Pope St. Pius X was a great reformer and a holy pope. He fostered liturgical renewal, frequent Holy Communion from childhood, and the codification of canon law. He also waged war against the heresies of his day.
Unfortunately, this last facet of his pontificate receives an outsized share of attention from certain people, influenced by the “spirit of St. Pius X.” This spirit, the younger sister of the more popular “spirit of Vatican II,” unfortunately distorts the legacy of the real St. Pius X.
The spirit of Vatican II was born in the 1960’s by those seeking to use the excitement and, quite ironically, the authority of the Second Vatican Council to support their own unique views. From then until now, this spirit is infamously invoked to provide a veil of legitimacy for ideas and interpretations that are not present in the council itself.
Others, who felt the disagreement between their views and the council spanned a wider chasm than a letter-spirit divide, rejected the council explicitly. Thus, invoking the pope who had been most recently canonized, the “spirit of St. Pius X” was born, closing itself off from the renewal inspired by the Holy Spirit and championed by Pope St. Pius X and Vatican II. Not to be outdone in rebellion by their “liberal” counterparts, they set their own spirit of St. Pius X against the gathering hurricane of the spirit of Vatican II.
To reach the truth beyond these noisy spirits, let us mirror the approach of the most recent popes, who emphasize the actual text and a hermeneutic of continuity to understand the Second Vatican Council. Let us similarly allow Pope St. Pius X to speak in his own words and view him in a historical context of continuity.
Popes reveal their priorities by their papal mottos, as well as their first encyclicals. For Pope St. Pius X, these were one and the same: “Restore all things in Christ” (Ephesians 1:10).
Various aspects of Church life were first among the things that needed to be restored in Christ, including clerical formation, Christian education, liturgical piety, and sacramental practice (all important to Vatican II and recent popes also). But Pope St. Pius X’s perspective was not merely defensive. His program of restoration was an early phase of a larger renewal, spanning more than a century, starting on the inside and moving outward into the current phase of the New Evangelization. The internal focus of the popes at the turn of the 20th century was and is a necessary starting point, from which the renewal of all things in Christ must flow.
As the world – rife with economic, social, and political injustice on both interpersonal and international levels – was plummeting toward the Great War, Pope St. Pius X continued the fight of his prolific predecessor Leo XIII. That is, he continued his fight for social justice, for the protection of the Church from interfering secular governments, and for the preaching of the faith in the face of pernicious heresy.
He urged the proclamation of the Gospel, both in terms of man’s eternal destiny and as it impacts us here and now, as later developed in Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. He writes:
We must use every means and exert all our energy… to proclaim aloud the truths taught by the Church, and her teachings on the sanctity of marriage, on… education, property, and the duties that men owe to the State; to restore equilibrium between the different classes of society according to Christian precept (E Supremi).
In continuity with his predecessors and successors, he promoted Catholic social teaching and the use of every means in evangelization. He also understood the importance of all of the members of the Body of Christ, describing the vocation and mission of the laity, as later described by Vatican II and all popes since, and rallying the laity to preach the Gospel through their words, actions, and love.
It is not priests alone, but all the faithful without exception, who must concern themselves with the interests of God and souls . . . The times we live in demand action… the frank and open profession of religion… every kind of charitable works. Such luminous examples given by the great army of soldiers of Christ will be of much… avail in moving and drawing men. Large numbers will be won to Christ, becoming in their turn promoters of His knowledge and love which are the road to true and solid happiness.
The way Pope St. Pius X speaks of Christ’s love as the road to true happiness is echoed by the council, Pope St. John Paul II’s vision of Christ as the redeemer of man, and Pope Benedict XVI’s emphasis on God as a communion of love.
Finally, in his tone toward those who have strayed, Pope St. Pius X expresses a gentleness, understanding, hope, and mercy that are reminiscent of our Pope Francis, who has captivated the world.
No means is more efficacious than charity. ‘For the Lord is not in the earthquake.’ It is vain to hope to attract souls to God by a bitter zeal. On the contrary… [we must work] ‘with all patience.’ Jesus has certainly left us examples of this… ‘Come to me all ye that labor and are burdened and I will refresh you.’ He meant only those who are slaves of sin and error. What gentleness was that shown by the Divine Master! What tenderness, what compassion towards all kinds of misery! This charity, ‘patient and kind,’ will extend itself also to those who are hostile to us and persecute us. Who will prevent us from hoping that the flame of Christian charity may dispel the darkness from their minds and bring to them light and the peace of God?
Pope St. Pius X never focused on the Church to the exclusion of the world, but sought to prepare her, as the Lord prepared St. Paul in the desert, for her missionary vocation. As Christians we do not reject or hate the world or any person. Instead, we “wage war” with our enemies (and all that is harmful to them) by loving them, praying for them, and trying to save them, just as Jesus Christ himself did and continues to do through his Church, the sacrament of salvation. May the Holy Spirit continue to guide us, as he guided Pope St. Pius X, so that restoring all things in Christ, “Christ may be all and in all” (Colossians 3:2).
Image: Pope St. Pius X