In the early spring of the year 1875 the chancellor of the diocese of Treviso was removed to Fossalunga. A canon's stall was also vacant, while the seminary was in need of a spiritual director. It was the general opinion that if these three offices could be held by one holy, wise and purposeful man, it would be an excellent thing for all parties concerned.
"I have it!" said Bishop Zinelli, "Don Giuseppe Sarto is the very man we need."
No sooner said than done. The rector of Salzano was named chancellor and residential canon of the cathedral of Treviso, and appointed spiritual director of the seminary. The bishop had not forgotten the warnings of Don Giuseppe's friends. By this arrangement the newly appointed canon would reside at the seminary, where the care of his health would not be left entirely in his own hands. He would, moreover, preside at the professors' table, and therefore would be unable to indulge his tendency to starve so as to feed the poor.
The news was received with mixed feelings by the people of Salzano. Joy that their beloved father should receive such a mark of honour struggled hard with their grief at losing him. It comforted them a little, they said, to think that his precious gifts, instead of being spent on Salzano alone, would now find full scope in a diocese that counted two hundred and ten parishes.
It was not until the autumn of the same year that Don Giuseppe bade farewell to his sorrowing parishioners, and, taking possession of his stall, sang the first vespers of Advent Sunday in the cathedral of Treviso. Like all the other professors of the seminary, Canon Sarto had three small rooms set apart for his use. From the windows he could look across the neatly-kept garden to where the quiet waters of the Sile, flowing by the ivy-coloured walls, widened out into little lakes amongst the thickets of poplar and plane trees that lay beyond.
The rector of the seminary was Don Giuseppe's old friend Pietro Jacuzzi, and there were in the college 160 lay students and 54 aspirants to the priesthood. "I well remember Monsignor Sarto's first instruction," said one of the latter in after years. "'You are expecting to find in me,' he began, 'a man of profound learning and of wide experience in spiritual matters, a master in asceticism and doctrine. You will be disappointed, for I am none of these things. I am only a poor country parish-priest. But I am here by God's will—therefore you must bear with me.' I have forgotten the instruction," added the narrator, "but the preamble I shall never forget."
A regular course of instruction and meditation was begun at once, and immediately won the attention of the students. The lucid simplicity with which Monsignor Sarto spoke carried the minds of his hearers straight into the heart of the truth which they were considering. The students were never tired, never puzzled, his conferences being eminently practical and within the grasp of his audience. His aim was to inculcate real solid piety which would endure throughout the troubles and temptations of life. It is not everybody who has the art of appealing to the young: it was one in which Monsignor Sarto excelled. Even in his familiar talks, full of merriment and sympathy, there was always something helpful and uplifting. Personal cleanliness, not as a rule the most prominent characteristic of southern nations, was a thing on which he laid particular stress. Gentle and kind as he was to all weakness and suffering, he could be stern enough when it was necessary, and his reproofs were seldom forgotten. If any of the students fell sick, he would nurse them with a mother's tenderness; and to those of the seminarists who were the sons of poor parents he gave material as well as moral help.
It happened that one of these students was in great distress by reason of a family difficulty. His father, a poor working man, was in urgent need of a few pounds, and there was no means of obtaining the sum. He confided his trouble to one of his companions, who asked him why he did not go to Monsignor Sarto and tell him all about it. The advice was taken, and he knocked at the familiar door. Monsignor Sarto was seated at his table reading. "What can I do for you?" he asked kindly.
The young man, who found it difficult to put his trouble into words, stammered out the whole story, Monsignor Sarto listening with compassion. "I am so sorry," he said when the tale was ended, "but I have only a few lire, nothing like the sum you require." The poor student broke down completely, for his last hope was gone.
"Come, come; cheer up!" cried the good canon, greatly distressed; "come to me to-morrow, and if I cannot give you all, I may be able to give you part of the money."
Next morning the seminarist returned.
"Well?" said Monsignor Sarto.
"Well?" answered the student nervously.
"Do you really think," continued the canon, "that I can manufacture banknotes?" Then, seeing the young man's distress, he added hastily: "Come come, my son, I was only joking, I have got the money," and, opening a little drawer, he took out the required sum.
"You will soon be a priest," he continued, "and when you can do so without inconvenience, you must give it back to me, for you see I have had to borrow it myself."
The winters were sometimes bitterly cold at Treviso, and the house was unwarmed. The needy students would often find warm clothing provided for them by the same charitable hand. A tradesman of Treviso certified that he received many orders from Monsignor Sarto for warm cloaks, with strict injunction to keep the matter secret. That the canon had seldom more than a few lire in his possession was not surprising.
