Pope Saint Pius V


People who know nothing else about Pius V are quite apt to remember him as the Pope of the Rosary, recalling his remarkable connection with the Battle of Lepanto.

Antonio Michael was born into the distinguished but impoverished Ghisleri. His parents could not afford to educate their alert little boy, who seemed far too talented to be a shepherd. One day, as he was minding his father’s small flock, two Dominicans came along the road and fell into conversation with him. Recognizing immediately that he was both virtuous and intelligent, they obtained permission from his parents to take the child with them and educate him. He left home at age 12 and did not return until his ordination many years later.

After a preliminary course of studies, he received the Dominican habit at the priory of Voghera at age 14 and, as a novice, was sent to Lombardy. Here, for the first time, he met the well-organized forces of heresy which he was to combat so successfully in later years.

After his ordination in 1528, he went home to say his first Mass, and he found that Bosco had been razed by the French. There was nothing left to tell him if his parents were alive or dead. He finally found them, however, in a nearby town. After he said Mass, he returned to a career that would keep him far from home for the rest of his life. He began as a lector in theology and philosophy for 16 years.

Then he served as novice-master, than as prior of several convents, Michael proved to be a wise and charitable administrator. He was made inquisitor at Como, Italy, where many of his religious brethren had died as martyrs to the heretics. By the time of Michael’s appointment there, the heretics’ chief weapon was the printed word; they smuggled books in from Switzerland, causing untold harm by spreading them in northern Italy. The new inquisitor set himself to fight this wicked traffic, and it was not the fault of the heretics that he did not follow his brethren to martyrdom. They ambushed him several times and laid a number of complicated plots to kill him, but only succeeded in making him determined to explain the situation more fully to the pope in Rome.

He arrived in Rome on Christmas Eve, tired, cold, and hungry, and here it was not the heretics that caused him pain, but his own brothers in Christ. The prior of Santa Sabina saw fit to be sarcastic and inhospitable to the unimportant looking friar, who said he was from Lombardy. The pope knew very well who he was, however, and immediately gave him the commission of working with the heretics in the Roman prisons.

He was a true father to these unfortunates, and he brought many of them back to the faith. One of his most appealing converts was a young Franciscan, a converted Jew of a wealthy family, who had lapsed into heresy through pride in his writing. Michael proceeded to straighten out his thinking, to give him the Dominican habit, and to assure him of his personal patronage, thus securing for the Church a splendid Scripture scholar and writer.

In 1556, Michael was chosen bishop of Nepi and Sutri. The next year he was named inquisitor general against the Protestants in Italy and Spain and was appointed cardinal, in order, as he said, that irons should be riveted to his feet to prevent him from creeping back into the peace of the cloister. In 1559, Pope Pius IV made him bishop of the war-depleted Piedmont see of Mondovi, to which he soon brought order. Insofar as possible, Michael continued to adhere to the Dominican Rule.

He constantly opposed nepotism. Michael opposed Pius IV’s attempt to make 13-year-old Ferdinand de’Medici a cardinal, and defeated the attempt of Emperor Maximilian II of Germany to abolish clerical celibacy.

January 7, 1565, when the papal chair was vacant following the death of Pius IV, the cardinals, chiefly through the influence of Saint Charles Borromeo, elected Cardinal Ghislieri pope. With great grief, he accepted the office and chose the name Pius V. Charles Borromeo had backed Michael during the election, trusting that he would act as a much-needed reformer.

His judgment proved true: on Pius’s coronation, the money usually distributed to the crowds was given to the hospitals and the poor, and money for a banquet for the cardinals and other dignitaries was given to poor convents. When someone criticized this, he observed that God would judge us more on our charity to the poor than on our good manners to the rich. Such an attitude was bound to make enemies in high places, but it endeared him to the poor, and it gave right-thinking men the hope that here was a man of integrity, and one who could help to reform the clergy and make a firm stand against the Lutheran heresy.

There were massive problems of immediate urgency during the brief reign of Pius V. From within, the peace of the Church was disturbed by the several heresies of Luther, Calvin, and the Lombards, and by the need for clerical reform. In addition, England was tottering on the brink of a break with Rome. The Netherlands were trying to break away from Spain and had embraced Protestantism. The missions across the sea needed attention. And all through the Mediterranean countries, the Turkish were ravaging Christian cities, creeping closer to world conquest. In the six years of his reign, Pope Pius V had to deal with all these questions–any one of which was enough to occupy his entire time.

