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Fr McGovern




by Fr Thomas McGovern

Part 1

The title of St. Pius X's Apostolic Exhortation on priestly holiness, Haerent Animo, recalls a very influential document and the memory of a great Pope. [1] The saintly Pontiff was about to celebrate the golden jubilee of his ordination to the priesthood (September 1908) and he took that opportunity to open his heart to all the priests of the Church, to share with them his great love for the priesthood, and to exhort them to have a deeper appreciation of the dignity and sanctity of their vocation.

The many pastoral offices, which he had exercised with such zeal and effectiveness during the fifty years of his priesthood, made it easy for him to speak with authority on a subject very dear to his heart. Every word of this Apostolic Exhortation is fired with the fervour of a man deeply in love with Christ the Eternal High Priest.

This was the churchman who in August of 1903 very reluctantly accepted the decision of the conclave, having failed to persuade the cardinals that he was unworthy to be elected as the 259th Successor of Peter, and who in his first encyclical letter urged bishops that their first concern had to be 'the formation of the clergy to sanctity. All other preoccupations', he insisted, 'must yield to this'. [2] It was obvious that he would have much more to say on this topic in the future. In fact, during his eleven year pontificate, apart from Haerent Animo, Pius X was to touch on the theme of priestly holiness in fourteen other documents to a greater or lesser degree. [3]

Before analysing Haerent Animo, and to appreciate more clearly the idea of priestly holiness as understood by Pius X, it will be instructive to consider Giuseppe Sarto s vocation to the priesthood, and how he fulfilled his ministry in the many different ecclesiastical responsibilities with which he was entrusted. When Cardinal Sarto was elected Pope in 1903, the conclave had departed from tradition by selecting, not a curia cardinal, but a man who had come up through all the ranks of the clergy.


He was the second of ten children born to a poor family of peasant stock in 1835, in Riese, a small town in the Veneto region of north east Italy.[4] He was nurtured in a home where deep faith and mutual affection were the staple environment of his youth. As a child he early demonstrated an exceptional intelligence, and also a capacity for initiative and organisation which were to mature and flower in later years.

The parish priest cultivated this particularly cheerful and pious altar boy, and arranged for him to attend the classical course at the secondary school in Castelfranco, about seven kilometres from Riese. During the next four years he would travel on foot each day to and from the school. He was an outstanding student, always top of his class.

Beppe [5] Sarto never had any doubts that his vocation was the priesthood. Yet he realized that, since he was the eldest [6], this would involve great sacrifices for his parents; the family were in such poor straits that there was no way they could pay the seminary expenses. The whole family prayed earnestly for a solution and, as a result of the initiative of the parish priest, an answer was found by way of a scholarship from the patriarch of Venice. In the autumn of 1850 he entered the seminary in Padua. Although the scholarship paid for his keep there, a village collection was needed to pay for his books and clothes.

He had just turned sixteen: of medium height, he was thin and bony but enjoyed excellent health. He was reflective rather than extrovert, but always affable and good humoured. Very soon professors and colleagues realized that he was a student of outstanding intellectual and moral qualities. Yet because of his affability and naturalness, and his total lack of any kind of affectation, he was the most popular of the seminarians. He became expert in Latin and Greek, and at the end of the first year he was ranked by the faculty prima con eminenza in a class of fifty six.[7] He also acquired a keen interest in Gregorian chant, eventually becoming director of the seminary choir.

Padua, situated about forty kilometres south of Riese, was a whole new experience for Giuseppe Sarto. An ancient university city, he came to love the architectural beauty of its churches and civic buildings. Here he could see the work of Michelangelo, Donatello and Giotto, and develop an appreciation for the great Italian artistic heritage. The seminary itself was a fine complex of buildings which included a printing press and a rich library. In this splendid environment he spent eight very formative years - two of humanities, two of philosophy, and four of theology.

He applied himself with diligence to the study of Scripture and St Thomas Aquinas. He became a devoted and convinced admirer of the Angelic Doctor who led him to the Fathers of the Church. The latter he studied with uncommon avidity and never neglected them during the rest of his life. His pastoral letters and papal documents give ample proof of this.

In his second year at the seminary his father died (March 1852). It was a particularly poignant situation as his mother gave birth to her youngest child the same day. The grim financial prospect for the family weighed heavily on Beppe, especially as he was the eldest and was the only one who could do something about it. The obvious thing was for him to give up his studies, and take his father's place at home. However, his mother and her good neighbours in Riese would hear none of this, and the parish priest made sure that Beppe could continue at the seminary and that the financial needs of the family were looked after.

In his last year in Padua he began to collect books for a small library. In January 1858 he writes enthusiastically to his mentor, Don Jacuzzi (the former curate at Riese), that, in a shop in Padua, the best works of St Cyprian and St John Chrysostom, in 'a fairly correct edition', were to be had at a moderate price. These, in twenty four volumes, he had managed to procure 'by going without other things', and he offered to get a set for his friend. [8]

He received the diaconate in June of 1858, and was ordained priest in the cathedral of Castlefranco on 18 September of the same year.

First Appointment

His first appointment was that of assistant in Tombolo, a town of some 1500 inhabitants about seven kilometres from Riese in his own diocese of Treviso. Its chief business was cattle raising and trading. The peasants were strong and sunburned, but good-hearted and pious even though given to swearing and over-indulgence in wine. Fr Sarto lived first with an elderly couple, but after a few months he managed to rent a small house and got his sister Rosa to look after it.

His pastor, Don Antonio Costantini, was a man of piety and culture and quickly recognised the exceptional potential of his new curate. He was a real father to the young priest, and a deep bond of friendship was established between them. He shared Fr Sarto's interest in study, music, prayer, and pastoral zeal. Shortly afterwards Don Antonio would write to a friend; 'They sent to me as curate, a young priest, with orders to mould him to the duties of a pastor; in fact however, the contrary is true. He is so zealous, so full of good sense, and other precious gifts, that I can learn much from him; some day or other he will wear the mitre, of that I am sure. Afterwards! Who knows?'. [9]

The Tombolese quickly took a liking to their new curate, who was thin but strongly built, of middle height with a very attractive face. He mixed easily with young and old, joining them at times in their games of bowls or cards to win their confidence.