It was a labour of love to him to prepare the little boys for their first communion. The vice-rector begged that this task might be left to those of the staff who had more time to spare.
"It is my duty," was the answer. "Am I not their spiritual father?"
In order to obtain the necessary time Monsignor Sarto deprived himself of the evening walk which was his only recreation after a day of hard work; and, assembling his lively little band of neophytes in the church, he would hold them spellbound.
His kindness and quick sympathy made him as popular with the staff. Laying aside the cares of his office together with the big bundle of papers that accompanied him everywhere, he set himself to make the time spent in the refectory as refreshing for the minds as it was for the bodies of his colleagues. The amusing stories told by him and the interesting discussions he set afoot were long remembered, as was his sly teasing of certain professors. These were not the moments, he held, for discussing serious questions; anyone who mentioned the word logic, for instance, was obliged to make amends by telling an interesting or useful story. When Monsignor Sarto's place was empty, everything fell flat.
He still kept up his old habit of working during part of the night. His neighbour in the seminary would often hear him moving in his room long after everyone else had retired to rest. "Go to bed, Monsignor," he would sometimes call out. "He works ill who works too long."
"Quite true, quite true, Don Francesco," would come the answer; "put that into practice. Go to bed and sleep well." It was past midnight before Monsignor Sarto's light went out, and he was up again by four o'clock.
In 1879 Bishop Zinelli died, and Monsignor Sarto was elected vicar capitular to administer the diocese while the see remained vacant. He announced his nomination in characteristic words.
"Called by the votes of my colleagues to administer the diocese of Treviso in place of him who for so many years has ruled it with such wisdom, prudence and zeal, I must frankly confess that I have accepted this heavy burden, not only because I feel assured that they will help me in my task, but because I know the spirit of the clergy. That you will earnestly co-operate with me in upholding the most precious prerogatives of the priesthood I have no doubt. I ask you, therefore, to remember the words of the Apostle: 'Walk carefully, that our ministry be not blamed'; let our actions be such that our enemies shall find nothing in us worthy of reproach. You are full of zeal for souls: seek to win them rather by love than by fear. The supreme wish of our Lord for His own was that they should love one another, and this wish found its fulfilment in apostolic times, when the Christians were one heart and one soul in Christ. A priest's life is a continual warfare against evil, which cannot fail to raise up powerful enemies. In order that they may not prevail against us, let us be united in charity amongst ourselves; thus we shall be invincible and strong as a rock."
Monsignor Sarto administered the diocese for less than a year, but in this short time he accomplished much. Although still spiritual director of the seminary, he preached oftener in public, his sermons invariably rousing enthusiasm. In the February of 1880 he was relieved of this office on the nomination as bishop of Monsignor Callegari, who was to find in his chancellor a devoted and faithful friend. The new bishop, however, was destined to remain but a short time at Treviso. In 1882 he was promoted to Padua, Monsignor Apollonio succeeding him at Treviso.
In September, 1884, Monsignor Apollonio, who had been making the pastoral visit of his diocese, returned home rather unexpectedly, and Monsignor Sarto was not a little surprised at being summoned somewhat mysteriously to the bishop's private oratory. "Let us kneel before the Blessed Sacrament," said Monsignor Apollonio gravely, "and pray about a matter which concerns us both intimately." Still more astonished, Monsignor Sarto knelt, and the two prelates prayed for a moment in silence. Then the bishop rose, and, handing a letter to his companion, bade him read it. Thus did Monsignor Sarto learn his nomination to the bishopric of Mantua.
The strong man who all his life long had welcomed hardship and suffering with a cheery smile, wept like a child. He was, he declared, utterly incapable, quite unworthy of such a trust. The bishop, who knew better, but whose heart was touched at the sight of his friend's distress, comforted him as best he could. "It is God's will," he said; "trust in His help." Convinced, however, in his own mind that Pope Leo XIII was wholly mistaken in his judgment of him, Monsignor Sarto wrote to Rome to profess his incapacity and worthlessness. His arguments were not accepted.
Early in November, amidst enthusiastic demonstrations, the bishop-elect set out for Rome. At Padua he met with a fresh ovation, Monsignor Callegari himself came to the station to greet his old friend and to wish him well. On the evening of the 8th he was received by Pope Leo, and left his presence consoled and full of courage as to the future. Consecrated on the 16th, he remained in Rome for ten days longer, returning on the 29th to Treviso, where he was to remain for some months before entering on his episcopal charge.
