Life of Pius X - F. A. Forbes

Patriarch of Venice

The last day of the year 1891 was the last day on earth of Cardinal Agostino, Patriarch of Venice. The Bishop of Treviso, Monsignor Apollonio, who was appointed some time later to the vacant see, considering that his state of health justified him in refusing so difficult and responsible a position, humbly submitted his opinion to the Holy See. His plea was accepted, and the Pope resolved to appoint another Venetian prelate, Monsignor Sarto, Bishop of Mantua, of whom there had already been question. Knowing, however, the humility of the Bishop, Cardinal Rampolla took the precaution of warning him that another refusal would greatly grieve the Holy Father. The only course open to Monsignor Sarto was to submit.

The announcement of his nomination in May, 1898, was received with an outburst of joy throughout the Province of Venetia and the diocese of Mantua, a joy which was increased still further by the news that the Patriarch-elect was to be created Cardinal at the next Consistory.

On the 7th of June, accompanied by his secretary, Don Giovanni Bressan, Monsignor Sarto set out for Rome, and on the 15th, in the presence of representatives from Venice, Treviso, Mantua, and Riese, received the Cardinal's hat with the title of San Bernardo delle Terme. The wisdom and modesty of the new Cardinal, added to his singular charm of manner, won him many friends during his stay in Rome.

For sixteen months Cardinal Sarto was unable to take possession of his see; for the Italian Government, having claimed the right to nominate the Patriarch, refused to sanction his appointment; and the municipality of Venice, which was largely anti-clerical, was only too glad of a pretext to show hostility to the Church.

The Cardinal's first visit after his return from Rome was to his mother at Riese. At one of the stations on the way thither he was met by a deputation of his old friends the Tombolani, headed by their parish priest. Quite forgetting in their joy the respect due to a Prince of the Church, the simple peasants rushed at their old rector, shouting vociferously, "Don Giuseppe! Don Giuseppe!" The Cardinal, well pleased with their enthusiasm, only laughed, and greeted his old friends with much affection.

All the bells were ringing in the little village of Riese as he entered it; all the people, young and old, were there to meet him and to escort him, the centre of a laughing, weeping, shouting crowd, to the church. Everyone assisted at Benediction, and when the old friends had been greeted and good wishes given and received, the greatest joy of all was still to come—the meeting in the little home of his childhood, where Margherita had her son at last to herself.

Next morning, after saying Mass, the Cardinal preached to the people, thanking them for their welcome, and speaking of all the precious memories that centered for him round the altar where he had made his First Communion and said his first Mass. The day was spent in receiving visits; there was a kind word of greeting for new friends, and a still kinder word of remembrance for the old.

Early next day, having vested in his scarlet "Cappa magna," Cardinal Sarto went to his mother's room, and, standing beside her bed, showed himself in all the glory of the "sacred purple." Margherita wept with joy; but there were tears of sorrow before night. It was the last day at Riese, and although neither of them knew it, that parting kiss was to be the last on this side of the grave. The old mother clung to her son with a passionate tenderness as he clasped her frail figure in his arms for a last farewell. She was eighty years old, and at that age partings are hard. A few months later the sorrowful news of her death reached the Cardinal, now back at Mantua and busy with his episcopal duties. The joy of the last meeting and the grief of the last parting had been too much for the old mother's heart.

In September, 1894, the Government gave way at last before the growing indignation of the people of Venice, so long deprived of their pastor, and the Exequatur or confirmation of the Papal Bull arrived. A few weeks later Cardinal Sarto pontificated for the last time in the Cathedral of Mantua, and, bidding a loving farewell to the diocese where he had labored so long and so strenuously, set out for Venice.

The difficulties between Church and State in Italy had culminated seven years before in the nomination of Crispi, a man wholly hostile to the Church, as Prime Minister. On the eve of the elections in 1890 his friend Semmi, like himself a freemason and Grand Master of the Italian lodges, had spoken strongly on the necessity of destroying the "Great Enemy." "We have applied the knife to the centre of superstition," he wrote in a wonderful combination of mixed metaphors, "and the very presence of ***** at the head of Government is a guarantee that the Vatican will fall beneath the blows of our vivifying hammer. Let us work with all our strength to scatter its stones, that we may build with them a temple to an emancipated nation. The enemy is the Pope; we must wage a relentless war against him. The Papacy, although but a phantom presiding over ruins, yet reflects a certain glory, waving as it does in face of, and in defiance of the world, the Cross and the 'Summa Theologica.' A miserable crowd still prostrates itself to adore. It must be war to the knife."