One day during his first year as curate he heard one of the younger men lamenting the fact that he could neither read nor write. He decided to set up an evening school with two streams. Those with some rudiments of knowledge were taken by a local teacher; the totally illiterate he taught himself. In addition, he gave extra classes to boys from Tombolo and nearby towns who expressed a desire to become priests, to prepare them for the secondary school entrance exams.

Confessions, catechism classes, choir practices, as well as visitation of the sick kept him constantly on the move. He was exceptional in his attention to the dying, preparing them to receive the last sacraments, encouraging and consoling them with the hope of the reward to come. He settled disputes, called people to their duties, made peace among families. The young priest was always busy - 'in a state of perpetual motion', as his sister Rosa described him. His excessive workload was due to some extent to the fact that the parish priest was a very sick man for most of Fr Sarto's time in Tombolo. His concept of adequate sleep was four to five hours a night. When Rosa complained about all the candles he was burning up, he replied truthfully that the night hours were the only time he had for study and reading. During these years he deepened his knowledge of Sacred Scripture, canon law, and the Summa of St Thomas.

Don Constantini passed on to his young curate all his knowledge and experience as a preacher. He had a good student, and very shortly Fr Sarto's fame as a preacher so spread that he was invited to speak from the pulpits in neighbouring towns. He had a fine sonorous voice and a great command of language. His ideas were clear and well ordered. But it was his ability to speak from the heart, and make the Gospels come alive, that won for him a reputation as a preacher. People knew that he practised what he preached.

There was poverty aplenty in Tombolo. Fr Sarto was moved by compassion for the plight of poor families, and he responded to every request as long as he had anything to give away or had something to pawn. His personal experience of poverty gave him a real insight into the needs of the poor; their humiliations found a deep echo in the soul of the priest who as a seminarian had to beg from door to door in Riese to find the money to pay for his books and clothes. The people soon knew when he would be in funds and were on hand, when he returned from a preaching assignment in another town, to provide him with an immediate opportunity of getting rid of the stipend he had just received.

Yet in no way did he confuse the Christian virtue of poverty with misery or mere absence of material possessions. In 1862 he was asked to preach the funeral sermon in the neighbouring town of Galliera for a rich lady who had spent her money generously for the benefit of the Church and the poor. He took as his text the phrase 'Blessed are the poor' from the Sermon on the Mount, saying that it applied as well to those 'who though abounding in riches, are detached in their hearts and wills from all the possessions that earth can offer them... Truly poor she was, even though a rich woman, with a poverty which has its roots in the example of Jesus'. [10]

The Tombolese saw that he was totally dedicated to them, a true priest after the manner of Christ. He understood them because he loved them; he communicated his inner joy to them. The people reciprocated that love and, as a consequence, they came to love the Church and to change their lives.

The Eucharist was the centre of his life. A great deal of his time was taken up in preparing children for their first Holy Communion, and inculcating a deep devotion to the Real Presence in the souls entrusted to his care. He encouraged people to come to Communion frequently. However, he realized very quickly that the greatest obstacle to his mission as a priest was the religious ignorance which he found among his parishioners. So he set about an enthusiastic programme of catechesis. This aspect of his priestly responsibility was to occupy an important part of his ministry for the rest of his life, whether as Bishop of Mantua, Patriarch of Venice, or Vicar of Christ in Rome.

Parish Priest

At thirty two he became parish priest of Salzano, a town of about four thousand inhabitants, one of the largest parishes in the diocese; that was July 1867. While the Tombolese were heartbroken at the news that they were losing their beloved curate, the parishioners of Salzano were surprised that one so young would be appointed to a position normally reserved for seminary professors, monsignori or experienced parish priests. They didn't display much enthusiasm for the new arrival, but the atmosphere in the town changed radically after they heard him preach on the day of his induction. They were soon asking why did the Bishop allow such a zealous and competent priest be buried for so long among the poplars of Tombolo!

He threw himself into his new responsibilities with the same total commitment which characterized his previous appointment. There was an orphanage, elementary schools, and a poor house to be attended to. Every family was visited. He gave special attention to the youth of the parish, organising classes and activities for them, gradually drawing them to the sacraments and regular participation in the religious life of the parish. He taught them Gregorian chant, and so communicated his own enthusiasm for it that they learned to love the Mass through this medium. However, he saw that much work remained to be done to bring about a deep conversion of his parish.

As before, he was convinced that the most effective weapon for the eradication of vice and sowing the seeds of virtue was the constant, thorough and enthusiastic teaching of the catechism. Fully persuaded of the direct correlation between sin and ignorance of the things of God, he exhorted his parishioners at every opportunity to attend the catechetical instruction. Those who came were deeply impressed by the profound conviction and the originality with which he explained the fundamentals of the faith. They found him easy to listen to.

He introduced a system of dialogue instruction with the assistance of a young priest from a neighbouring parish. Large crowds were attracted every Sunday evening, not only from the outlying districts of his own parish, but from other parishes as well. When the neighbouring parish priests found themselves preaching to diminishing congregations, they complained to the bishop. However, his lordship, who was following with increasing interest the prodigious activity of the youthful pastor of Salzano, gave them little satisfaction and simply told these disgruntled priests to go and do likewise.

