The Just Man Lives by Faith
In a pastoral letter addressed to his clergy, Monsignor Sarto sketched in these terms the physiognomy of the priest as he conceived of him: “A priest should be holy; he should therefore be grave, such that his words, his deportment and his manner of acting draw to him people’s affection, conciliate the public authorities, and earn him respect. Let him remember that an outward bearing marked by dignity and self-discipline is a sort of eloquence effective for winning souls; it is the most persuasive of speeches. Nothing inspires greater confidence in a churchman than to see him never fail to live up to the dignity of his calling, thus bearing in himself the gravity that attracts and captures the homage of all hearts.”
St. Pius X, himself, was the priest of whom he spoke; the witnesses who testified during the investigation for his canonization assure us of the fact. And when we study a series of portraits of this great pope at different stages of his life, we are struck by a radiant harmony that becomes increasingly apparent. Surely this soul was continuously faithful to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit for such supernatural charm to shine from his portrait. The nature it animates is spontaneous, quick, and good-humored. Witnesses even tell us that in his youth Pius X was capable of violence, but that he always dominated its first motions. The face is distinguished, energetic and thoughtful.
The line of the mouth indicates firmness—a character that will overcome every contradiction, and that, after having weighed all the consequences, will undertake without haste the most momentous decisions. In the images we have of the young vicar of Tombolo, the physiognomy betrays something of a conquering spirit that will fade as the ardor becomes more interior; but already the eyes are those of a contemplative; they are fixed on “what eye has not seen, nor ear heard.” And the dew of contemplation will foster the growth of those two flowers of the heights: humility and charity. The humility of Pius X is evinced by the trembling that would seize upon him and the tears that sprang from his eyes each time he had to ascend one of the degrees of the hierarchy up to the Supreme Pontificate, which was his Calvary. His charity is attested by thousands of testimonies that show us an inexhaustible heart, overflowing with love for his brethren after the example of Christ.
In the portraits of the later years, the face, a little heavier in old age, is pervaded by melancholy, a sadness that conveys less his lassitude—for he labored till the end—than his suffering at the ingratitude of men and their spirit of revolt. Did he not also have to endure his Garden of Olives?...
Nowadays people no longer willingly resort to the teaching of Pius X, and yet he is the only pope to have been canonized thus far since the sixteenth century. It is not hard to find the reason: Pius X condemned. But it is commonly thought today, even in the Church, that nothing should be condemned, that the time of condemnations is past because the truth is everywhere, even in doctrines the most opposed to Christianity, because the majority of men are of good will. This is the expression of a liberalism very much in style, and the current that conveys people toward liberalism is all the stronger as the idea of transcendent truth inspires universal fright, even among those who have the faith: because everything is evolving, nothing is absolute....
Written more than fifty years ago, [the writings of Pius X] strike us as being pertinent for the Church today. As a layman I am perhaps entitled to express my amazement, since the laity in our day is the object of a “promotion” about which it feels both honored and, why not say it? embarrassed. Seventeen years ago I was struck by the beautiful pastoral letter of His Eminence Cardinal Suhard, “Rise or Fall of the Church”1... The letter invited us to be on guard against excessive traditionalism.
Rise or Fall of the Church
The Church, it said, is a perfect, holy society as the Mystical Body of Christ, but we must not forget that she is engaged in time and as such she is subject to “organic growth.” The Church changes and grows, striving to respond to the needs of humanity. Thus there is a visible, “legal” Church that does not always allow the supernatural reality to appear: it remains for us like the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist veiled by the Eucharistic species. Such is the mystery of the Church, with its double aspect of supernatural reality and human, changing society. We have to admit that the Church evolves with the world without any loss of its holiness. It so happens that modern civilization is indifferent and even hostile to religion because the naturalism ushered in by the Renaissance has under various guises sought to drive God out of society. And so a considerable mass of people once Christian have slid out of the traditional faith and fallen back into paganism. The Church, in order to fulfill her missionary vocation, must reconquer this multitude. Christians mustn’t let their faith congeal in out-of-date forms: they must be present in the world in which God has placed them.
It will behoove us, the Cardinal said, to integrate good, authentic human values within our religious perspective: “the development of social organization; the renewal and transformation of the world by the intellectual, technical, and aesthetic efforts of recent centuries; the increasingly conscious affirmation of a universal human solidarity, and so forth.” Christians should, then, believe in progress and work “to perfect creation,” but their first duty must be to tend towards holiness; there is no genuine apostolate without interior life, an interior life founded on the authentic spiritual tradition of the Church, that is, based on prayer and meditation. In the present state of the world, in which there is no longer a Christian society, the missionary apostolate will consist in “mingling with unbelievers in order to save them as they are and to bear witness in their midst.” “Being an apostle means taking everything, to become involved in everything that can legitimately be adopted, of man and of the world he has fashioned. Everything except sin, that is to say, all values, even those hitherto extraneous to Christianity.” The letter emphasized the “communitarian” form the apostolate should take, as well as its “social” form: “It is no longer the individual, it is the group itself that needs to become missionary.” Finally, the Cardinal depicted what is most inhuman in modern civilization and called on Christians to build a new world in which more humane structures—economic and social—would foster evangelization.