And the war had waged relentlessly. Decrees had been passed forbidding religious teaching in the schools; charitable works had been "laicized"; in other words, the goods of the religious confraternities and charitable societies had been confiscated by the State, the revenues of the Bishoprics had been refused to prelates appointed by the Pope, and rights of patronage had been claimed by the Government over many Italian Bishoprics. The result of all this was soon to be seen in a growing materialism in all ranks of society.

"God is driven out of politics by this theory of the separation of Church and State," wrote the new Patriarch in his first letter to his flock. "He is driven out of art by the degrading influence of realism; from the laws by a morality which is guided by the senses alone; from the schools by the abolition of religious instruction; from Christian marriage, now deprived of the grace of the Sacrament; from the poor hut of the peasant, who, groaning under the burden of poverty, is taught to disdain the help of Him who alone can make his hard life bearable; from the palaces of the rich, who are no longer taught to fear the eternal Judge who will one day ask from them an account of their stewardship. We must fight this great error of modern times, the enthronement of man in the place of God. The solution of this, as of all other problems, lies in the Church and her teaching."

On his way to Venice, the Patriarch stopped for a few days at Treviso, where he was received with a tremendous ovation. All the people of the city seemed to have gathered in the great square before the episcopal palace to greet with one voice their old friend, and to receive his benediction. The Cardinal, who at once recognized the significance of this welcome, was deeply moved, and before he blessed the expectant crowd expressed in a few words his surprise and joy to find so many people gathered together on a working day to do him honour. At these words and at the smile which accompanied them, the crowd broke out into tumultuous cheering.

But the rejoicings at Treviso were nothing to those at Venice. The Venetian people were determined to show their new pastor that the representatives of the Government were not the representatives of popular feeling. Amidst the rich decorations which adorned the town, the municipal buildings alone remained untouched; amongst the crowds that gathered to meet the Patriarch, the members of the municipality were conspicuously absent. The people resolved to avenge the insult by an ovation the like of which had never before been seen. As the Patriarch entered the magnificent launch from the Royal Arsenal that had been sent to receive him, the bells of all the towers in the City of the Sea rang out a joyous welcome; from every balcony and bridge came bursts of cheering, while a closely packed and enthusiastic crowd occupied every available space along the route. At the prow of the launch stood the Cardinal in all the splendor of scarlet robes, a noble and manly figure, full of dignity and sweetness, blessing the crowd with the winning smile that was characteristic of him, and surrounded by naval officers in gala uniform.

On the following morning took place, in St. Mark's, the first pontifical function. Having listened graciously to the congratulatory speeches addressed to him, the Cardinal turned to the people, and in the breathless silence that followed, his clear voice rang out to the farthest recesses of the Cathedral which is the glory of Venice.

"I should be ashamed," he said, "to be the object of such honour, did I not know that it is offered, not to my poor person, but to Jesus Christ, whose representative I am, and in whose name I come among you. You wish to show me that you see in me your Bishop, your Father, and your Patriarch, and I am bound to love you in return. When Jesus Christ gave to St. Peter the charge of His sheep and of His lambs, He asked him three times for the 'assurance of his love, thus giving him to understand that love is the greatest necessity for a pastor of souls. From this moment I gather you all into my heart; I love you with a strong and supernatural love, desiring only the good of your souls. For you are all my family priests, citizens great and small, rich and poor. My heart and my love are yours, and from you I ask nothing but the same love in return. My only desire is that you should say of me, 'Our Patriarch is a man of upright intention, one who holds high the banner of our Lord Jesus Christ, who seeks nothing but to defend the truth and to do good.' And since God has raised me, a son of the people, to this high dignity, He will certainly give me the strength and the grace necessary for so great a mission. It is the duty of a Bishop to proclaim God's truth, to interpret it to the people; and I look upon it as a holy duty to speak frankly in its defense. I am ready to make any sacrifice for the salvation of souls. You who have zeal for the things of God, work with me, come to my assistance, and God will give us the grace that is necessary to achieve our ends."