Development of Eucharistic devotion was at the centre of his pastoral strategy for the parish. He prepared the children to receive their First Holy Communion at an age notably less than was customary at the time. It was here that the seeds were sown of that great eucharistic renewal in the Church which, years later, would earn for its chief architect and promoter the title of 'the Pope of the Eucharist'. He installed the Stations of the Cross and introduced May devotions in honour of Our Lady. [11]

He was prodigal in his relief of the poor, as usual spending beyond his means. The remonstrances of his sisters Rosa and Anna were of no avail; the only answer they received was: 'God's providence will never fail us'. At one point, when his clothes and shoes had become the worse for wear, his sister Rosa conspired with the other priests to buy new clothes to bring his wardrobe up to scratch. [12]

In 1873 a cholera plague hit the whole of the Veneto region, bringing with it many casualties. In spite of the highly contagious nature of the disease, Fr Sarto tried to get to the bedside of every stricken person, especially the poor, comforting them and administering the sacraments. Indeed, because of the deplorable sanitary and hygienic conditions in the poorer quarters of the town, he acted not only as pastor but, in conjunction with the one overworked medical doctor in the region, as infirmarian and sanitary inspector also. He had learned much about how to deal with the disease from his experience of a similar outbreak in Riese while he was still a seminarian. During the epidemic, as a hygienic precaution, the bodies of the dead were buried at night. However, Don Sarto was always in attendance, not only to perform the burial ceremony, but also to ensure that in these emergency circumstances the bodies of his dead parishioners would be treated with respect.

By the time the epidemic was over the parish priest was just skin and bone. His health had deteriorated seriously, and he became so weak that even the very sight of food nauseated him. The bishop came from Treviso to urge him to rest, and he finally consented to a brief vacation financed by a local Jewish industrialist who had become a close friend of Fr Sarto. After a few months he was back to his normal pristine health.

It is not surprising that the people of Salzano acquired a deep love and veneration for their pastor. His concern for their welfare was not limited to the purely spiritual. He had an extraordinary grasp of practical affairs as well. He set up a hospital in the town, and promoted rural savings banks to solve the difficult social problems of the time. The working classes, impressed by the practical concern of their pastor to improve their often squalid material conditions, were attracted back to the practice of the faith. His reputation for holiness was also growing apace.

Church Music

From an early age Beppe Sarto acquired a great love for music through the encouragement of Don Jacuzzi, the curate in Riese. He had an opportunity to develop this interest in the seminary in Padua, and, as we have seen, became so proficient that he was entrusted with the task of directing the seminary choir.

He had a deep interest and affection for Gregorian chant and taught it to the youth of the parishes in which he served as a means to help them acquire a deeper love for the liturgy and the Mass. In Salzano, as soon as the organ was repaired, he got together a fine choir of men and boys. He was pleasantly surprised at the response of these young people to plain chant, but even more pleased at the evidence of the deeper piety which it inculcated.

Consequently it is not to be wondered at that he took exception to the presence of music in churches which he considered more appropriate to the theatre or the concert hall. In Venice he published specific instructions as regards church music, excluding secular music and restoring Gregorian chant to pride of place, encouraging its use in liturgical functions.

He had a natural talent for music. The fact that he managed to acquire a considerable knowledge of the technicalities of the art, despite his constantly absorbing pastoral duties, confirms this. He appreciated good music of every kind, but sacred music interested him most. He wanted for the liturgy of the Church music which was truly sacred and eminently in keeping with the sentiments of the faith. His guiding principle in the selection of music was that it should be an aid to devotion and lead us to God; when it became excessively prominent in liturgical ceremonies and ceased to be subsidiary to divine worship, he rejected it.

Although he did much to reform and embellish Church music, he didn't impose a particular taste because there was no narrowness in his conception of sacred music. His tastes were not confined to Gregorian chant; he welcomed polyphonic music provided the principles of its religious character and gravity were maintained. [13] As Cardinal Ratzinger points out, 'Insisting on chant as the truly liturgical music was for him part of a larger reform programme that was concerned with restoring to worship its purity and dignity and shaping it according to its own inner claim'. [14]While Pius X is often seen today only as the anti-modernist pope, Ratzinger affirms that a recent critical biography of Giuseppe Sarto 'has clearly shown how much this pope of pastoral care was a pope of reform'. [15]

Canon of Treviso

The exceptional talent and pastoral zeal of the young pastor of Salzano had not gone unnoticed by his bishop. In 1875, when Fr Sarto was just forty, he was summoned by the diocesan office in Treviso. There he was informed by his bishop that he had been appointed spiritual director of the seminary and chancellor of the diocese. He did everything possible to persuade the bishop to choose somebody more suitable for these tasks, but to no avail. These were responsibilities which called for intelligence, sound judgement and prudence, and Dr Zenelli well knew that in Fr Sarto he had his man.

He returned to Salzano with sorrow in his heart at the prospect of leaving the people to whom he was now attached by bonds of deep affection. He would also have to live in the seminary which meant that he would have to dispense with the generous care and attention of his sisters Rosa and Anna.

One of the joys of his new appointment was that it brought him back into close contact with his old and well-loved friend of Riese days, Don Jacuzzi, who was now rector of the seminary which had over two hundred students and a fine staff.

His first talk to the seminarians startled them somewhat. He said they probably expected him to be a man of great learning with much experience in ascetical theology. However, he had to tell them that he was really only a country parish priest, and that they would have to be indulgent with him. Yet, after listening to that first conference, with its exceptional clarity and order of ideas, and observing his patent humility and love of God, the students were in no doubt that this was a somewhat different 'country parish priest'. By his natural charm he very quickly won the hearts of the seminarians, and most of them wanted him as their confessor, even though they had the freedom to choose other priests.

He encouraged learning, but never at the expense of piety. He preached to them and directed their monthly days of recollection and annual retreats. In his formation of the students he constantly insisted on the dignity of the priestly vocation, the importance of apostolic zeal, and the need for a deep and unostentatious piety to be effective pastors of souls. He encouraged love for study and obedience to superiors, but above all he emphasised detachment from the things of the world and a readiness to sacrifice everything to carry out one's duty as other Christs.

