As a young parish priest at Salzano, Giuseppe Sarto during the cholera epidemic of 1873 had been the stay and comfort of his people. Consoling the grief-stricken, nursing the sick, burying the dead, utterly regardless of his own safety, his one thought had been for his suffering parishioners. This compassion for every kind of pain or sorrow was characteristic of him throughout his life. Not without reason was it said that he had "the greatest heart of any man alive." The very sight of suffering moved him to tears; there was no trouble of body or soul that failed to awaken his sympathy.
While patriarch of Venice he was walking one day through one of the poorest quarters of the city when suddenly from a house at the end of a mean street arose the piercing cries of a child who was being cruelly beaten by its mother. The cardinal strode down the street and pulled the bell vigorously. A window opened overhead and from it appeared the head of a. woman, a regular virago, crimson with fury "Stop beating that child at once!" was the indignant mandate. The woman, astounded at seeing the patriarch standing on her doorstep, shut the window in confusion. For some time there was no more beating.
Anything like tyranny roused his instant indignation. When reports too circumstantial to be doubted reached him about the condition of certain Indian tribes in South America and of the atrocious treatment to which they were forced to submit, the bishops of the country were exhorted to do their utmost to put an end to what was nothing less than a cruel slavery. "Every day I receive fresh news of the persecution in Asia Minor and in Macedonia," he said one day sorrowfully at a private audience. "How many poor Christians are massacred! What cowardice and what barbarity are shown by this Sultan, who trembles with fright and begs that he may not be put to death, who is always whining 'I have never done anyone any harm!' He had in his palace a secret room in which he himself killed his victims, where only a week ago he put a young girl to death!" These were some of the sorrows that wrung the heart of him "who bore the care of all the churches."
All the calamities that befell the world awakened his sympathy, earthquakes, floods, fires, railway accidents . . . . The sufferers were comforted not only with kind words but with material help. Even the papers least favourable to the Church noticed his personal fatherly interest in the joys and sorrows of his people. His appeal to the charity of Catholics on the occasion of the Calabrian earthquake in 1908, which in a few moments totally destroyed Messina, Reggio, Sille and the surrounding villages, burying more than 100,000 people in the ruins, met with a magnificent response. The sum of 7 million francs which was generously offered served to supply the immediate needs of the survivors, who in many cases were left totally destitute.
But it was not only to make others give that Pius exerted himself; he gave himself to the utmost of his power. The day after the Messina disaster he sent people to investigate and report, to search out the victims most urgently in need of help and care and to bring them to Rome. Trainloads of sufferers arrived daily and were taken to the papal hospice of Santa Marta, the pope making himself responsible for over five hundred orphans. His Christlike compassion, his grand initiative and masterly organization of relief won a burst of praise in which even the anti-clerical syndic of Rome joined, while the nations of Europe expressed their admiration. "This pope, of whom it was said that his sole policy was the Gospel and the Creed, and his sole diplomacy the Ten Commandments, fired the imagination of the world by his apostolic fearlessness, his humility, his simplicity and single-minded faith."
"Who that has seen him," wrote Monsignor Benson, "can ever forget the extraordinary impression of his face and bearing, the kindness of his eyes, the quick sympathy of his voice, the overwhelming fatherliness that enabled him to bear not only his own supreme sorrows, but all the personal sorrow which his children laid on him in such abundance?" An irresistible impulse seemed to drive the suffering to seek his presence and to ask his prayers, and they seldom failed to find the help that they sought.
Perhaps it was his ardent desire to help and comfort pain of any kind, united with personal holiness and fervent prayer, that made the touch of his hand or even his blessing so strangely efficacious for healing. The wonderful graces obtained through the prayers and the touch of Il santo were the talk of Rome; men and women who had seen the marvels with their own eyes bore witness to the facts.
Rumours of what was happening came to the ears of Catholics in other countries, and a young girl in England who had been reading the Acts of the Apostles was seized with a great desire to go to Rome. Her head and neck were covered with running sores which would not heal. The shadow of St. Peter falling on the sick, she said, had cured them; the shadow of his successor would cure her. Her mother took her to Rome, where both were present at a public audience. The pope passed slowly through the crowd, speaking a few words here and there as he went. To the kneeling girl he said nothing, but as he blessed her she felt that she was cured; and indeed, when on their return to the hotel her mother removed the bandages she found that the sores were completely healed.
More remarkable still because more public was the case of two Florentine nuns, both suffering from an incurable disease. They made the journey to Rome with great difficulty, and admitted to a private audience, they begged the pope to cure them. "Why do you want to be cured?" he asked.
