Pilgrim Steps to the Venetian Pope
“After having been 59 years a bird in the bush, I do not feel like turning into a bird in a cage.” These words of Cardinal Sarto, then on the brink of being sent to the Roman Curia, reveal his profound attachment to his peasant native land. Its dialect and its countrymen were his treasures as he spent there most of his life and the best of himself. A pilgrim in the footsteps of the great Pope will discover much of the saint through the various assignments which Providence reserved for him in his beloved Veneto.
Giuseppe Sarto came from the humble town of Riese, the first born of a family of eight. Beppi, as he was affectionately called by his sisters even when Pope, soon revealed a definitely provincial trait by working things out “the Venetian way,” that is, with much determination and know-how.
The serene flatland of the Veneto marshes, away from the busy city, was the cradle of his strong personality. His life stretched between the family “casetta,” the school, the parish church, and the Madonna delle Cendrole, a favorite pilgrimage church. Before long, the horizons widened for the young lad who was eager to study. The one way to do so was to walk most days nine miles to Castelfranco with his meager lunch bag of bread and polenta, not to forget his shoes which he would take off to spare the soles.
The Riese visitor might have the luck of being greeted by a relative of the saint at the casetta, birth place. An amenable face, unassumingly yet full of that old peasant dignity, he would unfold before the stranger the entire treasure of the humble Sarto family. Original utensils as well as later gifts from the Cardinal are disposed to recreate the little world of rural life of the time. Glued to the casetta is the recent museum, which displays numerous relics and souvenirs of the saint. The parish church of St. Matthew holds in the apse the first casket of his remains until 1945. The church displays other liturgical items, including the chalice he used for his first Mass. One should not leave Riese without a detour to the lovely Marian sanctuary of the Cendrole.
By that time, the lad was ready to choose a career. The family was struggling financially and his Dad was not sold on his idea of becoming a priest. A scholarship opened the way to the Paduan seminary. During the eight years spent in Padua, only twice did he return home, especially the one when he received a premonition of his father’s approaching death. Mamma Margherita, turned widow, showed her adamantine faith in letting him pursue his vocation: “Providence will help you.” And so, despite the precarious situation and the stress placed on the oldest boy, his religious uncles would watch over the family estates and help Beppi conclude his training.
The busy city life was no joy to the country lad. He abhorred the public transportation with its rough crowd pushing elbows around. His “ordinary refuge” was the famous monastery of San Antonio. But he was maturing into a gentleman and a model for all to admire and imitate. Prizes were showered on his studies but no less copious were the praises lavished on his piety and personality: “May the Lord multiply youth of the stamp of il Sarto!”
Tombolo and Salzano
Ordained at the precocious age of 23, Don Giuseppe, although desirous to pursue his theological studies, is called to be a vicario very near his hometown, so as to better watch over the family affairs. He soon had to act as de facto Pastor, as Don Constantini was growing weaker by the months. The young and zealous curate was found everywhere stepping into the breach, and what was most noticeable was his veneration for his parish priest. He was at the school of obedience with the man who most influenced his priesthood, abiding by his smallest wishes for the parish and souls. He soon became his nurse, and when he finally was on his death bed, Don Sarto away at the time, and hearing the bells toll, did not have the courage to see his second father dead, and went back weeping as a child.
By that time, Don Beppi had been appointed parish priest of Salzano (1867-1875). He showed himself no friend of the troublemakers. If there was much Venetian diplomacy in his dealings with the city council and the politicians, he did not keep his fists to himself when he ran down from the pulpit to straighten out rowdy boys. He had a ready hand for blasphemers and, taken in an ambush one time with his carriage, his whip was cracked, opening his way through the rough crowd. Beneath the pious Archpriest, there was something of the bully Don Camillo. Yet, for all that, his Salzaneans knew how to return the charity of one who did so much for them: “He came in with a shabby coat and left without a shirt.” And, as to the portion of polenta, wood and even the horse of the canonica, they often became “public property.” His zeal became so prominent during an epidemic of cholera that some witness confessed that “if it had not been for the archpriest, we would have died of sorrow.”
To the visitor, Tombolo still harbors one of Don Sarto’s sundials that he built. More importantly, Salzano has dedicated a worthy museum to the saint, including many liturgical treasures he used or donated, noticeably a rich chalice, gift of the French bishops in 1906 during the hard time of the separation of Church and State. There one will find the famous watch which often ended up in the Montes Pietatis to be used as pawn for needy poor. The upper-floor showcases display many original documents written in his hand. The central case contains the famous Catechism of Salzano, a manuscript of the pastor including 252 personal annotations. This work became the foundation of the Catechism of St. Pius X, propagated throughout the country and soon offered to the world as the model of Christian instruction.
Treviso and Mantua
The next motion—and promotion—would lead Don Giuseppe to the chancellery of Treviso. As in Tombolo, where he had taken on a load above his title, so in Treviso, he was to act as bishop. Bishop Zinelli, despite his failing health and delegating much work on the young canon’s shoulders, was central in guiding Monsignore Sarto’s intellectual stature. He introduced him to the writings of Cardinal Pie of Poitiers, which were to have such an influence on his pontificate. Looking back at Cardinal Pie’s legacy, Pope Pius X would say: “He is my master.”