The letter was remarkable and had considerable effect. But it awakened in me two misgivings. Eminence, I said to myself, you are sending your clergy among barbarians, which is the true Christian tradition, and in this you are not mistaken: we are in an age of barbarism. As Péguy said, barbarism is on the rise. But the Christians of yesteryear, who bore witness to their faith among the barbarians, could expect not only to be cast in prison, which is but a light penalty, but also to be hacked, sawed, boiled, grilled, crucified, and the like.
Sufferings of the body strengthened, as it were, the resistance of their souls. Modern apostles in any big city have nothing to fear for their body, but their soul is assailed on all sides at once, almost without their realizing it, for modern barbarism piles up a heap of truly incredible seductions, all of which tend to separate them from God. Ancient barbarism compelled Christians to deny God by a solemn, official act that carried fearful sanctions should one refuse. Modern barbarism imposes nothing and threatens no punishments, but it dulls the conscience, which ends by no longer perceiving that it is denying God at every turn. To resist such temptations, Eminence, your young clerics must be given arms, the arms of a spiritual formation grounded in self-discipline and self-abnegation, for their combat is going to be much more dangerous than that of monks: they will have to choose every minute between faithfulness and betrayal.
I had another misgiving, Eminence. I thought that your definition of apostle goes pretty far. To be an apostle, you say, means taking everything, becoming involved in everything, that is to say, all the values till now foreign to Christianity. This is more than an immense program, it is a program that demands the greatest discernment. Your clerics will have to have a cultivation far above that of an ordinary student, for, it must be acknowledged since it is a fact, that a young man who has completed his secondary studies enters university or seminary relatively uncultured. But he is going to have to choose among the new values the world presents him and to choose in the direction of truth, and not a truth in the process of evolution, changing with the vicissitudes of time, but a Truth that does not pass away.
Shall I say that these misgivings were in vain? If I speak of them, it is because unfortunately they were not. They lead us back to St. Pius X, who, whatever one may think today, gave to the Church doctrine both firm and relevant, doctrine of which we stand in need even today. For, in effect, as the Church plunges into social action, she more or less forgets to teach the things that are of faith. I am acquainted with groups of young families whose members regret that their pastors speak to them too little of God. Last year I attended a Mass for a group of men in a village in France. There were about two hundred men from the surrounding countryside, many of whom did not regularly go to church. It was Passion Sunday, a perfect occasion to remind them of the mystery of Redemption and to have them meditate on what sufferings our salvation cost our Lord. A vicar general had gone to the trouble to come and give the sermon. Yet God was scarcely mentioned. There was only talk of hunger in the world and of the duty of Christians to work for the advancement of their profession. What could these good men take home from such a sermon for the salvation of their soul? And thus we see established a new spirituality, a social spirituality where the accent is placed on the action of man more than on the grace of God. The boldest young priests declare forthrightly that the city of the future has to be built first, and who call upon the collaboration of unbelievers as well as believers (I was going to say: preferably of unbelievers, for there is a singular distrust of practicing Christians, who are suspected in principle of being reactionary and conservative). We must build, they think, a better world before dreaming of transmitting the message of Christ: this is what they call “reforming the structures.” They make us think of a certain modernist for whom Pius X had great affection and to whom he said: “You widen the door to let in those who are outside, and meanwhile you make all those who are inside leave.” In this new spirituality, engagement in the service of others is truly to know Christ, and one can only subscribe to this proposition if the character of this engagement is purely supernatural, if it is Christ we serve in our brothers.
But how can we harmonize this knowledge of Christ with contempt for the sacraments, especially contempt for the sacrament of penance, which sets in sometimes imperceptibly? There can be no true spirituality where the sense of adoration is lacking. What is to be said of these priests who issue a kind of ultimatum to their bishop, guilty of having spoken in favor of private education? What is to be said of the pillaging of the liturgy that we have witnessed more or less everywhere, at the mercy of everyone’s whims despite the rules established by the hierarchy? How can we not but see with sorrow the new spirituality discourage devotion to the Virgin to such a degree as to rank the rosary among the “devotions” good for backward Christians?
