Pope St. Pius V: Dominican Reformer

The feast of St. Pius V is celebrated April 30, the day before the anniversary of his death

Palma il Giovane (1548/50-1628), “Portrait of Pope Pius V”
Palma il Giovane (1548/50-1628), “Portrait of Pope Pius V” (photo: Public Domain)

There have been twelve popes named Pius; the first (Pope Saint Pius I) in the second century; the latest (Pope Pius XII) reigning from 1939 to 1958. Popes named Pius have seen the Church through tumultuous times: Pope Pius VII, for example, whose cause for canonization was promoted by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, endured imprisonment and exile at the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte and worked for the freedom of the Church in France after the Revolution and Reign of Terror. Pope (Venerable) Pius XII served during World War II, doing all he could to aid civilians affected by the war, especially leading efforts to save Jews in Italy and Rome, descrying the Nazi regime’s campaigns against non-Aryans, including the Polish Catholics.

One of the Reformation-era popes, Pope St. Pius V faced great challenges and opportunities during his six-year reign. He took on the reform programs of the Council of Trent, used diplomatic and other strategies to halt the spread of Protestantism, and worked to unite Christian Europe against attacks by the Ottoman Turks. Pius was prayerful, ascetic, charitable to the poor, and concerned for the well-being of the people of Rome. His reforms were not always popular with the Romans, but he was steadfast and consistent.


The Sixteenth Century Reformer

Pope St. Pius V, who was born Antonio Ghislieri on January 17, 1504, reigned as pope from January 7, 1566 (with the installation ceremony on his birthday) to May 1, 1572. He was a Dominican friar before being appointed bishop and then cardinal, and succeeded Pope Pius IV, who had convened the last session of the Council of Trent. Just as he had as a leader of the Dominicans and in his previous service as bishop in different Italian dioceses, Pius V proved himself dedicated to the implementation of reform throughout the Church. He was absolutely opposed to nepotism, the common papal practice of showing favor to family and friends, and just as dedicated to eliminating the vice of simony, selling church offices.

During Pius V’s pontificate, the Catechism of the Council of Trent was published and also revised editions of the Roman Missal and Breviary. The Missal of 1570, with slight revisions, remained the form of the Mass in the Roman Rite until the Novus Ordo reforms during the pontificate of Pope Paul VI in 1969-1970.

Pope St. Pius V implemented other reforms called for by the Council of Trent: bishops were required to be resident in their dioceses and make regular visits to parishes; religious friars and nuns were to remain in their cloister according to their orders’ rules; priests were to be celibate, chaste, and holy. Pius reflected these standards in his own life: he practiced great austerities and gave alms to the poor.

He improved the delivery of fresh water throughout Rome to even the poorest parts of the city. He forbad horse racing in St. Peter’s Square and condemned bullfighting and other similar sports as “cruel and base spectacles of the devil and not of man” in the Papal Bull “De Salute Gregis Dominici” (“On the welfare of the Lord’s flock”).


The Battle of Lepanto and England

He saw the great danger the Ottoman Turks posed to the Christian world, divided as it was, and he organized the Holy League to fight the Turks in the great battle of Lepanto. Pius urged Catholics to pray the Rosary and ask the Blessed Virgin Mary’s intercession for the victory of the Holy League. The Turks had savagely conquered the Venetian outpost of Famagusta on the island of Cyprus. After promising safe-conduct when the Venetians surrendered, the Turks massacred the Christian citizens and flayed alive the commander of the garrison, Marco Antonio Bragadin. The Holy League was formed to prevent such atrocities by the Turks throughout the Mediterranean.

Led by Don John of Austria, the illegitimate son of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, the Holy League defeated the Turks on October 7, 1571. Pius V instituted the feast of Our Lady of Victory to commemorate the Holy League’s success at Lepanto. In 1960, Pope St. John XXIII changed the name of the feast (called the Feast of the Holy Rosary by Pope Gregory XIII in 1573) to the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. Pope Pius continued to work for unity among Catholic nations against attacks by the Ottoman Empire.

Through reforming the Church and strengthening her discipline, Pius V also hoped to prevent the spread of Protestantism and to increase the regrowth of Catholicism throughout Europe. In England there appeared to be an opportunity for the overthrow of Elizabeth I whose government had established the Anglican Church as the national church, outlawing the celebration of the Catholic Mass and other sacraments, and requiring attendance at Anglican services on Sunday, with fines and imprisonment to enforce conformity.

Two northern Catholic earls, Thomas Percy of Northumberland and Charles Neville of Westmorland, led a rebellion against Elizabeth I in 1569, with common folk and other landowners hoping for a return to Catholicism. The rebels even adopted the great symbol of the Pilgrimage of Grace during Henry VIII’s reign, the banner of the Five Wounds of Christ, but the rebels were defeated. Percy was beheaded, Neville went into exile, and martial law was imposed.

The rebels had appealed to Pope Pius for support and he issued a Papal Bull, Regnans in Excelsis (“Reigning on High”) which excommunicated Elizabeth and encouraged Catholics to rebel against their queen, who had been baptized a Catholic but otherwise showed herself a committed,  if idiosyncratic, Protestant. The result of the Papal Bull—which came out in 1570 after the rebellion had been put down—was that it was almost impossible for a Catholic to protest loyalty to his monarch if he remained true to his faith. His successor, Pope Gregory XIII eventually toned down the rebellious rhetoric, but Catholics in England and the priests who returned to England to serve them were all regarded as potential, if not actual, traitors throughout Elizabeth I’s reign.

As a true Dominican, Pius had proclaimed St. Thomas Aquinas a Doctor of the Church in 1567 and commissioned the first uniform edition of the great Scholastic theologian’s works. It was published in 1570 at the university of the Dominican order in Rome at Santa Maria supra Minerva, which eventually became the Angelicum or the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas.

Pope Pius V died on May 1, 1572; he is buried in the Sistine Chapel of the Basilica of St. Mary Major. Pope Pius was beatified in 1672 by Pope Clement X and canonized in 1712 by Pope Clement XI. His feast is celebrated on April 30, the day before the anniversary of his death, since the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker is on May 1.

The Collect for his feast reflects Pope St. Pius V’s reforming efforts during his brief pontificate: O God, who in your providence raised up Pope Saint Pius the Fifth in your Church that the faith might be safeguarded and more fitting worship be offered to you, grant, through his intercession, that we may participate in your mysteries with lively faith and fruitful charity. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

This article originally appeared April 30, 2018, at the Register.