The Venetians were deeply moved; they felt that their new Patriarch was a truly Apostolic man, and the impression only gathered strength as time went on. The doors of the episcopal palace were always open to anyone, rich or poor, who wished to speak to the Patriarch; the troubles of the least of his flock were his own. He threw himself with all his heart into every movement for the bettering of the condition of the poor, settling often, by his tact and zeal, bitter disputes between capital and labor. The municipality was, as we have seen, anti-clerical. He rallied the Catholic forces with such success that within a year the Catholic element prevailed. For he knew the way to obtain his ends; and while throwing into the struggle the whole influence of his forceful personality, he inaugurated throughout the diocese, both before and during the elections, a regular crusade of prayer. Wherever he went, peace and reconciliation followed in his footsteps. "Possessed of much sweetness and charm of manner," wrote one who knew him, "and uniting a certain stateliness and dignity with a graceful address and a delightful sense of humor, he preached the Gospel of personal culture, putting cleanliness next to godliness, and good manners next to good morals, himself setting the example in these things by his refinement and old-world courtesy."

As at Mantua and at Treviso, he insisted strongly on religious instruction for all classes. Ignorance of Christian doctrine, he said, was the great defect of the times, and very many evils sprang from this alone. Many who were learned in secular sciences were deplorably ignorant of the truths of their faith. Preachers were apt to take it too much for granted that their congregations were well instructed, and on this account their sermons bore little fruit.

"There is too much preaching and too little teaching," said the Patriarch; "put aside these flowery and elaborate discourses, and preach to the people plainly and simply on the eternal truths of faith and on the teaching of the Gospel. Think of the good of souls rather than of the impression you are making. The people are thirsting for truth; give them what they need for their souls' health, for this is the first duty of a priest."

He insisted strongly on religious instruction for adults as well as children, but reminded his priests that all these things required study, preparation, and prayer. As nothing pertaining to the dignity of the priesthood was small in his eyes, he insisted that the clergy should be neatly dressed and scrupulously clean. He himself mixed freely with the people, stopping often to talk to those he met in a friendly and familiar fashion. The Venetians, who loved him dearly, would stand and watch him till he disappeared from sight. "There goes our dear Patriarch," they would say, "intent on some good. God bless him and the mother who bore him." His home life in the Patriarchal palace was as simple as ever, and his charities as great. His two sisters and his niece kept house for him there were no servants. His steward had to put him on an allowance, so unmeasured was his almsgiving, and it was said that the episcopal ring of the chief pastor of Venice was more than once in pawn.

"Times are changes," said an old friend who was visiting him at Venice, as the Cardinal pulled out a handsome gold watch from his pocket. "Do you remember the silver one which was always going to the pawnbroker at Tombolo?"

The Patriarch looked ruefully at the watch. "The person who gave it me," he said, laughing, had the unfortunate inspiration to get the Patriarchal arms engraved on the back!"

"I am so sorry to have to send you such a wretched sum," he wrote to a priest in Mantua who had applied to him for money for some charity; "I was poor at Mantua, but here I am a perfect beggar. Take what I send in the same spirit, and forgive me."

The diocesan visitation begun by the Cardinal soon after his arrival in Venice was no small affair, and took several months to accomplish. "We appreciate greatly the zeal and charity of our Patriarch," said the people, "but we are praying that he may sometimes think a little of himself, for such people are precious, and we want to keep him as long as we can." As at Mantua, fie begged that there might be as little pomp and ceremony as possible, and that no extraordinary preparations might be made in the different parishes for his arrival. With quick intuition he saw at a glance exactly what was needed in the way of reform or development, and at the synod which followed showed a perfect knowledge of the requirements of the archdiocese.

The Eucharistic Congress in Venice which took place in August, 1898, was prompted and carried out by the zeal and energy of the Patriarch, who spared no pains to make it a success. Inaugurated as a reparation for the many sacrileges offered to Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar, its aim was to stimulate the faith of the people, and to arouse in them a greater love for this mystery of their faith.

Each parish was to take its part in the celebration, the whole Congress being carefully organized by the Cardinal himself. "The heart of man," he said, "is inconstant in good; it grows cold and languid if from time to time it is not stirred up to action." Conferences were held and missions were preached in many of the Venetian churches to prepare the people for the great event. The bells of all the towers in the city rang out to announce the beginning of the Congress, which opened with a magnificent procession from the Patriarchal palace to St. Mark's. The inaugural address was preached by Cardinal Svampa, Archbishop of Bologna; on the following day the Patriarch himself addressed the people.