He did not neglect the human side of their formation. He saw to it that they were neat and clean at all times. Indeed it soon became well know that Monsignor Sarto had a passion for cleanliness, which was another attractive aspect of his rigorous spirit of poverty. He taught them the importance of politeness and good manners. Although always very understanding and approachable, he would not tolerate slothfulness or carelessness, and only became annoyed when seminarians gave way to softness. He knew how to reprimand but, no matter how stern his corrections might be, no one ever felt hurt or bore a personal grudge against him on account of it. They knew he would never withdraw his friendship from them.

Apart from his work in the seminary, his main responsibility was that of chancellor of the diocese. In 1878, three years after his arrival in Treviso, he was appointed vicar general. The bishop was now in failing health, so an increasing proportion of the work of administration of the diocese fell on the broad shoulders of Monsignor Sarto. He continued his old habit of working late and rising early. However, at his own request, he still found time to do what for him was a labour of love - the preparation of the children in the school for their First Communion.

When the bishop died in 1879, the cathedral chapter unanimously elected their youngest member, Monsignor Sarto, to be diocesan administrator. He exercised this task with the competence and zeal to be expected of a man of his track record, until the new bishop was appointed seven months later. He continued as chancellor under the new man, and to his great delight he was able to return to the seminary to the work he loved. He would have been happy to spend the rest of his life there training young men for the priesthood. However, he was only given a temporary respite. In 1884 his bishop informed him that Leo XIII had appointed him bishop of Mantua.

Bishop of Mantua

When shown the official document of his appointment, his first reaction was that there must have been a mistake. That very day he wrote a letter to Rome listing the reasons why he considered himself unfit to fill such a position. Given the recent history of this diocese, he had some justification on his side.

Mantua was a suffragan see of the Milan archdiocese, about a hundred and twenty kilometres south west of Treviso. It had a population of about a quarter of a million spread over one hundred and fifty parishes. When Mantua was under Austrian control there had been a struggle between Rome and Vienna over the appointment of bishops, which had left the diocese vacant at various times for several years. In 1866, after the integration of the province of Lombardy under Italian rule, the new anti-Catholic government closed all monasteries, took on itself the management of religious foundations, and loaded Church properties with heavy taxes. In 1871, when Bishop Rota was appointed, he was not only refused the official recognition to carry out his duties, but was forbidden to live in Mantua. Political differences had caused a deep cleft between the bishop and a large number of the clergy and laity who were enthusiastic supporters of the New Italia. The See remained vacant for most of the years intervening before the appointment of Monsignor Sarto in 1884. His immediate predecessor had effectively to be withdrawn because of his inability to make any impression on what was a very difficult situation.

Many parishes were without priests, and there was a history of discord between priests and people. Several had come under the influence of Rosminian philosophy which undermined their commitment to Catholic dogma. Preaching and the teaching of catechism were neglected because there were few zealous priests. It did not help matters that, after the transfer from Austrian rule, the social condition of the clergy was at a low ebb; the majority were badly provided for. The seminary had been closed for years, and, although it had been reopened for a short while by Bishop Sarto's predecessor, it remained closed because of lack of funds and the fact that there were few aspirants to the priesthood.

The educated elite were strongly influenced by Freemasonry and Liberalism of the virulent, continental anti-Catholic stripe, while precisely at that time anti-religious socialism was gaining powerful support among the working classes. For all these reasons, as can be imagined, many of the faithful had become estranged from the Church and religious indifference prevailed. Civil marriages were common and attendance at Easter duties was dwindling rapidly. In a word, the diocese of Mantua was in a state of religious and ecclesiastical disarray when Leo XIII requested Monsignor Sarto to take it over and turn it around. The Pope had kept himself well informed about the talents and performance of the indefatigable priest from Treviso, and when he had to make this difficult appointment he was convinced that Giuseppe Sarto was the right choice.

He took over his new responsibility in April of 1885. While he applied himself with all his exceptional energy and initiative to the difficult tasks facing him, what he needed most, and what he possessed in abundance to restore unity and discipline, was a deep supernatural outlook and the capacity to lead by way of example and authority.
He saw very clearly that, if the diocese was to be recovered, the first thing he needed was a new generation of zealous, hardworking priests. Just a month after taking over his new responsibilities, reflecting on the impossible state of the diocese, he wrote to a friend: 'On the first Sunday of August I shall ordain the one and only priest for the diocese this year - the only fruit of the Seminary! - only one when I need at least forty!'. [16] Consequently his first priority was the restoration of the seminary and the promotion of vocations to the priesthood.


Within weeks of his arrival in Mantua he addressed his first pastoral letter to the whole of the diocese on the matter of the seminary. It was a passionate appeal to the people to pray for vocations and for financial support. His great anxiety, he told them, was the lamentable condition of the seminary. He spoke to them about the evils which afflicted society as a consequence of the lack of priests: 'Have you yourselves not witnessed the unused church, the abandoned altar, the empty confessional? Have you not seen young men growing up ignorant of the things essential for their salvation, the sick and the dying without the consolations of religion, the mystic Sion now solitary?' [17] They had to do all in their power to make the seminary flourish again to provide for the priestly needs of the diocese.

In talks to priests and laity, while on parish visitations, Monsignor Sarto used to repeat constantly, 'I want you to love your seminary at Mantua! Support it by your prayers and alms! Ask that vocations may increase among the young, for the life of souls depends on it'.[18]

The response to such ardent appeals was immediate and generous. Within a few years, as a result of his vigorous apostolic zeal and his fortitude in overcoming the financial and academic problems associated with the restructuring of the seminary, the number of seminarians rose to over one hundred and fifty. By the time he was to leave to become Patriarch of Venice, nine years later, he would have ordained sixty men to the priesthood with many more in formation. By any standard this was surely a remarkable achievement .[19]

This development did not, however, happen automatically. The personal input of the bishop to the seminary during this period was immense, including taking on the responsibility of Rector during the first difficult years. He visited it each evening when he wasn't absent on parish visitation, and took an interest in everything - academic staff, studies programme, examinations, the material needs of the students, etc. He impressed on the superiors the need to exercise great vigilance in accepting candidates, and he worked out with them a programme of spiritual formation to ensure that the seminarians were solidly grounded in the spiritual life. His primary concern was to form the students with a true priestly spirit, to make them zealous for the salvation of souls, and unstinting in their self-sacrifice.