"That we may work for God's glory," was the answer.
The pope laid his hands upon their heads and blessed them. "Have confidence," he said, "you will get well and will do much work for God's glory," and at the same moment they were restored to health. Pius bade them keep silence as to what had happened, but the facts spoke for themselves. At their entrance, the two nuns had hardly had strength to drag themselves along; at their exit they walked like strong and healthy women. Their cab driver, an unimaginative man of sturdy common sense, refused to take them back to their convent. "No," he said, "I will take back the two I brought or their dead bodies."
"But we are the two you brought," they insisted.
"No," repeated the vetturino, "the two I brought were half dead; you are not in the least like them."
At another public audience was a man who carried his little son, paralysed from birth and unable to stand. "Give him to me," said Pius; and taking the child on his knee, he began to talk to another group of pilgrims. A few minutes later the child slipped down from the pope's knee and began to run about the room.
That the touch of a holy man, or the garments he has worn, or even his shadow falling on the sick should have power to cure them, is vouched for by Holy Scripture.[*] "Perhaps so," say some, "but the age of miracles has passed." The age of miracles has not passed, nor will it ever while there is faith on the earth; for faith, as Jesus Christ Himself said, alone makes miracles possible. At Nazareth even His almighty power could not work them, because of the unbelief of the people. Where the age of faith has passed, the age of miracles has passed with it, but in the Church of Christ they both endure.
[*] Acts v 15 and vi 12; Matt. xiii 58.
More marvellous still than the graces obtained by the touch of Pius X were those obtained—sometimes at a great distance—by his blessing and his prayers.
In one of the convents of the Sacred Heart in Ireland was a young nun suffering from disease of the hip-bone. For eight months she had not put her left foot to the ground, as any weight on it caused acute pain. The disease was making rapid progress. In the October of 1912 the superioress of the convent, having heard of a cure obtained through the prayers and blessing of the Holy Father, determined to have recourse to him. She told a little girl of six, the daughter of the convent carpenter, to write to the pope, asking him to bless the dear Mother who was ill, and to pray for her. During the night of the 29th October the sick nun suddenly realized that the pain had entirely left the injured hip—so entirely that she was able to turn and lie on it. The next morning she sat up in bed and asked to be allowed to try to walk. She got up, made her bed and walked to the church, where she knelt for some time in prayer. It was then that she was told of the letter to the pope. "I did not know what had happened," she said, "all that I knew was that the pain was gone and that I could walk."
A railway worker had a boy of two who lay dangerously ill of meningitis. The doctor, who had given up all hope, asked the priest to break the news to the young parents, who at once cried out, "We will write to the pope! We used to go to confession to him at Mantua when we were children; bishop as he was, he used to hear the confessions of the poor." A letter was written and posted, and Pius wrote with his own hand several lines in reply, bidding the young couple pray and hope. On the following day the child had completely recovered.
These are only a few of the many graces obtained in the same way. The cure of a Redemptoristine nun in the acute stages of cancer by the application of a piece of stuff that had been worn by Pius X was borne witness to by Cardinal Vives y Tuto. The sudden return to life and speech of Don Rafael Merry del Val, father of the Cardinal Secretary of State, at the prayer of his wife who, when death was declared imminent, tried the same remedy; a French woman dying of heart disease, who denied the very existence of God, was not only healed by the pope's blessing, but reconciled to the Church and was henceforward a fervent Catholic: these are only a few more of the marvels wrought. Pope Pius did his best to hush the matter up. "I have nothing to do with it," he continually exclaimed; "it is the power of the keys."
"I hear that you are a santo and work miracles," said a lady one day, with more enthusiasm than tact.
"You have made a mistake in a consonant," replied the pope, laughing, "it is a 'Sarto' that I am." No less witty was his reply to a man who came to solicit a cardinal's hat for one of his friends. "But I cannot give your friend a cardinal's hat," said the Holy Father. "I am not a hatter, only a tailor" (sarto).
The Portuguese revolution in 1911 was a fresh heartbreak to the pope, for the Portuguese Republic was bitterly anti-Catholic and anti-clerical. The first action of its representatives was to expel the religious orders and to confiscate their buildings and belongings. This was done in the most brutal manner, nuns being driven off to prison after their convents had been looted and some of the inhabitants put to death. Many died of the privations endured, while others testified to the humanity of their gaolers by going mad. Religious instruction of any kind was prohibited in the government schools; priests were arrested and imprisoned; the Bishop of Oporto was driven from his diocese. The separation law of church and state fell more heavily on the Church in Portugal than even that of France, and its object was the elimination of the Christian faith from Portuguese society.
