The Italian historian, Roberto de Mattei, has written a highly readable new book that belongs on many American Catholics’ bookshelves. Saint Pius V: The Legendary Pope Who Excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I, Standardized the Mass, and Defeated the Ottoman Empire is an inspiring story of a single pope who left an overwhelming trail of accomplishment despite great obstacles.
Catholics and History
Prof. de Mattei is a fine historian and a loyal son of the Church. Many so-called intellectuals today may doubt that such a combination is possible. Prof. de Mattei answers and challenges them in the same paragraph.
“The Catholic historian is not afraid of the truth.… The historian demonstrates his objectivity and impartiality not by renouncing any expression of his own ideas, but rather when he refuses to deform or manipulate the facts in order to justify a preconceived thesis.”
This book unquestionably meets that high standard.
The Vatican That Pius V Inherited
Pope Saint Pius V spent six years and seven months in the Chair of Saint Peter and inherited a Church in turmoil.
Pius V was also the first pope whose entire reign came after closing the eighteen-year Council of Trent (1545-1563). Pope Paul III called the Council into being to counter the Protestant heresies that had arisen since Martin Luther’s 95 Theses in 1517. Pope Pius IV closed the Council on December 4, 1563, but it fell to Pius V to implement the Council’s teachings.
The Pontiff’s two immediate predecessors—Paul IV (1555-1559) and Pius IV (1559-1565)—represented two poles in the political world of the Vatican. An example of the chaos is that Paul IV accused the man who came in a close second in the Papal election, Giovanni Cardinal Morone, of heresy. The Cardinal was imprisoned at Castel Sant’Angelo and was due for sentencing when Paul IV died.
Pius IV then “rehabilitated” Cardinal Marone, but had two of Paul IV’s nephews, both of whom were cardinals, along with their kinsman, the Duke of Paliano, arrested. The brothers were not as fortunate as Cardinal Morone in escaping tragedy. They were executed on March 6, 1561.
In one of those strange quirks of Church history, Saint Pius V was far more like Paul IV but took Pius’s name as a nod to Pius IV’s supporters.
A Wise and Pious Man Amidst Vipers
Europe echoed the Vatican’s chaotic politics on a broader scale. The 1555 “Peace of Augsburg,” which ended the Thirty Years’ War, was fragile and uncertain.
Few thrones were secure. Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II’s unfortunate policy was to compromise between Catholics and Lutheran factions within the Empire. Elizabeth I of England, daughter of Henry VIII, was advancing Anglicanism and executing Catholics. The Catholic Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, contested the legitimacy of Elizabeth’s rule while dealing with Calvinist resistance in her own realm. Under its fifteen-year-old King, Charles IX, France—ruled by his mother Catherine de’ Medici—endured its religious conflict with the Calvinist Huguenots. Only Spain, under Philip II, was reliably Catholic.
Amidst the corruption of the Renaissance popes and the cut-throat politics of Europe, the piety of Pius V was remarkable.
“St. Francis Borgia himself relates that in his first meeting with the cardinals, Pius V advised them that there were three things that they should never ask of him,…‘the first, if there were things against divine service; the second, if against the Council of Trent; the third, if against the order and good of the Church.’ The Pope added that ‘if someone, by deceiving him or informing him badly, would make him fall into error…, the wrath of God would fall upon him, because he would not have deceived a man, but the Vicar of Christ.’”
Given the challenges that Pius V faced, that piety must have been sorely tested but never broke.
The bulk of the book is devoted to the six-and-a-half years of the papacy. The amount of work that Saint Pius V accomplished in those few years is astonishing. Prof. de Mattei had to relate these accomplishments in thematic chapters. Any attempt to tell the story chronologically would have involved so much movement from one topic to another as to leave any reader’s head spinning.
Thus, one chapter deals with Saint Pius V’s role as the leader of the ongoing Inquisition. Another covers his relationship with Philip II. A third relates the troubled relationships between the Pope and Maximilian, Catherine of France and Elizabeth of England.
The climax of this magnificent book has to be the miraculous victory at Lepanto. Knowing that the battle was coming, Pius inspired Catholics all over Europe to pray the rosary for success against the Turks. Guided by supernatural insight, Pius V initiated celebrations of the victory as soon as the battle ended, even though the official word of the victory would not arrive for weeks. When word did finally come, Pius V instituted the feast of Our Lady of Victory, which is currently celebrated as Our Lady of the Rosary.
The Council of Trent
Two chapters are devoted to the implementation of the Council of Trent. The primary work of the Council had been to reunite Christendom by ending those abuses that contributed to the Protestant spirit of rebellion. The pious Pope had the help of many great saints, as Prof. de Mattei relates.
“If it is true… that ‘the Council of Trent is the reforming council par excellence in the history of the Church,’ then Pope Ghislieri, who carried out these reforms with dispatch and zeal, would thus be the reforming pope par excellence in the entire history of the Church. Pius V,… along with the great saints Philip Neri, Peter Canisius, and Charles Borromeo, infused life into the Tridentine decrees…. And this is the essential characteristic of every true reform: infusing new life into an immutable truth.”
One aspect of this excellent book is mildly confusing. Occasionally, and at random times, Prof. de Mattei refers to a Pope by his family name. So, the book’s subject became Pope Ghislieri, Pope Paul IV was often called Pope Carafa, and Pope Leo X became “the Medici pope.” This point is, however, a mere quibble when placed against the book’s genuine strengths.
Prof. de Mattei provided an excellent conclusion when he summed up Pope Saint Pius V’s luminous life and career.
“Pius V waged a continuous battle against himself first and foremost, in order to seek always and above all else the greater glory of God. The strength with which he fought against the internal enemies of his soul explains the vigor and passion with which he confronted the external enemies of the Church.”
This book’s best quality is that it conveys hope. May God grant that we will one day see such a Pope again!