Pope St. Pius V & The Continuity of his Mission

It seems as though we can hardly turn on the news, read the paper, or scroll through the headlines online without seeing a story about “progressive Pope Francis”, who is “breaking with tradition,” doing something “unprecedented” in a “first for a Pope.” There are countless Catholic writers who have spilled much ink (metaphorically speaking) in refuting this characterization. They observe and detail how Pope Francis is truly fully in continuity with his predecessors, particularly St. John XXIII, Bl. Paul VI, St. John Paul II, and Benedict XVI.

However, Pope Francis’ proclivity for simple living, his penchant for reform of the Vatican hierarchy and revitalization of the spirit of evangelization, and many other traits, are in clear continuity with many more of his predecessors. One of these is Pope St. Pius V, whose feast we celebrate today.

On January 17, 1504, Antonio Ghislieri was born in a small town near Lombardy in Italy. His parents, while of noble ancestry, were poor, and Antonio worked hard to help support his family as a child and young man, even working as a shepherd (presumably, he truly had the “smell of the sheep”). At the age of 14, Antonio met two Dominicans, who encouraged him to join their order. Join the order he did, and at the age of 24 in 1528 he was ordained a priest, having taken the religious name Michele.

Michele Ghislieri lectured in philosophy and theology for 16 years, and was elected to many leadership roles within the order. He was recognized, even at such a young age, as a man of profound holiness, a man who dedicated himself to hours of prayer, intensive fasting, and penance, a profoundly ascetic lifestyle. This asceticism, this simplicity and austerity of living, would continue throughout his life and remain a defining characteristic of his personal spirituality and his eventual papacy.

In 1556 he was named a bishop, and was an active inquisitor, seeking out and quashing heresy and corruption, educating in the truth and strengthening the brethren.

On January 7, 1566, Michele Ghislieri was elected pope, and took the name Pius V. It was clear from the start that the man meant business. He rejected many of the extravagancies and luxuries of the papal court that were held over from its days as an explicitly regal institution. It’s said that Pius used the money which normally would have supported these court extravagances to the poor, and that he ministered directly with the poor – everything from washing their feet to tending to lepers. He had hospitals built, gave food to the hungry, and provided financially for many other services for the poor.

While he had attained a reputation as an inquisitorial watchdog, a sort of doctrinal police squad, it is clear that Pius V’s motivation in all of his ministry was the dignity of the person and their right to the truth and to a dignified life.

At the heart of Pius’s efforts was his life as a Dominican, and the charisms of that community. The ascetic, mendicant life which he had led as a religious priest would influence his papacy, and the institution of the papacy for centuries after. In fact, even something as immediately recognizable as the pope’s daily garb was influenced by Pius V. After his election, Pius chose to continue wearing the Dominican habit – white cassock with a white shoulder cape (among other features). While some of his predecessors wore white as well, it is Pius’s retention of his Dominican habit that is generally regarded as the institution of that particular papal tradition.

Pius V was elevated to the papacy in the immediate aftermath of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which was the Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation. As a result, one of the chief expectations of his pontificate was to be the implementation of the canons of the Council. Among other things, Pius instituted a standardized seminary system for the formation of priests; he reformed the Roman Missal and the breviary, and commissioned a new catechism for the instruction of the faithful; he greatly restricted the use of indulgences, as well as dispensations from vows; and he reformed the system used in the handing-out of penances.

Pius’s reforms also included further cleaning up of the papal court: as stated above, nepotism was practically eliminated; sobriety became the name of the game – stiff consequences were enforced for such offenses as profanity and desecrating Sunday; the city of Rome was nearly emptied of prostitutes; lavish banquets were discontinued, and the food and money normally set aside for such purposes was instead given to the poor; and numerous other reforms.

The nascent Society of Jesus (Jesuits) was given strong support from Pius V, particularly in regards to their task of combating the spread of Protestantism through preaching and education of the faithful. This is perhaps the most significant influence Pius V had on the life of his successor Pope Francis; prior to his election, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was a member of the Jesuits, a long-embattled order that survived due in large part to the patronage and support of figures such as Pius V.

Pius also had a profound Marian devotion. When Christian armies famously met the armies of the Turks at Lepanto on October 7, 1571, Pius directed that every man on board the Christian fleet pray the rosary and receive Communion, while requesting all of Europe pray the rosary in support of these men. The decisive victory won by the vastly outnumbered Christians was seen as miraculous, and resulted in Pius establishing the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, and October being named the month of the rosary.

Pius V reinvigorated the papacy. After several centuries that were peppered with lascivious popes, popes who cared more about their purses than their flock, popes who openly flaunted moral conventions to bask in sin, Pius V reestablished a high moral standard born of his ascetic and mendicant life.

One chief feature of Pius V’s legacy is his radical reform of the Vatican curia. Decades, even centuries, of practice had developed a tradition of nepotism in the Vatican – or a “highest bidder” method of curial and bureaucratic appointments. As a result of the long-entrenched practice, Pius V faced an uphill battle against an old guard of Vatican appointees, strikingly similar to the uphill battle faced by Pope Francis and his Council of Cardinals today. Perhaps Francis can take encouragement from the experience of Pius V, who was able to accomplish reform of the Curia while also combating Protestantism, Turkish incursions, and rampant deviancy in the papal court. Francis’ efforts will not be in vain, just as Pius’s were not.

St. Pius V died on May 1, 1572, and is buried in the Basilica of St. Mary Major, which is an oft-visited pilgrimage site in Rome for Pope Francis. It is clear that Pope St. Pius V has had a profound influence on Pope Francis, whether consciously or not. But one thing is certain: the continuity of the papacy lies not only in the teachings which the pope defends, but occasionally even in the personalities and devotions of the men themselves.

Paul Senz

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Paul Senz is a native of Verboort, Oregon, and a graduate of the University of Portland, where he is currently working towards a Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry.

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