It was during this time that he went one day, accompanied by a friend, to visit a Venetian city. In the railway carriage were two gentlemen, who, while conversing on local subjects, touched on the election of the new bishop of Mantua. They wondered what kind of a man Monsignor Sarto was; not very intelligent, they feared, nor very gifted. The bishop-elect, with a sign to his companion to keep quiet, joined in the conversation, endorsing most heartily everything that they said in his own disparagement. He then proceeded to contrast the poor picture he had painted of himself with the qualities that were necessary for an ideal bishop, and this with such ability and discernment that his two hearers were greatly impressed. Monsignor Sarto was the first to leave the carriage.
"Who is that delightful priest?" asked the gentlemen of his companion, who was preparing to follow.
The latter made a low bow. "Monsignor Sarto, Bishop-elect of Mantua," he answered with elaborate irony.
He spent Holy Week and Easter that year with his mother and sisters at Riese. It was a double festival for his family and the friends of his childhood who crowded round him. Back again at Treviso, where he had spent so many happy days, he had not the courage to face a public farewell. "Read them this letter at dinner," he said to the rector of the seminary; "tell them I keep them all in my heart, and that they must pray for me." Then, slipping unnoticed out of the house, he went to the carriage ordered to wait for him at a little distance, and so set out for Mantua.
At the station a large crowd had gathered to receive him, priests, people, representatives of the noble families of the place, and of the divers associations of town and country. Outside the bishop's house, in the great square of St. Peter, a multitude of townspeople were awaiting his arrival. "We want to see our bishop," they cried tumultuously, and their desire was immediately satisfied. Stepping out into the balcony which overlooked the square, their new pastor greeted them with warm affection and gave them his blessing.
Mantua, say the Italians, has always been a fighting city, and in 1885 it was still true to its reputation. Of Etruscan origin, and the birthplace of Virgil and Sordello, throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries its see had been usually held by members of the famous family of Gonzaga. The task which lay before the new bishop was no easy one. There were divisions between clergy and people; the seminary was almost empty of students; many parishes were without a priest; no synod had been held within the memory of man. The spirit in which Monsignor Sarto took up his new work showed itself in his first pastoral letter to his flock.
"I shall spare myself neither care nor labour nor watchfulness for the salvation of souls. My hope is in Christ, who strengthens the weakest by His divine help; I can do all in Him who strengtheneth me! His power is infinite, and if I lean on Him it will be mine; His wisdom is infinite, and if I look to Him for counsel I shall not be deceived; His goodness is infinite, and if my trust is stayed on Him I shall not be abandoned. Hope unites me to God and Him to me. Although I know I am not sufficient for the burden, my strength is in Him. For the salvation of others I must bear weariness, face dangers, suffer offences, confront storms, fight against evil. He is my hope."
His first care was the seminary, and in a little more than a year he was able to write to a friend: "I have a hundred and forty-seven boarders, young men with healthy appetites who can digest anything and everything."
The scarcity of priests in the country villages was indeed disastrous. The bishop lost no time in convoking a synod. "If people do not hear of God, of the sacraments, and of eternal life," he said to the priests assembled, "they will soon lose every good feeling, both civil and social. No difficulty is insurmountable; nothing is impossible to those who will and those who love." The difficulty that at that moment seemed most insurmountable was the want of money. The hundred and forty-seven young men required feeding, and the seminary was poor. The bishop sold the few fields at Riese that were all he possessed to meet the immediate need, and others, stirred by his zeal and eloquence, came forward to help him.
A thorough visitation of the diocese enabled Monsignor Sarto to understand its needs more fully. He liked to hear both sides of every question, and asked everyone to be perfectly frank with him in discussing both good and evil. "Joy shared is joy doubled," he would say, "and grief imparted becomes easier to bear." An old man who came one day was received with such kindness that, concluding he had to do with the bishop's secretary, he talked to him at great length about a little personal affair. "Can I believe you?" he asked wistfully, as the kind priest assured him that all would be right.
"What!" was the answer, "can you not trust your bishop?"
In order that the pastoral visitation might be no burden on the country priests, whose life was a continual struggle with poverty, he ordered that no preparations whatever were to be made for his reception. Nothing extra was to be provided; he would share with them what they had. Instead of a demonstration at the station, he begged that the people might gather in the churches for Mass and communion. "That is the greatest honour they can do me," he said; "that will be my greatest reward. I desire no useless pomp, but the salvation of souls."