St. Pius X did not think that there are two spiritualities, a traditional spirituality (which is repudiated today because it is disdained as too monastic) and a spirituality adapted to the apostolate in the modern world. There is only one spirituality, which flows from the Sermon on the Mount and which makes perfection the normal attainment of Christian life. To wish to strip it of contemplation and of sacrifice is to make it lose its purpose. On this St. Pius X is faithful to all the Fathers of the Church. It suffices to read his teachings to notice that he had to fight against the same deviations that we observe today, and that the indiscipline of the clergy that shocks us so much is nothing new. The encyclical letter addressed to the Bishops of Italy of July 28, 1906, [“Pieni l’animo”] treats of the formation of seminarians and warns the bishops against the contempt for authority that is spreading among the clergy: “Over and above the most degrading corruption of manners there is also an open contempt for authority and for those who exercise it. What overwhelms Us with grief, however, is the fact that this spirit should creep into the sanctuary even in the least degree, infecting those to whom the words of Ecclesiasticus should most fittingly be applied: ‘Their generation, obedience and love’ (Ecclus. 3:1).”
Pope of the Holy Eucharist
Pius X was the Pope of the Holy Eucharist. He really lived by it and he wanted men to live by it even more. Here I can do no better than quote the words of Pius X himself. One day in 1912, four hundred French first Communicants made a pilgrimage to Rome in thanksgiving, and they were received by the Pope who, with tears in his eyes, gave this admirable speech:
“Since God is spotless purity, someone united to Jesus Christ in Holy Communion, rising like an innocent dove from the marshy waters of this miserable world, takes flight and finds refuge in the bosom of God, One who is purer than the immaculate snow on the mountaintops. If God is infinite beauty, someone united to Jesus Christ attracts the admiration and loving regard of the angels, who, were they able to experience passion, would envy him his lot. If God is charity by essence, the faithful united to Jesus Christ is as it were ravished in a blessed ecstasy and transfigured by charity; it shows outwardly, even on his face, in the ardent aspirations of his heart and in the sweetness of the words on his lips; everything reminds him and manifests unto him this love... The Eucharist is the center of the faith.”
The decrees of Pius X about frequent Communion and Communion for children were a revolution in the Church. Resistance was vigorous, especially in France, and it saddened Pius X. One day he said to Msgr. Chesnelong: “In France, the early Communion we have decreed is bitterly criticized, but We say, there will be saints among the children; you’ll see.”
Pius X was too shrewd a psychologist not to know that the sensibility of the faithful has to be engaged in order to cultivate their faith, and that this is the role of the arts; but it is also necessary that the art be pure for it to conserve a supernatural character. That is why he was the Pope of the liturgy and of Gregorian chant. He himself was a good musician, and, it seems, hearing him sing was pure delight...
In all the places where he carried out his ministry, as vicar, as curate, as bishop, he trained singers, established choir schools, and imposed decorum, harmony, and beauty in worship. “Gregorian chant,” he wrote to Cardinal Respighi, “as it was handed down by the Fathers and is found in the codices of the various churches, is noble, quiet, easy to learn, and of a beauty so fresh and full of surprises that wherever it has been introduced it has never failed to excite real enthusiasm in the youthful singers.”2 How profound this judgment is: indeed, this beauty is so fresh and full of surprises because it is hard to believe that such simplicity of means could produce an effect of such grandeur.
I once knew a religious, now deceased, who thought that Gregorian chant was “inspired” as Sacred Scripture is. It goes without saying that that is a personal opinion, but when one thinks of the marvels contained in the Gradual and the Antiphonary, when one remembers the admirable pieces like the Exultet, the Improperia of Good Friday, the Responsories of Holy Week, the Offertory Jubilate Deo, the Media Vita, and so many other masterpieces, one is not far from being of the same opinion. Gregorian music is both a popular art and an art that introduces us into the highest mysteries of the faith. It is the best educator of the spiritual life. But nowadays the same thing is happening to it as to Thomism. Without saying openly that they want to discard it, they create a whole new liturgy whose songs gradually supplant all the Gregorian chant; and these songs are almost all of a heart-rending mediocrity. Which is to say simply that they are in the process of spoiling the taste of the Christian people instead of forming it. It is being spoiled because they follow the taste of the world. I wonder if they hope that the faith will gain something from it? I know a seminary where the seminarians are allowed to play “pop” music: obviously no one can say that the songs of Georges Brassens and Yves Montand are an excellent formation for the spiritual life.
One may form the taste of a parish, and one must likewise form the taste of a seminary. Music has a power over the soul unlike any of the other arts: it is capable of making them vulgar, but it is also capable of opening to them the door of contemplation. In Gregorian chant, and I have experienced it, there is always a spot, the turn of phrase that reveals the perfection to which the soul is called, and the singers sense it. Is it under the pretext of a “return to the sources” that they are going to condemn us to such an impoverished religion?
1 Emmanuel-Celestine Cardinal Suhard (1874-1940), Archbishop of Paris from 1940-1949. He helped found the French Mission in 1941 and promoted the Worker-Priest Movement. Today he is considered a precursor of Vatican II.
2 Letter to Cardinal Respighi, Cardinal Vicar of Rome, December 8, 1903. Translation from F. A. Forbes, A Short Biography of Saint Pius X (1918; new and revised edition by Tan Books, 1954).