In the village of Riese in the Venetian plains was born on the 2nd of June, 1835, a child who was destined to leave his mark on the world's history.
Giuseppe[*] Melchior Sarto was the eldest of the eight surviving children of Giovanni Battista Sarto, the municipal messenger and postman of Riese, and his wife Margherita. They were poor people, and it was difficult sometimes to make both ends meet. The daily fare was hard and scanty, and the future pope was clothed, as an Italian biographer puts it, "as God willed." But both Giovanni Battista and his wife came of a hard-working, God-fearing stock, who could endure manfully and suffer patiently, and who taught their children to do the same.
[*] Joseph, Beppo, Beppino, Bepi and Beppe are all diminutives of the same name. "Sarto" is the English "Taylor."
Little Bepi was remarkable both for his intelligence and for his restless activity. The village schoolmaster, who at once singled him out as a pupil worth cultivating, was, we are told, not infrequently obliged to use means more persuasive than agreeable to calm his vivacity. Indeed, the seraphic element in Bepi seems to have been considerably leavened by that of the human boy. "That little rascal!" exclaimed an old inhabitant of Riese when he heard of Cardinal Sarto's elevation to the papacy, "Many a cherry of mine has found its way down his throat!"
It was not long before Bepi had mastered the rudiments of reading and writing, which were all that the village school could offer. He became an efficient server at Mass, and such was his influence over his companions that at the age of ten he was appointed leader of the somewhat unruly band of acolytes who served in the village church. The young master of ceremonies proved himself perfectly equal to the occasion. There was such a serene good temper and such a merry wit behind the somewhat drastic methods of Bepi that his authority was irresistible and unquestioned.
To most boys who serve daily at the altar the thought of the priestly life will sooner or later suggest itself; to some it comes as an overwhelming call. Giuseppe's vocation seems to have grown up with him, to have been, from his earliest years, the very centre of his life. About half a mile beyond Riese stands a chapel dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, containing a statue known as the Madonna delle Cendrole. Here young Bepi loved to come and pray, pouring out his joys and sorrows at the feet of the Mother of Christ, and perhaps she was the first confidant of his desire to consecrate his life to God. Certainly this sanctuary was especially dear to him in after-life, as one round which clung the happiest memories of his childhood.
At twelve years old the boy made his first communion. Did he think the time was long in coming, and was it the memory of the desire of his own childish heart that moved him in after years to shorten the time of waiting for the children of the Catholic world?
Anything that tended to the knowledge of God seemed to have an irresistible fascination for Bepi. Never was he known to miss the classes where the parish priest, Don Tito Fusarini, and his curate, Don Luigi Orazio, taught Christian doctrine to the children of the parish. So quick was his intelligence and so remarkable his aptitude that Don Luigi, who at the time was teaching Latin to his own younger brother, took Bepi also as pupil. The boy's progress soon convinced his tutor that he had the makings of a scholar, and the two priests determined to prepare him for the grammar school at Castelfranco.
Distant about four miles from Riese, Castelfranco, with its medieval and romantic atmosphere, its ancient fortress and picturesquely crowded market-place, is not the least attractive of the old Venetian cities. Here, in 1447, was born Giorgione, and here, in the beautiful old cathedral, is to be seen one of his most famous Madonnas. On either side of the Virgin Mother, seated on a throne with the Divine Child in her arms, stand St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Liberalis, the patron saint of Treviso, a young knight in armour. Many a time must the boy Giuseppe have slipped into the quiet cathedral to pray before the Madonna. Did he ask for the strength of the warrior and the humility of the friar, to be loving like the Christ and pure like His Mother? Those who knew him in after-life could bear witness that these gifts were his.
Day after day, in all weathers, the boy tramped the four miles into Castelfranco, his shoes slung over his shoulder, and a piece of bread or a lump of polenta in his pocket. In the fourth and last year of Giuseppe's school life he was joined by his brother Angelo, and as the financial affairs of their father had slightly improved, the two brothers were promoted to a rather ramshackle donkey-cart.
The day's work was far from over when the lads came home from school. There was plenty to be done in the house and outside it. Both the cow and the donkey must be attended to; there was work in the garden and work in the fields. It was Bepi's delight to help his mother in the care of the house, and to look after his baby brothers and sisters, that she might have a little sorely needed rest. His merry nature and thoughtful unselfishness made him a general favourite, while the younger members of the family looked up to him almost as much as to their parents.
From the beginning of his first year at Castelfranco Giuseppe Sarto had shown himself a hard-working and brilliant pupil, qualities which do not always go together, At the end of his fourth year, in the examinations held at the diocesan seminary of Treviso, he came out first in every subject. The two priests of Riese were justly proud of their scholar, and dreamed of great things in the future. Education, however, costs money; and the Sarto family were not only poor, but had eight children to provide for. That Bepi had a vocation to the priesthood was evident to everyone who had had to do with him. The next step was obviously the seminary; but who was to pay the expenses? The stipend of an Italian parish priest leaves no margin for such undertakings. Don Tito Fusarini therefore went to Canon Casagrande, prefect of studies at the seminary, who had examined the boys of Castelfranco; he would surely interest himself in the brilliant youngster who had passed with honour in every subject.