Monsignor Sarto choose his professors carefully, making sure they were competent and orthodox. He increased the philosophy and theology courses, giving particular emphasis to the doctrine of St Thomas Aquinas, the importance of which he appreciated as few others did at that time. He added other courses to deal with current philosophical and theological errors. He went further. Despite his other multiple responsibilities, he took on the teaching of the more difficult subjects of the theology course, and often supplied for other professors when for some unavoidable reason they were unable to give their classes. He passed on to his future priests the benefit of his own immense pastoral experience.

He got to know the students well, their family backgrounds, their strengths and weaknesses. They had to show that they were making a serious effort to grow in piety and be diligent in their studies; otherwise they had no future in the seminary. He was a strict disciplinarian, but because of his affable character they enjoyed being in his company. Monsignor Sarto, for his part, looked forward to relaxing with his seminarians in their summer villa which he acquired for them, and where he took his holiday breaks.

After completing the seven year seminary course, the newly ordained priest was allocated to a suitable parish under the vigilance of a zealous priest. However, his studies were not yet completed. Monsignor Sarto stipulated that during the subsequent four years the young priest had to present himself annually before a board of examiners to be questioned on a prescribed course. The bishop was always present at these examinations.

Priests of Mantua

In his first report to Rome at the end of 1885, he informed the Vatican authorities that there were over three hundred priests and three hundred and fifty churches in his diocese. His first objective was to develop a spirit of unity and fraternity among the clergy. He worked indefatigably to eradicate the divisions which he had inherited, and he gradually won over the priests by his kindness and patience. He impressed on them the need to inculcate in the young men of their parishes esteem for the priestly life. Whenever they saw a possible candidate they were to leave nothing undone to encourage his vocation.

However, some priests brought him much sorrow as well. In Mantua Protestantism had taken root and several of the priests had been infected by it. The bishop prayed constantly that the Lord would enlighten the minds of these men. So one can imagine what a bitter experience it must have been for him when the parish priest of Rovere publicly apostatised to Protestantism. Although deeply grieved, in order that the faith of the people might not be weakened by the scandal, he immediately announced a mission in the parish which he preached himself even though it was midwinter. To make reparation he decided to hold the Forty Hours Devotion in the parish. When he went to look for the monstrance, he was dumbfounded to discover that it had been stolen by the curate who had also lost the faith!

His priests were always welcome at his table. Gradually he won them over to a deeper commitment to their priestly vocation, even the most reluctant. When amiability didn't achieve his purpose he could be more direct, as in the case of the priest in Mantua city who didn't respond to encouragement to arrive in time in the Church for confessions before the early morning Mass. One morning, just before Mass was to begin, this priest saw a queue outside the confessional with people entering and leaving. When he pulled back the curtain to investigate who the stranger was, he found his own bishop smiling out at him. Needless to say, the recalcitrant priest didn't require any further encouragement about fulfilling his pastoral responsibilities.

In several pastoral letters, as well as in personal conversation, he encouraged his priests to live up to the dignity of their calling. 'Wherever he is, or in whatever work he engages', the priest, he told them, 'must never cease to be a priest, accompanied by the dignity, gravity and decorum of a priest. He must therefore be holy; he must be saintly, so that his words and his works express his love, impress his authority and command respect'. [20]

He expected them to work hard, to be generous, to be obedient, to be paragons of virtue. This would guarantee integrity of faith and the courage to profess and defend it. [21] The sanctification of his priests was a concern dear to bishop of Mantua's heart, as it would later be in Venice and in Rome.

In his dealings with his priests he preferred persuasion to compulsion, kindness to severity, and many remarked that it was the charm of his virtue rather than the strength of his authority (which he certainly didn't lack, and which he didn't neglect to use when necessary) which enabled him to hold his diocese in the palm of his hand. Respect and veneration for their bishop was enhanced by the knowledge that personal influence held no weight with him. Priests quickly became aware of the fact that recognition and promotions in the diocese were giving strictly according to merits.

He particularly enjoyed the time spent with them doing his retreat. When he preached to them he did not give formal sermons, but spoke from the heart, with compassion and kindness, touching their souls with the love of Christ which shone so brightly in his own.

Parish Visitation

Three months after his arrival in Mantua he announced his intention of carrying out a canonical visitation of very parish in the diocese, starting with the city of Mantua. This he did primarily to get to know his priests and people, and to form an accurate idea of the needs of his diocese. Acutely aware of the poverty of his priests, he let it be known in advance that he did not want any formal dinners in the parishes as was the custom on such occasions.

He visited the church, inspected the parish registers, and then began house-to-house visitation of the parish on foot. He went to the confessional before Mass to help the priests prepare the faithful for Holy Communion. He preached as many as four times a day during these visitations. There were marriages to be regularised, children to be legitimated, priests to be reinstated, and all sorts of abuses to be wiped out. He administered the sacrament of Confirmation, visited the sick, taught catechism to children, and relieved poverty. He faced up to every difficulty squarely and uncompromisingly, yet always seasoning his approach with the compassion of the good shepherd.

One of the gravest faults he had to correct was the neglect by priests of their preaching duties and the teaching of catechism. By his example, encouragement and, where necessary, severe reprimand, he gradually won over his priests to a deeper commitment to these responsibilities.

Very soon the people and priests of Mantua began to appreciate that their new bishop was a gift from God. He quickly won their esteem and affection. As time passed people could only be amazed at his phenomenal pastoral activity, his ability as an organiser, the kindness and amiability with which he treated people of every social rank, especially the poor. The more educated began to realize that he was a man of immense culture as well.