His function at Treviso was threefold. Promoted canon with the duty to sing the whole office at the cathedral, he was simultaneously diocesan chancellor and the seminary spiritual director. Monsignore Sarto spent his days in the intricate work of the diocese, showing his diplomatic skill with the ever touchy State control, and burning much of his night candle in urgent administrative duties. The spiritual guidance of seminarians and his jovial spirit at meals with the staff were his real relaxation. In Treviso, the adventurous pilgrim might be allowed to peek into the chancery office, which has kept some of the original furniture of the saintly chancellor.
Everyone knew that the miter was hovering over his head, him excepted. With reason, it is said that Leo XIII looked upon Msgr. Sarto as the last chance for restoring order in the difficult diocese of Mantua. The diocese was already “famous for its ill fame.” Laborers in the field confessed, “Here we are in partibus infidelium—in the land of infidels—below the worst parishes of Treviso and Padua.” The new Shepherd who made his entrance in 1885 had no illusion about his diocese: many Padres had abandoned their vocation; too many acted as politicians first and pastors next; the seminary virtually empty was in its last agony; the atmosphere was loaded with a virulent anticlericalism doubled with a profound economic crisis. Worst of all, there was among the clergy a latent indifference or even scorn towards authority.
Under the velvet glove, Monsignore quickly proved to hold an iron fist. A pastor who was sluggish in his duty of confessor came running one day as he saw his confessional occupied until he opened the grate and found himself face to face with… his own bishop! Msgr. Sarto’s confessional—he loved to hear the confessions of his faithful—is still on display in the cathedral. On another occasion, the bishop invited two priests for a ride in his carriage and dropped his dumbfounded guests at the doorsteps of a monastery, with a note for the abbot: they had not made their retreat for a good many years! Well known was the story of this priest who, time and again, requested some financial help, until the bishop answered him: “When was the last time you recited your breviary? Had you done so, you would have found your donation there a long time ago!”
The Pastor turned into a real father when dealing with his revamped seminary, which he often visited and offered classes. When seminarians came to his office to confess their blunders, the fist might strike hard on the table, but soon Monsignore would recover his composure and one could see tears in his eyes: the lesson would not be forgotten! The zeal of the bishop was felt through the entire diocese; pastoral visit succeeded the Diocesan Synod succeeding another pastoral visitation. The sojourn of Mantua brought forward the musical genius of Father Perosi under Msgr. Sarto’s radar, who would later appoint him Maestro of the Sistine Chapel.
Patriarch of Venice
In 1893, nine Mantovan years had passed in endless work and battles with the city council and the clergy. Time was running out for the Monsignore who was in the run for the important post of the “Laguna,” although he made no bones about the Venetian hat: “I patriarcati non sono bocconi per le nostre bocche—Accepting this Patriarchate would be biting off more than I could chew.” Yet the Pope was adamant: Sarto would be the next Venice Patriarch, and even more, Cardinal, so pleased was his Sanctity with the bishop’s work in Mantua. When he belatedly entered triumphantly the Piazza San Marco, all windows were dressed up and wide open except the City Mayor’s, in the grips of Freemasonry. The neoporporato prophesied: “If the City palace has closed the windows, we’ll open them ourselves.” Before long, the Laguna’s new head had united all conservative forces and ousted the undesirable godless rulers. He delved into politics of the best type, entertained the best terms with the statesmen of the day, as was evidenced on the occasion of the blessing of the corner stone of the new San Marco Campanile. Cardinal Sarto also indulged in social works of mercy and finances, with the creation of “mounts of piety” and other banks, in reviving dying industry in the peninsular city which was fast turning into a begging Queen. The patriarch wished to visit physically all corners of the diocese and have access to all classes and all ages, adults and children. He resented strongly the modernism of a fallen priest, Murri, of whom, he said: “I would excommunicate him if I were the Pope.” This prophetical threat would be fulfilled soon after, unlike that which he pronounced when he left for the conclave of 1903 which was to elect him Pope: “I shall return to Venice, alive or dead!” Only dead did he return to the Laguna at the instance of John XXIII, who had also been Patriarch there.
For the Santo Sarto pilgrim, Venice is certainly the place where one can walk in his footsteps, especially the magnificent Byzantine Cathedral, and the Patriarchal Palazzio, where his bedroom and study rooms are visited. It is worth the detour to reach the summit of the Monte Grappa, crowned with a statue of the Madonna. There, one day, admiring the resemblance with Pius IX, a woman had cried out: “Oh, see the beautiful Pius X.” The Cardinal had his heart riveted there: “I would return to her on my knees.” But God had other designs, and the trip to the Roman conclave was to be his last one alive. He had said to his busy secretary Don Bessan encumbered with the heavy suitcases: “The journey to Rome is not quite like travelling to America!” Little did he know what Providence had in store.