Teaching and defending the faith was a holy mission for the saintly pope who guided the Church from 1903 to 1914.
It is hard to overstate the brutality and inhumanity of the 20th century. In the span of 100 years, tens of millions were slaughtered due to war, tyranny, genocide, and ideological regimes built upon bloodshed. I cannot believe that humanity really performed much better in the last century than we did in the years leading up to God’s decision to cover the earth with a flood and start over. Yet here we remain. Broken, fallen, learning a few lessons and seemingly forgetting just as many.
Anytime I read even a brief overview of the horrors of the 20th century, I hear Jesus telling Peter, “Upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). If we remember the 1900s for its mindless bloodshed and perpetrated evils, then we must also remember the great heirs to Peter that the Holy Spirit beckoned forward to lead the Church through the turmoil. Thus far, four popes from the twentieth century have been canonized, more than the total number of sainted popes from the preceding nine centuries. St. Pius X, who reigned as Pope from his election in 1903 until his death in 1914, is the first of these great Vicars of Christ, having been canonized in 1954 by Pope Pius XII.
Pius X is famous for his many reforms and his scathing treatment of modernity and the ideologies therein, but while I appreciate his bold courage and adherence to Christ’s vision for his Church, it is his love for children that I always remember. Perhaps better than any saint in living memory, Pius X took to heart Jesus’s request to “let the little children come to me.” As the Bishop of Mantua, and later the Patriarch of Venice, Pius X, then called Bishop Sarto, frequently carried candy in his pockets, distributing them among the street children on his daily walks around the city. He often took the opportunity to teach them short lessons on the catechism as they ate the sweets. Once elected Bishop of Rome, Pius X loved gathering children around him for his papal audiences, asking them not only about the faith, but about their daily lives, and listening with interest to their stories and chatter.
Pius X did not simply find children endearing conversants and charming walking companions. He rightfully saw them as equal heirs to heaven, entrusted to their parents, teachers, and priests. Teaching the faith was therefore not a mere pastime to him, a pleasant distraction from the pressing bureaucratic work of a high-ranking prelate. To Pius X it was a holy mission. He reformed seminaries in his charge so that priests could better serve their parishioners, and especially to ensure stronger catechesis. During his years as Chancellor of Traviso and Spiritual Director of that seminary, he would organize catechism classes for the city children, who attended public school where religion had been outlawed by Italy’s secular government.
Most notably, Pius X did not believe that children should be excluded from partaking in the Body of Christ. Often called the “Pope of the Eucharist,” Pius X frequently extolled the reception of Holy Communion as the “shortest and safest way to get to heaven.” Despite the conventions of his time, he determined that Christ never meant his Body to be reserved for adults, forbidden to the children he loved so much. In 1910, Pius issued the decree Quam Singulari, which lowered the age of First Communion from 12 to 7, the determined “age of discretion.” Once, when a 4-year-old boy impressed the Pope with his clarity and understanding of the Eucharist, Pius X offered the child his First Communion.
Pius’s deep love for his spiritual children would ultimately factor in his death in 1914. He could not know what the century would hold for his beloved Church and for the world, but as the nations engaged in their arms races and the philosophies of the modern age took hold, he knew that great evil was coming. When war broke out in the summer of 1914, the Pope was heartbroken as he helplessly watched his continent descend into war. The strain proved too much for the aging pontiff. As his tired body succumbed to a final illness, Pius X’s heart remained with his flock: “This is the last affliction the Lord will visit on me. I would gladly give my life to save my poor children from this ghastly scourge.” No saint could have fought harder to restore all things in Christ than St. Pius X, and we can rest assured that this gentle pope, fearless protector of the faith, and loving father has never stopped interceding for his beloved children on earth.
St. Pius X, pray for us!