Diocesan Synod

About mid way through his first parish visitation, on the basis of the direct information derived from this task, he formed a clear idea of what his next step should be. He now felt that it would be timely to hold a diocesan synod to provide remedies for the many pastoral problems he had to cope with. And so, in February 1887, he wrote to his priests to tell them that he planned to hold a diocesan synod in the autumn of the following year. The purpose of the synod was to draw up a compendium of statutes and laws appropriate to the needs of the diocese.

In his letter he explained that the purpose of the synod was not to find out who among his priests were learned or eloquent preachers. Rather he wanted them to come prepared to discuss their work from the point of view of their success in teaching the Faith, and with proposals about how to overcome the difficulties. He assigned a theme to each parish priest, which he was to investigate carefully with a view to finding remedies in the shape of laws which could easily be obeyed in practice. The regulations of the Council of Trent recommended that such meetings be held annually and, while this had proved difficult to implement, in most Italian dioceses these meetings had taken place with reasonably regularity. Mantua, however, hadn't held a synod for two hundred and thirty years!

In September 1888, over two hundred priests processed into Mantua cathedral for the opening Mass of the three day synod, celebrated by Bishop Sarto. He addressed the synod each day, speaking to his clergy about priestly unity and fraternity, zeal for souls, and the importance of daily meditation. Many subjects were discussed in the general sessions, the most important referring to discipline, questions of faith and morals, liturgy, celebration of marriages, first Communion of children, the rights of the Church, the negative influence of particular books and newspapers, attitudes of Catholics to Jews (a third of the population of Mantua was Jewish), workers unions, Church music, etc.

We have to remember that the Church did not yet have a universal code of canon law and thus a number of points of church discipline were still undefined. The code of diocesan regulations drawn up by Bishop Sarto was regarded at the time as a model of episcopal legislation, which contributed in no small way to the moral and religious restoration of the diocese of Mantua. It involved a considerable work of research, collation and conflation of sundry existing laws, as well as legislative advances in different areas such as religious instruction, prompt preparation of children for First Communion, the obligations of the clergy to give religious instruction, the catechesis of children, Catholic youth associations, confraternities, relations between ecclesiastical and civil authorities, marriages and social problems. The experience of this legislative endeavour in the diocese of Mantua would later inspire the future Pius X to set about the much greater task of codifying, for the first time in its history, the canon law of the universal Church.

Catechetical Teaching

In his second report to Rome at the end of 1888 he had much progress to report. He concluded by stating the he planned a second visitation of the diocese the following spring in order to see the effects of the synod on the priests and their work. He was urged by his close advisers not to take on such a wearying task so soon again. However, his response, as always, was that to be a priest and to work are the same thing. [22]

In this second visitation he particularly wanted to see how catechetical teaching was progressing. He never tired of driving home the point to his priests about the importance of giving the people a thorough grounding in the truths of the faith. For Monsignor Sarto the greatest obstacle to progress in virtue was ignorance of the basics of the faith, and he now wanted to see how the synod regulations on this topic were being implemented. He was also very conscious that a superficial knowledge of the faith was a particular danger for those who were exposed to the new currents of philosophy which were invading religion at the time. [23]

In a pastoral letter, written a few months after his arrival in Mantua (1885), he laid down that in all parishes a school for teaching Christian Doctrine should be set up; that on all Sundays and major feast days the parish priest should explain the catechism to both children and adults. Parents who habitually prevented their children from attending these instructions were to be refused absolution - a measure of the extraordinary importance he gave to this activity. Now, in May 1889, announcing his second visitation, he came back to the same topic: 'It will be my greatest consolation to enter a parish and find the teaching of Christian Doctrine regular and systematic. I have already recommended this to you very strongly, and in this visitation it will be the point on which I shall most insist'. [24]

He had a special affection for those who helped out in the organization of teaching catechism. To encourage his priests to have a lively interest in the task, he offered generous financial rewards to those who suggested methods which he considered simple, effective and suited to the circumstances. He was happiest when he was surrounded by large groups of children or adults for the purpose of explaining some point of doctrine to them. He himself was willing to walk miles to a parish where there was no priest available to carry out this task.

If there was a priestly fault which caused him anger it was the neglect of this responsibility. He reminded one parish priest, who was not fulfilling this task properly, that a pastor who, in spite of the grave deliberations of the synod on this matter, neglected his obligation of giving his people regular instruction in Christian Doctrine could not consider himself free from mortal sin. He saw it primarily as a question of the salvation of souls and as such would accept no excuses.
To ensure that the catechetical instruction would not be omitted, he issued a prohibition against the giving of sermons by priests in neighbouring parishes on Sundays during Lent and Advent, as had heretofore been the custom. When some objected that this would make it difficult to procure Lenten preachers, with sure practical sense he replied: '
I would much prefer to see the Lenten sermons omitted, for very often they prove absolutely fruitless, whereas people who are unable to absorb oratorical outpourings benefit much more from the simple explanation of the catechism'.[25]

The first National Catechetical Congress was held in Italy in September 1889. Because Bishop Sarto was busy with his second visitation of the diocese, he couldn't attend. However, he did make a written contribution which was regarded as one of the most significant documents of the Congress. In his submission, referring to the disadvantages of having a variety of catechetical texts, many of which were defective not only from the point of view of presentation but also in dogmatic precision, he proposed that a standard catechism be adopted for the whole country. While respecting the right of each bishop to decide the form of catechism appropriate to the needs of his own diocese, he proposed that the Holy See be asked to prepare and introduce a popular catechism, with brief questions and answers. The proposal was accepted unanimously, but how many of those present at the Congress could have imagined that the actual putting into effect of this petition would be the work of the very man who proposed it, as Pius X? [26]