One of his first acts was to write to the mayor of the city to ask his assistance, thus holding out the right hand of fellowship to the civil authority, and enlisting it in his behalf. "Your new bishop," ran the letter, "poor in everything else, but rich in love for his flock, has no other object than to work for the salvation of souls and to form among you one family of friends and brothers." The question of church and state, then a thorny one in Italy, had not of late years found a happy solution in Mantua. This gracious act of the new bishop was the first step towards a better understanding. He interested himself much in social questions; and it was through his efforts that the first Italian social congress was held at Piacenza in 1890. He understood the power of the press, and started a flourishing paper called the Citizen of Mantua.
As at Tombolo, at Salzano, and at Treviso, so at Mantua was the teaching of Christian doctrine one of the bishop's first cares. Schools and confraternities were established everywhere throughout the diocese, and on his pastoral visits he would catechize the children himself to see that they were properly instructed in the faith. Parents who would not allow their children to attend were threatened with severe penalties; on this subject the bishop, so gentle towards sorrow and suffering, was stern and inflexible. The children's souls were at stake, he said, and he would not see their birthright withheld from them. He insisted that church music should be decorous and religious, and that the Gregorian chant should be used when possible.
The bishop's day was a strenuous one. At five he celebrated Mass in his private chapel, and, his thanksgiving ended, went straight to his confessional in the cathedral. After breakfast of black coffee and a mouthful of bread, he began the oft-interrupted day's work, for he would have no set hours for receiving visits. Those who wanted him were admitted at any hour, and received with the most genial kindness. "No matter with what faces they go in," it was said of his visitors, "they always come out smiling—that is, unless they have done something dreadful." On these occasions Bishop Sarto could scorch the offender with words of fire, but at the first sign of repentance he was ready to forgive, to lift up the sinner and set him on the right road. Towards evening he would take a walk in the town, speaking familiarly to all he met. At nine he said the rosary with his household, after which he worked or studied till midnight.
St. Anselm of Lucca, friend of Gregory VII, and, like him, inspired with holy zeal for the reform of the clergy, is the patron saint of Mantua. In 1886 his centenary was celebrated with great splendour in the cathedral where he lies buried. Nor did the tercentenary of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, whose family was one of Mantua's olden glories, pass without special honour. A stirring address was given by the bishop himself to the young men, of whom St. Aloysius was the special patron.
"Religion has no fear of science," said Monsignor Sarto, attacking one of the most popular fallacies of the day; "Christianity does not tremble before discussion, but before ignorance. Tertullian proclaimed as much to the emperors of Rome. 'One thing,' he said, 'our faith demands: not to be condemned before it be known,' and it is this that I ask of you, young men, not to condemn religion before you have studied it." Pilgrimages were inaugurated to the birthplace of the saint at Castiglione; a mission was preached to the boys and young men of the district; processions were held. The celebration of the festival did a great deal of good in the diocese, impressing as it did upon the people the fact that the best way to honour their saints was by following in their footsteps.
In 1887 the sacerdotal jubilee of Pope Leo XIII was celebrated throughout the world. The words in which the Bishop of Mantua announced the approaching celebration to his flock found an echo in every Catholic heart. "The moment has come," he said, "to prove to the great Vicar of Christ our unchanging affection and fidelity. For us Leo XIII is the guardian of the Holy Scriptures, the interpreter of the doctrine of Jesus Christ, the supreme dispenser of the treasures of the Church, the head of the Catholic religion, the chief shepherd of souls, the infallible teacher, the secure guide, who directs us on our way through a world wrapped in darkness and the shadow of death. All the strength of the Church is in the pope; all the foundations of our faith are based on the successor of Peter. Those who wish her ill assault the papacy in every possible way; they cut themselves adrift from the Church, and try their best to make the pope an object of hatred and contempt. The more they endeavour to weaken our faith and our attachment to the head of the Church, the more closely let us draw to him through the public testimony of our faith, our obedience and our veneration."
The fame of the zeal and piety of the Bishop of Mantua soon spread beyond the bounds of his own diocese. His conspicuous merit and ability had not escaped the vigilant eye of Leo XIII, who had marked him out for higher dignity still. "If the Mantuans do not love their new bishop," he had said on the appointment of Monsignor Sarto, "they will love no one."
But the Mantuans were not so hard of heart, and the quarrelsome city, in the hands of one who, like his Master, was meek and humble of heart, had become a city of peace.