One of Pius’s first actions was to demand that bishops should live in their dioceses and parish priests in their parishes. His efforts at regulating his see embraced issues ranging from the abolition of bullfighting, bear-baiting and prostitution, to cleaning out the Roman curia and eliminating nepotism, to cutting down the activities of bandits. He insisted that Sunday must be hallowed. Once a month he held a special court for anyone who felt they had been treated unjustly. He also brought in shipments of corn during a famine at his own expense.

In his personal life he continued to be a devout mendicant friar; as pope he set himself to enforce the decrees of the Council of Trent with energy and effect. The catechism ordered by the Council of Trent was completed during his rule (1566), and he ordered translations made. The breviary reformed (1568) and missal (1570). He also commissioned the best edition to date of the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas; it was he who made Thomas a Doctor of the Church in 1567.

His was a rigorous character; he made full use of the Inquisition and his methods of combating Protestantism were ruthless. Pius had hoped to convert Queen Elizabeth of England. The unfortunate Mary Queen of Scots enjoyed his sympathy and encouragement. He sent reassuring letters to her, and once, at a time when no priest was allowed to go near her, he granted her special permission to receive Holy Communion by sending her a tiny pyx that contained consecrated Hosts. It was he who finally had to pronounce excommunication on Elizabeth of England in 1570, after he had given her every possible chance of repentance.

Pope Pius V had a high estimate of papal power in secular matters. When he excommunicated Elizabeth I, he absolved her subjects of the allegiance to her as queen. Some would say that this served only to endanger the Catholics in her realm, but essentially the attempt to save the souls of his flock was the prominent concern, however, many were accused of treason and martyred. That he also came into conflict with Philip II of Spain shows with what consistency he applied his principles.

He encouraged the new society founded by Saint Ignatius of Loyola and established the Jesuits in the Gregorian University. He consecrated three Jesuit bishops for India, gave Saint Francis Borgia his greatest cooperation, and helped to finance missionaries to China and Japan. He built the church of Our Lady of the Angels for the Franciscans and helped Saint Philip Neri in his establishment of the Oratory. Probably the act for which he will be longest remembered in his leadership at the time of the Battle of Lepanto.

In 1565, the Knights of Saint John defended Malta against a tremendous attack by the Turkish fleet and lost nearly every fighting man in the fortress. It was the pope who sent encouragement and money with which to rebuild their battered city. The pope called for a crusade among the Christian nations and appointed a leader who would be acceptable to all. He ordered the Forty Hours Devotion to be held in Rome, and he encouraged all to say the Rosary.

When the Christian fleet sailed out to meet the enemy, every man on board had received the sacraments, and all were saying the Rosary. The fleet was small, and numerically it was no match for the Turkish fleet, which so far had never met defeat. They met in the Bay of Lepanto on Sunday morning, October 7, 1565. After a day of bitter fighting, and, on the part of the Christians, miraculous help, the Turkish fleet–what was left of it–fled in disgrace, broken and defeated, its power crushed forever.

Before the victorious fleet returned to Rome, the pope had knowledge of the victory through miraculous means. He proclaimed a period of thanksgiving; he placed the invocation, “Mary, Help of Christians” in the Litany of Loreto and established the feast in commemoration of the victory. It was almost the last act of his momentous career for he fell victim to a painful illness that killed him in less than a year. He was attempting to form an alliance of the Italian cities, France, Poland, and other Christian nations of Europe to march against the Turks when he died. He is enshrined at Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.

Although he was criticized for ‘wanting to turn Rome into a monastery,’ Saint Pius had the respect of the Roman people, who knew his personal goodness and concern for everybody’s welfare. He gave large sums to the poor, lived a life of austerity and piety, and personally visited the sick in hospitals. Pius V is remembered as one of the most important popes of the Counter-

Born: in Bosco (near Alessandria), Italy, on January 17, 1504

Died: May 1, 1572

Papal Ascension: elected January 7, 1566; crowned January 17, 1566

Beatified: May 1, 1672 by Pope Clement X

Canonized: On May 22, 1712, Pope Clement XI enrolled him in the catalogue of the Saints

Representation: In art, he is shown reciting a rosary; or with a fleet in the distance; or with the feet of a crucifix withdrawn as he tried to kiss them.


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