually the conflict extended to all of Europe. For Pope Pius X, afflicted with gout and almost 80 years old, it was the beginning of the end: his health and physical decline worsened and, after a case of bronchitis that abruptly turned into acute pneumonia, he died on the night between 20 and 21 August 1914. He was entombed in the Vatican Grottoes.
In life, he was known as a ‘Saint Pope’ because word spread of people being healed after touching his clothing, but he would smilingly correct them: ‘My name is Sarto not Santo’, with ‘santo’ being the Italian word for saint. He was beatified on 3 June 1951 by Pope Pius XII, who then proclaimed him a saint on 20 May 1954. His tomb is found in Saint Peter’s Basilica.
Author: Antonio Borrelli