Pope St. Pius V (1504-1572)

People who do not know anything else about Pope Pius V are quite apt to remember him as the Pope of the Rosary, recalling his remarkable connection with the Battle of Lepanto.

Michael Ghislieri was born in 1504, in the tiny village of Bosco. His parents were poor and could not educate their alert little boy, who seemed far too talented to spend his life herding sheep. One day, as he was minding his father’s small flock, two Dominicans came along the road and fell into conversation with him. Recognizing immediately that he was both virtuous and intelligent, they obtained permission from his parents to take the child with them and educate him. He left home at the age of twelve and did not return until his ordination, many years later.

After a preliminary course of studies, he received the Dominican habit and, as a novice, was sent to Lombardy. Here, for the first time, he met the wellorganized forces of heresy which he was to combat so successfully in later life. In 1528, he went home for his first Mass, and ha found that Bosco had been razed by the French. There was nothing left to tell him if his parents were living or dead. He finally found them, however, in a nearby town. After he had said Mass, he returned to a career that would keep him far from home for the rest of his life.

First as novice master, then as prior of several convents, Michael proved to be a wise and charitable administrator. He was made inquisitor at Como, where many of his religious brethren had died as martyrs to the heretics. By the time of Michael’s appointment there, the heretics’ chief weapon was the printed word; they smuggled books in from Switzerland, causing untold harm by spreading them in the North of Italy. The new inquisitor set himself to fight this wicked traffic, and it was not the fault of the heretics that he did not follow his brethren to martyrdom. They ambushed him several times and laid a number of complicated plots to kill him, but only succeeded in making him determined to explain the situation more fully to the pope in Rome.

He arrived in Rome on Christmas Eve, tired, cold and hungry, and here it was not the heretics that caused him pain, but his own brethren. The prior at Santa Sabina saw fit to be sarcastic and inhospitable to the unimportant looking friar, who said he was from Lombardy. The pope knew very well who he was, however, and immediately gave him the commission of working with the heretics in the Roman prisons.

He was a true father to these unfortunates, and he brought many of them back to the faith. One of his most appealing converts was a young Franciscan, a converted Jew of a wealthy family, who had lapsed into heresy through pride in his writing. Michael proceeded to straighten out his thinking, to give him the Dominican habit, and to assure him of his personal patronage, thus securing for the Church a splendid Scripture scholar and writer. Michael was made bishop, then cardinal, and he continued, insofar as possible, to observe the Dominican rule.

In 1566, when the papal chair was vacant, the cardinals, chiefly through the influence of St. Charles Borromeo, elected Cardinal Ghislieri pope. With great grief, he accepted the office and chose the name Pius V. He began his reign by distributing to the poor of the city the money that he should by tradition have spent for a banquet. When someone criticized this, he observed that God would judge us more on our charity to the poor than on our good manners to the rich. Such an attitude was bound to make enemies in high places, but it endeared him to the poor, and it gave right thinking men the hope that here was a man of integrity, and one who could help to reform the clergy and make a firm stand against the Lutheran heresy.

There were massive problems of immediate urgency during the brief reign of Pius V. From within, the peace of the Church was disturbed by the several heresies of Luther, Calvin, and the Lombards, and by the need for clergy reform. In addition, England was tottering on the brink of a break with Rome. The Netherlands were trying to break away from Spain and had embraced Protestantism. The missions across the sea needed attention. And all through the Mediterranean countries, the Turk was ravaging Christian cities, creeping closer to world conquest. In the six years of his reign, Pope Pius V had to deal with all these questions any one of which was enough to occupy his entire time.

The unfortunate Mary Queen of Scots enjoyed the sympathy and encouragement of the pope. He sent encouraging letters to her, and once, at a time when no priest was allowed to go near her, he granted her special permission to receive Holy Communion by sending her a tiny pyx that contained consecrated Hosts. It was he who finally had to pronounce excommunication on Elizabeth of England, after he had given her every possible chance of repentance.

He encouraged the new society founded by St. Ignatius and established the Jesuits in the Gregorian University. He consecrated three Jesuit bishops for India, gave St. Francis Borgia his greatest cooperation, and helped to finance missionaries to China and Japan. He built the church of Our Lady of the Angels for the Franciscans and helped St. Philip Neri in his establishment of the Oratory. Probably the act for which he will be longest remembered is his leadership at the time of the Battle of Lepanto.

In 1565, the Knights of St. John defended Malta against a tremendous attack by the Turkish fleet and lost nearly every fighting man in the fortress. It was the pope who sent encouragement and money with which to rebuild their battered city. The pope called for a crusade among the Christian nations and appointed a leader who would be acceptable to all. He ordered the Forty Hours Devotion to be held in Rome, and he encouraged all to say the Rosary. When the Christian fleet sailed out to meet the enemy, every man on board had received the sacraments, and all were saying the Rosary. The fleet was small, and numerically it was no match for the Turkish fleet, which so far had never met defeat. They met in the Bay of Lepanto on Sunday morning, October the seventh. After a day of bitter fighting, and, on the part of the Christians, miraculous help, the Turkish fleet what was left of it fled in disgrace, broken and defeated, its power crushed forever.

Before the victorious fleet returned to Rome, the pope had had knowledge of the victory through miraculous means. He proclaimed a period of thanksgiving; he placed the invocation “Mary, Help of Christians” in the Litany of Loreto and established the feast in commemoration of the victory. It was almost the last act of a momentous career. He died at Easter time, and he was enrolled in the calendar of the saints in 1712.

(Source : Dorcy, Marie Jean. St. Dominic’s Family. Tan Books and Publishers, 1983)