Giuseppe ‘Bepi’ Sarto, one day to become Pope Pius X, was born to a poor family of eight in the small village of Riese, Italy, during the summer of 1835. After receiving his first Holy Communion at eleven years old, Bepi told his family that he wanted to become a priest. Although overjoyed at their son’s announcement, the Sarto parents were apprehensive. Not only did their village provide merely an elementary education, but also they needed their oldest child to help around the family farm. However, Bepi was undaunted by these obstacles. Daily, he walked barefoot a mile and a half to a near town that provided a higher education, then returned home to tackle his chores around the house. Though this schedule hardly gave him time for study, Bepi made the highest marks in his school all four years of his attendance.
His marks were so outstanding that when Bepi graduated from the town school, the archbishop of Venice granted him a scholarship to attend the seminary in Padua. Fifteen year old Bepi Sarto donned the black cassock and left family and farm to study at the seminary for eight years to become a priest. He loved to study, spending a majority of his time in the seminary library pouring over the books there. His amused colleagues would remark, “Behind that stack of books sits Bepi Sarto building a mountain of notes.”
Eight months before he reached the minimum age of twenty-three for ordinations, Bepi finished his seminary course. However, he was granted a dispensation, and on the eighteenth of September, 1858, he received the most Holy Orders of the priesthood, becoming Don Sarto.
Soon after his ordination, Don Sarto was sent to his first parish in Tambolo, to serve there as a curate. There he distinguished himself as a remarkable preacher and a holy priest. His heart overflowed with love for the poor, and he devoted all the spare time and material things he had to them, from teaching them to read to giving them the pot of soup from his own stove! Most of all, he loved the children of Tambolo. On top of seeing that their physical needs were attended to, Don Sarto often played games with the children in the streets. But more than anything, Don Sarto tended them so that they grew into innocent children of God; he steered them away from gambling, cured them of swearing, and taught them their catechism personally. Already he was beginning the legacy that would one day give him the title ‘The Pope of Little Children.’
Eight years later he was moved onto Salanzo, this time as pastor of the parish there. Getting along with only four hours of sleep daily, Don Sarto saw that no one went unheard or uncared for, to the point that the people of Salanzo dubbed him ‘perpetuum mobile’ [machine of perpetual motion]. Always open were the rectory doors to visitors, the woodshed to the cold, the pantry to the hungry. When an epidemic struck Salanzo, no man worked harder to tend the sick and bury the dead than the pastor. How many of the townspeople owed their lives to Don Sarto!
In 1876, Don Sarto was promoted to Monsignor and was assigned to teach at a seminary in Treveso while also serving as Canon to the bishop there.
After serving at the seminary for nine years, Monsignor Sarto endured what was to him the bitterest of trials; the Pope decided to appoint him bishop of Mantua. So convinced was the Monsignor of his unworthiness to accept the post that, despite his superior’s command for him to accept the position, he wrote the pope, Leo XIII, begging him to release him from the appointment. The reply from the Vatican, written in the Pope’s own hand, was one word, simple and concise–‘Obey!’ Even after receiving this, during an audience Monsignor Sarto had with Leo XIII, the priest again pleaded to be permitted to remain merely a monsignor. Gently, Leo XIII reminded Monsignor Sarto that he had already given his answer to this request. The Pope reiterated, “It is Our wish that you go to Mantua.”
So Monsignor Sarto was consecrated Bishop Sarto. In this important post he was just as beloved for his generosity and humility as he had been as the mere curate in Tambolo. He was truly a good shepherd to his flock, working tirelessly to attend to their needs, especially to the religious vocations of Mantua. The first year he was bishop of Mantua, only one priest was ordained in his diocese. He set about to improving Mantua’s seminaries, and within the next few years, one hundred forty-seven priests were ordained in his diocese alone.
Despite Bishop Sarto’s humility and constant pleas of unworthiness, God was not content that Bepi Sarto should remain only a bishop. Soon after being consecrated bishop, Bishop Sarto was elevated to Cardinal and was appointed the archbishop of Venice. The new archbishop was horrified at the stir his appointment made in Italy and with the celebrations thrown to greet him in Venice. “If I did not know that these honors were meant for Jesus Christ and not for my poor person,” thought the distressed man, “I would be deeply ashamed.”
During Cardinal Sarto’s ninth year in Venice, Pope Leo XIII died. As a Cardinal, Sarto was summoned to Rome to mourn the deceased pope and help elect a new one. So Cardinal Sarto journeyed to Rome, leaving Venice forever.
As the Cardinals in Rome began the conclave, Cardinal Sarto was content to see how few votes were cast for him. But as the conclave continued, the number of votes for him increased rapidly, much to his alarm. He entreated his fellow cardinals not to vote for him, to consider a candidate who was more worthy of the papacy. But the more he protested, the more votes he received. Instead of taking the multiple weeks the conclave usually stretched over, within four days Cardinal Sarto received fifty out of the sixty-two cardinals’ votes, officially electing him pope. Reluctantly, Cardinal Sarto accepted the position as God’s will and a cross. He took the name Pius X, and the white smoke drifted over Vatican city.
Throughout his papacy, Pius X remained the simple and humble man he had always been. Yet in every person he met, he left in them the impression of his strength in God, even if his only interactions with them were mere hellos and handshakes. Christ worked miracles through this humble servant and gave him insight to things in the future, particularly the impending Great War (or World War 1). His heart remained ever bent towards the welfare of his sheep, from the most glittering nobility to elevator operators. Still, his greatest affection remained with the children within his flock. One of the most well known accomplishments of his papacy was lowering the age limit and requirements for children to receive their first Holy Communion. Instead of having to wait until they were eleven or twelve years old to receive, as he had done, Pius X stated that children should be permitted to receive at six or seven years of age, or once they understood that the Bread they were receiving at the communion rail was no ordinary bread, but the Body of Christ.
Pius X stood faithfully at the Church’s tiller for nearly twenty years before his health took a sudden decline. He had known since around nearly 1900 that World War I would break out, and it had been one of the heaviest weights upon his heart. 1914 had arrived with all its hostilities and bloodshed, and it took the pope’s health forever with it. It utterly shattered the kindly man to watch Europeans pitted against one another, to hear the gruesome reports coming from the battlefield, and to see his precious seminarians drafted into their various countries’ armies, having to give up their studies–perhaps forever– to be forced to shoot at one another as enemies on the battlefield! Only two months after the war had been officially declared, Pius X passed from this life into eternal glory. As the Vatican bells tolled mournfully announcing the pope’s death, the multitude gathered in St. Peter’s Square bowed their heads, for they knew that the man who had just left them was one of God’s great saints.
Pope Pius X
Poor and Yet Rich
Gentle and Humble of Heart
Unconquerable Champion of the Catholic Faith
Whose Constant Endeavor it was to Renew
All Things in Christ
In his will, Pius X wrote, “I was born poor, I have been poor all my life, and I shall die poor.”
Pope Pius X, pray for us!