In his very first encyclical he affirmed that the surest way to restore God's rule in the mind of man was through effective and ongoing religious instruction. Many people hated Christ and shrunk from the Church through ignorance rather than from malice, an ignorance which led to widespread loss of faith. [27] In his encyclical on catechetical instruction, he would reaffirm the grave responsibility for pastors of souls to protect men's minds from the dangers of religious ignorance, quoting from Jeremias: 'I will give you good shepherds according to my own heart, and they shall feed you with knowledge and doctrine' (Jer 3:15). The priest, he said, has no more important obligation than to provide religious instruction; his first duty is to instruct the Christian people.[28]

The encyclical repeats the regulations he had already laid down for his priests in Mantua and Venice about the instruction of children and adults on Sundays and feast days, but now in the context of the universal Church. [29]


1. Apostolic Exhortation, Haerent Animo, on Priestly Sanctity, 4 August 1908 (ASS XLI, pp.555-557); English translation is taken from The Catholic Priesthood, ed by P. Veuillot, Vol I, Dublin 1962, pp.52-78 (subsequently abbreviated to CP,I)

2. Encyclical Letter E Supremi Apostolatus, 4 October 1903, ASS XXXVI, pp.129-139; cf CP, I, p.10

3. cf. CP, I, pp.7-89

4. For biographical details see the following: Bazin, R., Pius X, London 1928; Pierami, B., The Life of the Servant of God, Pius X, London 1929; Merry del Val, Cardinal, Memories of Pope Pius X, London 1939; Burton, K, The Great Mantle, Dublin 1950; Giordani, B., St Pius X: A Country Priest, Dublin 1955; Dal-Gal, H., St Pius X, Dublin 1959; Gianpaolo Romanato, Pio X: La vita di Papa Sarto, Milan , 1992.

5. Beppe, the diminutive for Giuseppe, was the name by which he was affectionately called at home

6. The first child died shortly after birth.

7. His report at the end of the first year read as follows: 'Disciplinae nemini secundus - ingenii maximi - memoriae summae - spei maximae' (cf. Dal-Gal, p.8). This style of report was invariably repeated at the end of each year of his stay in the seminary.

8. Bazin, p.34

9. Pierami, p.19

10. Burton , ibid, p.44. He continued, 'Neither do I look upon those as truly poor who wander from place to place dressed in rags, because for the most part under the appearance of poverty is hidden the desire of possession' (Bazin, p.43).

11. Devotion to Our Lady was a characteristic mark of the piety of Giuseppe Sarto from the days when, as a schoolboy, he went on pilgrimage to the shrine of the Madonna of Cendrole, just outside Riese. We get some idea of the depth of his Marian devotion from a pastoral letter he wrote in September 1885, a few months after his arrival as Bishop of Mantua:

'Say the Rosary, my dear children, for, if in our times intellectual pride, which scoffs at submission, corrupts the heart and undermines Christian morality, lamentably prevails, there is no more secure means for the triumph of Faith than meditation on the mysteries of the Most Holy Rosary'.

'Say the Rosary, because if piety is becoming tepid and is extinguished in the hearts of many, nothing can rekindle its flame better than the prayer which Jesus taught, the one with which the angel saluted Mary and the one which is continually chanted around the throne of God in heaven'.

'Say the Rosary, for it is an exercise of piety which unites the faithful in prayer and cannot fail to inspire sentiments of concord which bring unity to families and peace to society'.

'Say the Rosary; this will be the spring of untold blessings, the safeguard of the city and its people, for it is impossible that God should turn a deaf ear to the invocation of so many of his children and that Mary should not answer the prayer with which the Church implores her patronage' (Dal-Gal, p.87).

12. Pius X was born poor and at every stage of ecclesiastical preferment he practised a deep spirit of detachment and of personal poverty. The last thing he would do would be to live at the expense of others, nor would he allow anyone to use the Church for material advantage. This is illustrated particularly in the case of his own sisters - Rosa and Anna, who kept house for him in Tombolo, Salzano, Mantua and Venice, and Maria who joined them when he took over episcopal responsibilities in Mantua and Venice. They were happy to serve the Church through serving their brother, to whom they were devoted and for whom they had a deep affection. Apart from their minimal expenses they didn't expect, nor did they ever receive, a regular wage. When their brother was elected Pope, they never hoped for any recognition and were happy to return to Riese. On the day of his election he was asked what title he would give to his three unmarried sisters who had looked after his needs over so many years. 'What title?', he repeated; 'call them the sisters of the Pope; could there be a more honourable title than that?' (Dal-Gal, p.199). However, he still wanted to have them close to him. Although it would have been expected that they would live with him in the Vatican, and the Pope had every right to so arrange, he established his sisters in a modest apartment in a neighbouring Piazza, and they came to visit him on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and to eat with him occasionally. Their greatest privilege, and they asked for none other, was to be present in his private chapel for Mass on the great feast days of the year. They gave their time to charity and good works, most of it at the request of the Pope.

We are told by Cardinal Merry del Val that when Rosa, the eldest, to whom he was particularly attached, fell ill and died (1912), the fact of not being able to attend to her at the last, because of protocol requirements, cost him dearly. Her requiem Mass was celebrated by the Pope's chaplain in St Peter's. It was attended by all the cardinals living in Rome, members of the diplomatic corps and many others who came to honour the person who, apart from his mother, had first claim on the affections of the Holy Father. In his last will Pius X expressed the wish that a small allowance would be made to his sisters during their lifetime: 'Having to provide for my sisters, Rosa, Maria and Anna, who have always lived with me and served me without the slightest remuneration, I recommend them to the generosity of the Holy See, that so long as one of them lives a monthly allowance of three hundred lire be allotted to them' (Merry del Val, p.68). As his cardinal Secretary of State points out, this minimal request for his sisters contrasted with the regal generosity he showed whenever the opportunity arose of offering assistance to those in need.