These things fell heavily on the heart of the Father of Christendom, who sorrowed with his sorrowing children, He protested against the injustice in his encyclical "Jamdudum in Lusitania," in which he set forth and condemned the oppressive measures of the republic. A touching letter of thanks expressed the gratitude of the persecuted clergy of Portugal for the pope's courageous protest. That some of the harshest features of the law seemed in a fair way to be relaxed during the years that followed was some small consolation to him.
In the spring of 1913 the health of the pope gave cause for anxiety, an attack of influenza which had greatly weakened him being followed by a relapse, with symptoms of bronchitis. From every part of the world came assurances of prayers and sympathy, while in Rome the anxiety felt by all lay like a weight on the city. But he made a quick recovery. He was not a good patient, and his doctors had the greatest difficulty in keeping him quiet. No sooner was he convalescent than he accused them of being tyrants, whose only idea was to make him waste the time that belonged to the Church. Over and over again they would find that in their absence he had disobeyed orders and received somebody or settled an urgent piece of business.
"Just think of our responsibility before the world!" said Dr. Amici one day to his recalcitrant patient. "Just think of mine before God," was the energetic answer, "if I do not take care of His Church!" They began to talk to him seriously, trying to make him promise to do as he was told. "Come, come," said he with his irresistible smile, "don't be cross; surely it is my interest to get well quite as much as it is yours to make me so."
During the winter before this illness Rosa Sarto, the pope's eldest sister, died. She had been with her brother nearly all his life, having gone at the age of seventeen to keep house for him when he was a curate at Tombolo, afterwards accompanying him to Salzano. During the years when he had been at Treviso and Mantua she had lived with her mother, until her death, after which she came to Venice with her two younger sisters and her niece. On Cardinal Sarto's election to the papacy the little group made their home in Rome in a small apartment not far from the Vatican, where they led a quiet life of charity and good works.
Those who went to pray beside the dead woman were equally struck by the humble surroundings and the peace that prevailed there. A small room, a common iron bedstead, a sweet, almost transparent old face framed in a plain white cap, violets scattered here and there over the body. The funeral took place at the church of St. Laurence-outside-the-Walls, and all the cardinals in Rome were present, together with a great crowd eager to do honour to one so near and dear to the Holy Father. Her brother alone could not be present. Following in spirit the funeral procession he knelt in his private oratory praying for the soul of his sister. Telegrams from every part of the world bore witness to the sympathy felt for the sorrow of the pope who had made the sorrows of the world his own. This demonstration of love and interest was a comfort to him in his grief and touched him deeply.
But a fresh blow was in store in the sufferings of his children in Mexico. Carranza had headed a revolution against Huerta, the president of the Mexican Republic, An ex-bandit named Villa, who was Carranza's chief supporter, soon turned against him and started a counter-revolution of his own, followed by a systematic persecution of religion. Many priests were forced to flee the country, ten bishops crossed into the United States to save their people from a favourite trick of the insurgents, who would arrest a bishop and, relying on the people's love of their pastor, then demand an exorbitant ransom. Horrible outrages followed; priests were shot, hanged or thrown into prison; churches were converted into barracks, the sacred vessels were carried off to the bar rooms as cups. The venerable Archbishop of Durango was compelled to sweep the streets; religious were shot for refusing to betray the hiding places of their brethren, while the fate of many of the nuns is not to be described. Although the revolutionary government set up a press bureau in the United States to deny these facts and fill the mails with calumnies against the Church, the truth became gradually known—not in all its entirety until after the pope's death—but enough to wring the brave old heart with a fresh pang of anguish . . . .
"The sedia advanced," wrote one who was present about this time at a service in St. Peter's, "bearing the pope aloft above the heads of the people. He was in a red cope and a high golden mitre. His face was sweet and sad; his soul, far away from all this show and splendour, seemed lost in the contemplation of the distance that separates the things of earth from the things of Heaven, while his hand moved from side to side in blessing. The sadness was so deeply engraved on that pensive face that it seemed as if no smile could ever lighten it; truly he bore on his shoulders the weight of the world's grief. Suddenly a movement in the crowd brought the procession to a halt; the thoughtful face was raised as if the pope had awakened from his contemplation; he bent forward. A smile of infinite sweetness and kindness, like a ray of sunshine in a winter sky, lit up for a moment those sad features, while beneath me I heard two Italians murmur, 'O Father, dear, dear old Father!'"