The Pope Who Fired the Papal Jester

Pope Pius V knew he had to remove the joker before laying his cards on the table

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), “The Jester”
John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), “The Jester” (photo: Public Domain)

It might sound ridiculous, but jesters used to be so common that nearly every powerful and important person had one. And I mean it: pretty much everyone. Kings and princes? Of course. Bishops? Yes. Cardinals? Yup.

But did the pope have a jester? It might sound ridiculous, but yes, the pope had a jester.

The thing you need to know is that jesters weren’t necessarily clowns. They were responsible for entertainment of every sort in the Renaissance period. Just like artists of the time were expected to be masters of sculpture, painting, architecture and even music writing, jesters were expected to be master entertainers. This included but wasn’t limited to storytelling, athletics, acrobatics, singing and acting. And yes, they knew how to juggle, occasionally wore silly costumes, and told jokes. Their trade was expendable, but also respected. So when dignitaries and nobility visited Rome to see the Supreme Pontiff, a little bit of entertainment was expected.

One pope after another of the Renaissance continued this legacy until 1566. Antonio Ghislieri was shrewd and strict as the Grand Inquisitor, the highest office and master of canon law, dogma and theology. He was also a deeply religious and pious Dominican priest who believed that seriousness and joy were co-habitants of all persons who seek and find holiness.

True as his convictions, the Catholic Church of the mid-16th century could hardly be taken less seriously. Dominated by a reputation of scandal after scandal, crooked morals, laxity and hypocrisy, the leaders of the time had little room for error in the eyes of good and faithful Christians, and even less among the public at large. So within the twilight days of his pontificate, Pius V made his expectations known with several sweeping reforms, ridding the papal palace of unnecessary ornate décor, and driving out those who sought Rome as a political refuge. Among these actions, he also got rid of the papal jester.

The popes before him weren’t all bad, but Pius V stands out at the one who said “enough.” As somewhat of an outsider with the politics-as-usual in Rome, he had a keen sense of leadership, an intense desire for holiness in the Church, and an uncanny will for reform. In just six short years as pope, he accomplished more than most would with a lifetime in the Chair of Peter.

He brought liturgy. A decree of the Council of Trent was to form a new Mass which emphasized the need for sameness throughout the entire Latin Rite. The new Mass, which is appropriately still referred to as the Tridentine Mass, was revised and issued in 1570 by the pope. It is still used across the world today. He also commissioned the first post-Trent catechism, and a revision to the Divine Office, both of which are still in use today.

He brought Thomism. As a Dominican, he certainly had a love for the great Thomas Aquinas, and thus declared him as the fifth Latin Doctor of the Church. In doing this, he commissioned several translations of Thomas’ works and curricula to study the Angelic Doctor. He transformed the way theology was studied in Rome and was the chief protagonist to found the College of Saint Thomas in 1577, which became the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Rome, now known simply as the Angelicum.

He brought the Rosary. Though the Rosary was prayed through nearly every corner of Christianity before Ghislieri became pope, there was not a standard, recognized way to pray it. As a Dominican, Pius V once again demonstrated his love for his Order and faith when he published, perhaps the most important bull of the period, Consueverunt Romani Pontifices which means “According to Roman Pontiffs.” By using this short bull, Pius V standardized the Rosary throughout Christendom, and this form is the current form which all Christians pray it, minus the prayer of Fatima.

He brought discipline. He forbade horse racing in St. Peter’s Square. He required all clerics to dress the same. He forced bishops to return to their respective diocese, many of which had never stepped foot in their own cathedral. He demonstrated his own discipline through a humble outfit, detached from nearly every pope before him: a white Dominican cassock, which was worn by every pope since. And of course, he kicked out the papal jester.

I think it’s this last one that really shows us who he was: he was serious, maybe even at time he was severe. He never took “no” for an answer and if he needed to do something himself, he did. All the while, though many hated him for the change he represented, which understandably made many uncomfortable, he became one of the most respected popes of his time. He had bearing, and that bearing impressed itself upon the the way he led his flock, practiced his faith and studied his religion. In six short years, he revived the seriousness of the Chair of St. Peter.

That was who he was, and removing the papal jester was also telling of what it takes to reform: it starts with the small things. Pope Pius V accomplished so many huge feats: the missal, the mass, the catechism, education, and even saved the entire Christian West in the Battle of Lepanto, but it started with small things, like removing distractions. When we’re seeking true reform, especially the reform of our souls, we must take note of the small things, the distractions that are disabling us from moving forward in our walk with Christ.


For more on these Saint Pius V and others who will help you deepen your faith and practice daily conversion, check out my new book Reform Yourself! How to Pray, Find Peace, and Grow in Faith with the Saints of the Counter-Reformation, available now at Catholic Answers Press.

Duccio’s ‘Pentecost’ (1308)

Pray the Pentecost Novena

The prayer recalls and invites Catholics to participate in the nine days that the Blessed Virgin Mary and the apostles spent in prayer after Christ ascended into heaven.