13. cf Merry del Val, pp.50-53. Merry del Val, as Secretary of State during the pontificate Pius X, was the Pope's closest confident and friend. The Cardinal with the quintessential aristocratic background became the greatest admirer of the peasant Pope from Riese, acquiring a profound appreciation of Giuseppe Sarto's many natural talents, as well as learning much from his sanctity. He too had a great love of music and so was in a privileged position to assess this aspect of the Holy Father's culture. 'I recollect', he tells us, 'how intensely he enjoyed listening to Persosi's great oratorio, The Last Judgement, which by his own wish was executed under the personal direction of the author in the Sala Regia. How he commented on the inspired rendering of the Scriptural texts, the richness of the orchestral parts, without failing to point out the qualities or deficiencies he had noted here or there either in the composition itself or in the singers. He experienced even more pleasure in the glorious chant of several hundred voices during the solemn Pontifical Mass which he sung in St Peter's for the centenary of the great St Gregory' (cf ibid. pp.50-51)

14. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, A New Song for the Lord, New York, 1997, p.131.

15. Ibid., referring to Gianpaolo Romanato, PioX: La vita di Papa Sarto, Milan, 1992.

16. Dal-Gal, p.57

17. Dal-Gal, p.58. He continued: 'Love the Seminary! This is the desire of your Bishop. Let no one allege the scantiness of his income or the poverty of his parish, for there is no one who cannot give a centime, a fruit, a vegetable. Nothing is impossible to him who loves. Love the Seminary! This is most necessary for the diocese of Mantua at the moment. Your small offerings will renew for you the prodigy of the widow of Sarepta, who, for the morsel she gave to the prophet Elias, received the promise that the pot of meal should not waste nor the cruse of oil be diminished. Love the Seminary! In this you will fulfil the great desire of your Bishop and you will merit to see this dear family, the apple of my eye, growing to its fullness'.

18. Bazin, p.82

19. cf Dal-Gal, p.60; cf also Pierami, p.57

20. Dal-Gal, p.72

21. In a pastoral letter addressed to the clergy of Venice and Mantua in 1894 (just before he took possession of the see of Venice), which is regarded as among the most important of his episcopate, he denounces the position of the so called Liberal Catholics, influenced by Modernism, and the damage which they were doing to the Church: 'Let priests take care not to accept from the Liberal any ideas which, under the mask of good, pretend to reconcile Justice with Iniquity. Liberal Catholics are wolves in sheep's clothing. The priest must unveil to the people their perfidious plot, their iniquitous design. You will be called Papist, clerical, retrograde, intolerant, but pay no heed to the derision and mockery of the wicked. Have courage, you must never yield, nor is there any need to yield. You must go into the attack whole-heartedly, not in secret but in public, not behind barred doors but in the open, in view of all' (Dal-Gal, p.74)

22. 'Our first duty is to work. We have to clear the field of tares and to sow the word of God; to build the holy house even higher; to fight the holy fight against the enemies of the Faith; to build and fence and tend the vineyard. There is no time for us to rest. To put it plainly: to be a priest and to be vowed to toil - these are one and the same thing' (Burton, p.81)

23. In a pastoral letter written in 1887 he referred to those who called on the Church to adapt her doctrine to the needs of the times: 'In this modern Christianity the folly of the Cross is forgotten and the dogmas of the Faith are twisted to fit in with the ideas of a new philosophy. The moral code, now considered too severe, must adapt itself to the self-indulgence of the times, and all forms of discipline which run counter to human nature must be abolished, so as to assist the glorious progress of the laws of liberty' (Dal-Gal, p.84). What is of interest here is that fully twenty years before he would write his encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis (1907), he had identified the roots of Modernism and was fully conscious of its doctrines and intentions.

24. Dal-Gal, p.68

25. Ibid, p..70. To others who suggested that the explanation of the Gospel text would be more beneficial than the catechism, Monsignor Sarto answered with deep conviction: 'No! The explanation of the Gospel and the teaching of the catechism are two entirely distinct obligations. The explanation of, or commentary on the Gospel narrative always presupposes that the people are thoroughly grounded in the rudiments of their faith, whereas in explaining Christian Doctrine your object is to move the heart and to make it conform to the spirit of Christ, which you demonstrate with a few well chosen examples from Sacred Scripture. This is in keeping with the spirit of Trent, which tells us to explain doctrine "with brevity and simplicity of speech". With brevity because as St Francis de Sales tells us, "when there is too much leaf on the vine there is less fruit", and with simplicity, in imitation of the apostles, who, as St Gregory the Great tells us, "took the greatest care of the unlearned" and so avoided all high-flown speech' (Dal-Gal, p.70)

26. In his submission he said, 'As the Holy See has in fact already unified the Catechism for parish priests it is my wish that there should be introduced without delay a popular catechism of history, dogma and morals, with brief questions and answers, and that it should be taught in all schools and translated into all languages. It would be a great advantage, in these times of easy communication, when so many leave not only their diocese, but also their fatherland, to have the text so unified that in all places the teaching of the Church could be heard in the same words in which they were learnt at our mothers' knees'. (Dal-Gal, p.71)

27. Encyclical E Supremi Apostolatus (1903), in CP, I, pp.12-13

28. Encyclical Acerbo nimis (1905), in CP, I, pp.33-37

29. Ibid., p.35. The depth of his concern about the religious ignorance of many of the faithful finds heartfelt expression in this encyclical, coupled with severe word for pastors who are negligent in this duty: 'How many alas! there are, we are not speaking merely of children, who in their adult years or in advanced age are completely ignorant of the mysteries of faith; ...it is vain to hope for crops from land where the seed has not been sown; how can one expect right moral conduct from a generation which has not received timely instruction in christian doctrine? We are entitled to conclude that, if the faith in our own day has languished and is at the point of death in many, the explanation is that the duty of catechetical instruction is being discharged negligently, or completely disregarded' (ibid., p.36).

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This version: 17th January 2003

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