"Jesus is our King," he said, "and we delight to honour as our King Him whom the world dishonors and disowns. We, His true subjects, offer our true homage to Christ the King; the intensity of our love shall be greater than the coldness of the world. We meet around the tabernacle where Jesus remains in our midst until the end of time; there faith springs up anew in our hearts, while the fire of His charity—the very fire that He came to cast upon the earth—diffuses itself within us. The object of this Eucharistic Congress is to make reparation to our Lord Jesus Christ for the insults offered to Him in the Blessed Sacrament; to pray that His thoughts may be in our minds, His charity in our institutions, His justice in our laws, His worship in our religion, His life in our lives."

On the afternoon of the third day the procession that ended the Congress was one of the most magnificent of all the magnificent pageants ever seen in the City of the Sea, even in the days when the Doge went in solemn state to wed the Adriatic. Cardinal Svampa carried the monstrance, while before and after him went Cardinals in scarlet, priests and Bishops in cope and mitre, religious Orders, the various confraternities with their banners and insignia, prelates and priests of the Greek, Melchite, and Armenian rites in their gorgeous vestments. "Splendid as a dream," wrote one who was present, "it seemed as if the very Greek saints had stepped out of the mosaics in the Cathedral to be present at the solemn passage of Christ in their midst."

Cardinal Sarto had not been long at Venice before he determined on a thorough reform of Church music. He summoned to his assistance Don Lorenzo Perosi, a young cleric whom he had known at Mantua and who was a skilled musician. Music, said the Patriarch, was intended to excite the faithful to devotion and to help them to pray; the music in vogue did neither. The fearful and wonderful performances of string orchestras, dear to the hearts of many, were banned, as was the use of drums, trumpets, tambourines, and whistles. No instrument but the organ was to be used in the churches, and even that was to be subordinate. The words of the Mass were to be sung to the Gregorian chant with solemnity and dignity, and by men and boys alone. That the change was not acceptable in all quarters was hardly to be wondered at. The operatic efforts of loud-voiced ladies singing the O Salutaris during Mass to the air of the serenade from "Faust," or a Creed that was like the Brigands' Chorus from an opera, still found many admirers.

Nevertheless, when a Mass of Palestrina's was sung, under the leadership of Perosi, for the first time in the Cathedral of St. Mark's, the Venetians realized the difference. "Enchantingly beautiful," they said as they gathered round their Patriarch when all was over. But it was uphill work at first, and Don Lorenzo would have lost heart altogether had it not been for the support and encouragement of his holy patron.

One of the poorest of the island parishes of Venice was Burano, which in ancient times had been famous for its point lace. The Cardinal, whose tender heart was touched at the misery of its inhabitants, determined to revive the industry; but only one old woman remained in the place who knew the art. A benevolent lady who was persuaded to interest herself in the work, got the old woman to teach her, started a school of lace workers, and soon had six hundred girls in training. Clubs were started for young men and boys, not only here, but in many other parishes. There was no difficulty, no misery for which the Patriarch did not try to find a cure. He had the art of giving without offending people whose decent appearance covered a poverty often more bitter in that it had to be hidden. He went one day to see a friend who had fallen on evil times, and who was in dire need of help. "I am so sorry," said the Patriarch, "I have absolutely nothing left, but take this," presenting him with an exquisite carved ivory crucifix which had been given him as a present; "it is valuable, and will realize a good sum."

Although unflinchingly firm in everything that concerned the faith and the rights of the Church, the frank courtesy of the Patriarch and his conciliating spirit kept him always on good terms with the Government. He bade his priests and people respect all lawfully constituted authority, recognizing that "the powers that be are ordained of God." "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's," he would often say. When King Humbert of Italy was assassinated he ordered that a magnificent Requiem should be sung for him in St. Mark's; and when the widowed Queen came to Venice for rest and change of air, he visited and consoled her with the most heartfelt sympathy. "The restoration of society in Christ is the only cure for all the world's evils," he would constantly repeat. "No good is good which is not rooted and founded in Christ." He had the gift of inspiring others and rallying them to his own charitable schemes, filling them with a fire and energy like his own.

The 14th of July, 1902, was a day of grief for Venice. The beautiful Campanile of St. Mark's, which had stood for centuries watching over the glories of the City of the Sea, crumbled and fell in ruins. The universal lamentations were changed, by order of the Patriarch, into thanksgivings that no one had been injured, and that the Cathedral itself had not suffered. The reconstruction of the Campanile was immediately determined on, an undertaking in which not only the Italians but lovers of beauty in all countries of the world took the keenest and most practical interest.