Now it happened that the patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Jacopo Monico, was himself the son of a peasant, and a child of that very village of Riese. Distinguished no less for his love of letters than for his zeal for religion, it belonged to him to name the few students who were entitled to a free scholarship at the seminary of Padua. That his heart would be touched at the thought of his young fellow townsman, like himself a child of the people, and unable to continue his priestly education for lack of means, was a likely surmise. Don Tito applied to Canon Casagrande, begging him to plead Giuseppe's cause with the patriarch, a request which met with a prompt and hearty assent.
At Riese all was suspense and hope. The postman was a man of firm faith, whose trust in God had never failed him; Margherita prayed unceasingly. As to Bepi his whole future lay in the balance; the dearest hopes of his heart depended on the patriarch's answer. At last the letter arrived. Canon Casagrande announced to Don Fusarini that Giuseppe Sarto had been proposed and accepted as a student at the seminary of Padua, and that the patriarch had himself written to the bishop of the diocese recommending young Sarto to his care.
Giuseppe's joy was not unmixed with sorrow at the thought of leaving for the first time the humble village home with all its dear associations. In the dusk of an early November morning the fifteen-year-old boy packed his few belongings into the country cart, in those days the only means of conveyance for the poor, and, bravely choking back the tears that could hardly be repressed, bade farewell to his family.
If the medieval charm of Castelfranco had influenced the young student so profoundly, there was enough and to spare in the city of Padua to satisfy his love of beauty. Famous throughout the world is the basilica of Il Santo, built in the thirteenth century, and dedicated in honour of the great St. Antony. Sculptures by Donatello, bas-reliefs by Lombardi and pictures by Mantegna, Veronese and Giotto adorn its walls. The cathedral, partly destroyed in the twelfth century, was rebuilt by Michelangelo. The university, founded in the thirteenth century, and counting among its students such men as Vittorino da Feltre, the great educator, and Giovanni da Ravenna, the friend of Petrarch, was famous throughout the Middle Ages for its schools of medicine and of law.
The seminary, founded in 1577 and greatly enlarged a century later, boasts a handsome church and a noble library rich in precious manuscripts. It was probably the first library that Bepi had seen, certainly the first of which he had had the freedom, and one can imagine the delight of the young student as he wandered through its lofty halls, and realized that its treasures were henceforward part of the endowment of the new life that was now his.
The intelligence and cheery good-humour of Giuseppe, joined to the charm of manner that seems to have been his from childhood, soon made him a general favourite both with boys and masters. "His mind is quick," wrote one of the latter to Don Pietro Jacuzzi, who had succeeded Don Orazio as curate of Riese and was a firm friend of Bepi's, "his will strong and mature, his industry remarkable." The somewhat strict discipline of the seminary presented no difficulties to a boy who had all his life been accustomed to self-denial; a willing and intelligent submission to authority was indeed a characteristic of Giuseppe Sarto throughout his life. "In order to command," he was to say hereafter as pope, "it is necessary to have learned to obey."
At the end of his first year at Padua, Giuseppe was first in all his classes. The home-coming to Riese was an unclouded joy, both to the young seminarist and to his family. The holidays were spent in the company of the friends of his childhood in the country that he loved. To Don Jacuzzi and Don Fusarini he was as a beloved son, and much of his time was spent either at the presbytery or in long rambles with the good curate. Neither could studies be altogether neglected, although it was holiday time; and the autumn days passed quickly enough.
Back again at Padua, Giuseppe set to work vigorously, without a presentiment of the sorrow that was so soon to overcloud his happiness. In the month of May his father died after a few days' illness, leaving his wife and large family in very straitened circumstances. The thought of the struggle which his mother was waging against poverty lay like a weight upon Giuseppe's heart. He was the eldest of the family and would have come to her assistance, but not for worlds would the good Margherita have allowed her son to give up his priestly career. She was full of courage, and the other boys were growing up; they would soon be able to help to support the family. A second grief followed upon the first. Don Tito Fusarini, who had been like a second father to Bepi, and whose failing health had caused him for some time past to rely more and more upon the devotedness of his curate, was at last obliged to give up his work at Riese.
Don Pietro Jacuzzi, who succeeded him as rector, had been, from the day of his arrival in the village, Giuseppe's firm friend and chief adviser in all his boyish difficulties. The lad looked up to him as the model of everything that a priest should be, and corresponded with him continually from Padua. To him he owed the love and the knowledge of music that was to prove so valuable in after years, for had he not assisted at the transformation that had taken place in the village choir under the able tuition of Don Pietro? He had been witness, too, of the rector's unselfish and untiring devotion to his priestly duties which had won him the love and reverence of his parishioners; but within a year Giuseppe was to lose this second friend also. Don Pietro was transferred to Vascon, to the grief of the people of Riese.
