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St Pius X: the son of a village postman who urged modernists to be ‘beaten with fists’

‘A man of God who knew the unhappiness of the world’

Pius X (1835-1914, pope from 1903) is often remembered today as the pontiff who led an uncompromising crusade against modernising theologians such as Alfred Loisy in France and the Irish Jesuit George Tyrrell. Such thinkers, Pius believed, were undermining the objective supernatural character of the Church and reducing religious faith to a matter of individual taste.

In July 1907 the Pope’s decree Lamentabile Sane Exitu formally condemned 65 modernist propositions. Subsequently all the clergy were required to take an oath against them.

Unquestionably Pius X pursued his quarry with animus. “They want to be treated with oil, soap and caresses,” he said of his antagonists. “But they should be beaten with fists. In a duel, you don’t count or measure the blows, you strike as you can.”

Latterly, the Society of Pius X, founded by Archbishop Lefebvre in 1970, has helped to keep alive the image of that pope as an intransigent obscurantist. In fact, no leader of the Church since the Council of Trent had inspired so many important changes in Catholic life. 

Those who knew Pius X at close quarters never doubted his saintliness, as “a man of God who knew the unhappiness of the world and the hardships of life, and in the greatness of his heart wanted to comfort everybody”.

Giuseppe Sarto was born at Riese, near Venice, the second of 10 children of the village postman and his seamstress wife. After 17 years as a country curate and parish priest he directed a seminary at Treviso, before becoming Bishop of Mantua in 1884 and Patriarch of Venice in 1893.

As pope, Pius X strongly encouraged the frequent reception of Holy Communion, which, he made clear, should be available to young children. His many reforms included the codification of canon law, the reorganisation of the Curia, the reform of seminaries, the restoration of plainsong and the rearrangement of the breviary psalter so that all the psalms should be recited.

He also revived the theology of St Thomas Aquinas and established a commission of Benedictine scholars to restore the original text of the Vulgate.

Abroad, he sternly resisted state secularisation in France, not least in education, and refused to acknowledge the Associations Culturelles appointed to control ecclesiastical buildings in that country. Rather than submit to Republican bullying the Church gave up its property in France.

Ever conscious of the Church’s exclusive mission to the world, the Pope refused to receive Theodore Roosevelt after the former American president had lectured to a Methodist congregation in Rome.

Pius X suffered a stroke in 1913. Having long warned against the danger of European conflict, he died just after the outbreak of the First World War. Celebrated as a miracle-worker, he was canonised in 1954.