On the 25th of April, 1903, the feast day of the great evangelist and patron saint of Venice, the first stone was laid. The square of St. Mark was a sea of heads; every window and balcony was crowded. The Duke of Turin, a prince of the House of Savoy, was present as the representative of the King, who had contributed generously to the reconstruction fund. The Cardinal in his scarlet robes stood before him. Church and State were face to face, with the memory of all that had passed since the beginning of the Italian Revolution between them. Was conciliation possible? It might have seemed that day that it was that in charity and justice lay the solution. The tact and courtesy of the Cardinal on this occasion, as on so many others, put everybody at ease. The discourse with which lie opened the proceedings won the admiration of all present.

"It is a good and beautiful thing," he said, "for men to ask God's blessing on their work. The genius of man is at its highest when it bows before the Light Eternal. I rejoice, therefore, with you, most noble representatives of Venice, that, faithful interpreters of the public spirit, you have decided that the rebuilding of our beloved Campanile must be inaugurated with a solemn act of religious worship. I rejoice that you have shown yourselves worthy sons of your Venetian forefathers, who, knowing well that 'unless the Lord build the house, their labor is in vain that build it,' began no enterprise without asking God's blessing and the protection of His Virgin Mother in their work." After having shown that all the glory of medieval Venice sprang from her faith and her religion, he turned to the Duke of Turin and the other illustrious guests who were there, with a gracious word of thanks for their presence. "A man of personal fascination and splendid presence," wrote a member of the French Government who was at the ceremony, "with handsome open face and strong clear cut features, softened by eyes in which shines the light of perpetual youth. Nothing proud about him, nothing obsequious, his manner with the Duke of Turin was perfect, that of a man who is completely at his ease."

Prince of the Church as he was, he was always ready to fulfill the duties of a simple parish priest. He would carry Holy Communion to the sick, hear confessions, give the spiritual exercises in the churches of the diocese, and v4it the prisons, the hospitals, and the reformatories, preaching to their inmates and comforting all their sorrows. The religious Orders were amongst the most favored of his children; he was always ready to visit them on their feast days, and loved and esteemed their work for souls. Those whose patrimonies had been confiscated by the State were succored by his charity. Both saint and sinner found in him a kindly strength and simple goodness which set them at their ease at once. The very sight of his face was a welcome; there was no affectation of holiness or austerity which might repel or frighten the less perfect; no one could feel stiff or awkward in his presence, all shyness and reserve gave way before his genial manner.

An intimate friend of the Cardinal's, who was staying with him at the episcopal palace, asked one day if he might say Mass at an early hour next morning, as he had to catch a train. "Why not?" was the answer, "I will see that all is ready for you."

What was the astonishment of the priest when he went to the private chapel of the Patriarch at an early hour to find his illustrious host himself preparing everything for the Mass.

"But who will serve?" asked the celebrant. "I," answered the Cardinal very simply.

"Oh, Eminence!" protested his guest, quite aghast at the suggestion.

"What!" exclaimed the Patriarch smiling, "do you imagine that a Prelate of my rank does not know how to serve Mass? A fine idea you have of the Princes of the Church!"

Cardinal Sarto


There was nothing to do but to submit, and the Cardinal, having helped his friend to vest, served his Mass like the simplest acolyte. He hated ostentation of any kind and would often travel about the country incognito. He was going one day to a ceremony at the convent of the Sisters of Charity at Crespano, when feeling sure that at Bassano, where he had to get out, there would be an ovation in his honour, he wrote to a friend telling him that two Venetian priests who were going to Crespano and who did not know the country would be very glad if a carriage could be sent to meet them at the station. The train arrived, and the two priests made their way to a ramshackle little carriage which was standing outside the station. The friend, who was waiting to do the honors to the Cardinal's priests, came forward eagerly, and was just about to greet the elder of the two when he recognized the Patriarch. "Your Eminence!" he stammered, utterly taken aback; but the Cardinal making the sign of the Cross on his lips in warning, jumped into the carriage, followed by his companion, and drove away. Little did he guess that the time was close at hand when his desire to be unnoticed could nevermore be fulfilled, when he who loved to take the lowest place was to be obliged to take the highest in the world.