When Giuseppe came home for the autumn holidays in 1853 the fullness of his loss became clear to him; Riese was hardly Riese without Don Tito and Don Pietro. The new parish priest, whose somewhat morose character formed a striking contrast to the genial kindliness of his two predecessors, was not popular. He did not like sick calls in the night, and told his parishioners so plainly from the pulpit. But sickness and death have a knack of not considering the convenience of the parish priest, or indeed of anybody else; and of this the inhabitants of Riese were fully aware.
By his very position as a church student Giuseppe was bound to be on friendly terms with the presbytery. On the other hand, mixing as he did with the people of the place, he could not avoid hearing some severe criticisms of their pastor. While forced to admit to himself that the methods of the new arrival were a little singular, the boy's loyal and upright nature forbade him to discuss matters with his friends. In this difficult and awkward position the lad of seventeen showed a tact and discernment which would have been admirable in a man of experience, "These holidays have been perfectly miserable," he wrote to Don Jacuzzi, who had learnt from other correspondents how things were going on; "I shut myself up in the house as much as I can and try when visiting the members of my family to keep off dangerous subjects."
"No greater grief than to remember days
Of joy when sorrow is at hand,"
he quotes, for he knew his Dante well. "Even the singing has gone down. I long for my little room at the seminary and the quiet life of study."
In 1856 Giuseppe distinguished himself more than ever, He had now only two years more to spend at the seminary. His brilliant successes as a student left him modest and humble as before, whilst his cheery kindliness and sympathy made him a powerful influence for good amongst his young companions. Such was the trust reposed in him by his superiors that he had for long been prefect of discipline in the general study room. "My masters call me 'Giubilato'," he wrote to Don Pietro. "I wish I could do more to show my gratitude for their kindness." Nevertheless he greatly appreciated the private room allotted to him during his last two years at Padua. "Here I read and work," he wrote to the same dear friend, "and prepare myself for the life of solitude and study that will be mine as a priest." His favourite studies were the Bible and the Fathers of the Church. The pastoral letters and papal encyclicals of later years bear witness to the fact that this predilection lasted throughout his life.
His knowledge and love of music had obtained for him the direction of the seminary choir. "I have worked so hard at the music for the feast of St. Aloysius," he wrote in the June of 1857, "that I am fairly dried up."
On the 27th of February of the same year he was ordained subdeacon in the cathedral of Treviso, and on the feast of the Sacred Heart went to Riese to preach. "Last Sunday I went to Riese to give a little discourse on the Sacred Heart," he writes to Don Pietro. He does not mention that the little discourse was so striking and so eloquent that the enthusiasm of the congregation knew no bounds.
At the end of August, 1858, Giuseppe Sarto's seminary life was over. As he was only twenty-three, and the canonical age for ordination is twenty-four, the Bishop of Treviso wrote to Rome to obtain a dispensation. The young cleric had finished his last year as he had finished his first, with honours in every subject. The record of his triumphal progress is still to be seen in the books of the seminary of Padua, the professors united in praising the qualities of his character no less than those of his intellect. In September the dispensation arrived, and with it the day so long desired, when Giuseppe Sarto was to be for ever consecrated to the service of God. The Bishop of Treviso was then at Castelfranco, and it was here that the ordination was to take place.
An autumn mist lay like a veil over the familiar landscape as the young man drove along the road which led from Riese to Castelfranco. The horse trotted swiftly, yet the way had never seemed so long. How often had he tramped it in the old days through dust and mud and snow, barefoot to save the shoes that were such a heavy item of expense in the Sarto family. And it was the thought of the day which at last had dawned, a day that seemed then so far away and so impossible, which had been the inspiration and the strength of that life of hardships, making everything easy to bear. The supreme happiness that now possessed him blotted out all the past. The first glimpse of the ivied walls of Castelfranco made his heart beat almost to suffocation. "To-day I shall be a priest," was the one thought that possessed him; and when, a little later, he knelt at the altar of the cathedral where he had so often prayed as a child, to receive the sacred laying-on of hands, it seemed to him as if earth had nothing more to give.
On the following day the newly-made priest sang his first Mass in the parish church of Riese. Who shall describe the joy of his mother as that beloved voice, clear and resonant as it remained even to old age, yet tremulous with the joy and fear of the moment, pronounced the words of the great Mystery? The Mass ended, the congregation flocked to kiss the hands of the young priest whom they had known and loved from childhood—hands that had touched to-day for the first time the Body of the Lord. To say that it was a feast day in Riese but feebly expresses the general jubilation.
A few days later Don Giuseppe received a letter announcing his destination. The Bishop of Treviso had appointed him curate to Don Antonio Costantini, the parish priest of Tombolo.