The misunderstood Pontiff
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap
On Friday 21 August, the Church’s liturgy celebrated the feast day of Saint Pius X. Born Giuseppe Melchiorre Sarto, Pius X’s pontificate has been somewhat eclipsed due to his vigorous opposition to modernist interpretations of Catholic doctrine.
Many scholars would concur that this reformer pontiff ended up being misunderstood because of the modernist issue. With his utter condemnation of modernism, Pius X gained the unjust reputation of not understanding anything. Let us not forget the great threat modernism posed for the Church of his time. This philosophical error practically relativized everything. From a doctrinal perspective, modernism held that various ideas were simply the end result of specialized cultural context of the time from which they emerged. Taking the example of Pius X himself, such a view is clearly faulty. The Pontiff worked in a particular context yet his reforms went much further than the context he was working in. It is sad that some seem to forget that the Church we believe in is totally inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit not simply in an accidental way but has as her basis the essence of teachings inspired by the same Spirit. The Church can never relativize her fundamental teachings, otherwise she ends up putting up for discussion what she believes in and promotes to the world.
The truth is that Pope Pius X was an authentic Church reformer. The fresh air which this saintly Pope brought into the Church was precisely his great reforms he zealously propagated. Pius X had the guts to reform the Roman Curia. His Petrine ministry was wholly centred on the belief that the Church’s mission is spiritual. Thus, it must necessarily animate the life of the world and renovate it. Consequently, all the enterprises of this pontiff were reformative since he laboured to advance the Christian life, that of the person and the crucial issue of peace.
Pius X is intimately linked with the much needed reform of frequent reception of sacraments by the faithful, especially the sacrament of Communion. It was he who promoted the idea that young children, around the age of seven, could receive their First Holy Communion. They could go to this life-giving sacrament even though they did not grasp all the Church’s doctrine at this stage of their lives. Moreover, Saint Pius X initiated the practice that adult believers are to communicate regularly, practically daily. One can easily understand the Pope’s love for the sacrament of the Eucharist when he reflected that this sacrament unites us to Christ and to one another. He says: “The devotion to the Eucharist is the most noble, because it has God as its object; it is the most profitable for salvation, because it gives us the Author of Grace; it is the sweetest, because the Lord is Sweetness Itself.”
Another important milestone in Pius X’s pontificate is certainly his liturgical reforms, especially those related to sacred music. When commenting on the liturgy as the source of Christian spirit in his motu proprio entitled Tra le Sollecitudini, which was published on Saint Cecilia’s feast on 22November 1903, the Pontiff commented: “Sacred music, being an integral part of the liturgy, is directed to the general object of this liturgy, namely, the glory of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful.” A reformed sacred music would facilitate “an active part in the sacred mysteries and in the solemn public prayers of the Church”.
The spirit is really consolidated when the body that contains it undergoes its necessary reforms. Hence, Pope Pius X was equally responsible for the laborious endeavour of collecting dispersed laws into a clear code of canonical rights to be promulgated. From his arduous yet essential project, the institutionalized Church has been reaping innumerable benefits ever since.
Although living in entirely different situations, both Saint Pius X and the present Pontiff Pope Francis deeply focus on the quality of life of Christians, being laity, priests and bishops. They teach us that the quality of our Christian living is indispensable if we want the Gospel to change the world. On this account Pope Saint Pius X can never be misunderstood!