At the private consistory held in May 1914, Pius X, alluding to the consolation which had been afforded him by the celebration of the sixteenth centenary of the Peace of Constantine the year before, spoke words which in the light of later events might well have seemed prophetic.
"During these months," he said, "the Catholic world, while confirming its own faith, has presented to the suffering human race the Cross of Christ as the only source of peace. To-day more than ever is that peace to be desired, when class is set against class, nation against nation; when interior conflicts by their increasing bitterness not infrequently end in open hostility. The wisest and most experienced men are devoting themselves to the betterment of human society, trying to find some means of putting an end to the terrible massacres entailed by war, to secure for the world the benefits of lasting peace. Yet this excellent endeavour will remain almost or wholly barren if at the same time an attempt is not made to establish in the hearts of men the laws of justice and charity. The peace or the strife of civil society and of the state depend less on those who govern than on the people themselves. When the minds of men are shut out from divine revelation, no longer restrained by the discipline of the Christian law, what wonder if many, with blind desire, rush headlong down the road to ruin, persuaded by leaders who think of nothing but their own personal interests.
"The Church, made by her divine Founder the guardian of charity and of truth, is the only power capable of saving the world. Would it not then be better for the world, not only to allow her freely to fulfil her mission, but to help her to do so? It is the contrary that happens; the Church is too often looked upon as the enemy of the human race, when she is in reality the mother of civilization.
"Yet this need not surprise us; we know that after the example of her Founder, the Church, whose mission is to do good, is also destined to bear injustice and contempt. Divine help will never fail her, even in her darkest moments. Christ Himself has said it, history bears witness to the fact."
The Catholic world was busy at this time over preparation for the twenty-fifth national eucharistic congress, which was to be held at Lourdes from the 22nd to the 26th of July. The pope had appointed Cardinal Granito di Belmonte as legate to the congress, and his last pontifical brief was written on this subject. "Never," he wrote, "has Mary ceased to show that motherly love which till her last breath she poured forth so fully upon the bride that her divine Son purchased with His precious blood. It might indeed be said that her sole work was to care for the Christian people, to lead all minds to the love of Jesus and zeal in His service. May the divine Author and preserver of the Church look upon that noble part of His flock, which is afflicted to-day by so many calamities: may He stimulate the generous virtue and willingness of the good and, pouring out the fire of His love, revive the half-dead faith of those who now barely retain the name of Christian. This, in our fatherly love for the French people, we most earnestly ask of God through the Immaculate Virgin."
The congress was one of the greatest that has ever been held. Every country, even the furthest, could boast its representative. Never, it was said, had men of so many nations been seen together in one place; the confusion of tongues was like Babel. Clergy and lay folk of every age, rank and race came flocking from every quarter, all moved by one impulse—devotion to Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.
It was scarcely more than three weeks before the opening of this congress when the news of the murder at Serajevo of the Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife came like a thunder-clap upon the world. Serbia was at once accused by Austria of complicity in the crime, and a drastic note, to be answered within forty-eight hours, was presented for her acceptance. Of the policy which caused this move, and of the powers behind it, this is not the place to speak.
The pope, to whom the text of the Note was officially communicated by the Austro-Hungarian government, foresaw clearly the catastrophe that must follow. The papal nuncios received instructions to do all in their power to avert an international conflict, but it was too late to prevent the calamity; all efforts were in vain. By midnight on August 4, the eleventh anniversary of the pope's election, Austria, Serbia, Russia, Germany, Belgium, France and Great Britain were at war.
The blow fell crushingly on the pope, whose heart was heavy with the thought of all the sufferings that war would bring in its train. The representative of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy asked him in the emperor's name to bless the armies of the dual empire. "I bless peace, not war," was the stern reply.[*]
[*] This story is quite in keeping with Pius X's character, but the evidence for its factual truth is not altogether satisfactory.
The exhortation to the Catholics of the world, published in theOsservatore Romano of the 2nd of August, was a touching expression of the Holy Father's sorrow: "While nearly all Europe is being dragged into the whirlpool of a most deadly war, of whose dangers, bloodshed and consequences no one can think without grief and alarm, we too cannot but be anxious and feel our soul rent by the most bitter grief for the safety and lives of so many citizens and so many peoples for whose welfare we are supremely solicitous. Amid this tremendous upheaval and danger we deeply feel and realize that our fatherly charity and our apostolic ministry demand that we direct men's minds to Him from whom alone help can come, to Christ, the Prince of Peace, and man's all-powerful Mediator with God. Therefore we exhort the Catholics of the whole world to turn confidently to His throne of grace and mercy; let the clergy lead the way by their example and by appointing special prayer in their parishes, under the order of the bishops, that God may be moved to pity, and may remove as soon as possible the disastrous torch of war and inspire the rulers of the nations with thoughts of peace and not of affliction."
When the pope appeared to bless the crowds gathered in the Cortile di San Damaso on the same day, it was noticed that an expression of the deepest sadness replaced the usual kind smile of welcome. "My poor children! My poor children!" he exclaimed sorrowfully as despatch after despatch confirmed the rumours of fresh mobilizations. All the bishops who visited him during those sad days were urged to start a crusade of prayer in their dioceses to avert the impending disaster. Groups of pilgrims were received during the week, but blessed in silence; no public address was given by the pope: the awful burden of the world's tragedy weighed too heavily on his heart. Night and day he prayed and suffered, trying to think of some way of bringing peace out of the conflict.
The rumour that the pope was ill was spread about on the feast of the Assumption. As a matter of fact, he was merely feeling indisposed, and had suspended his usual audiences. His doctor, usually inclined to be over-careful, and his sisters, always over-anxious, looked on his illness as of no importance, and evinced not the slightest anxiety.
On Tuesday, the 17th of August, as the Cardinal Secretary of State, himself unwell, was unable to go to his usual daily audience, the pope sent him a message assuring him that he was all right. "Dica al Cardinale," he said, "che stia bene, perche quando sta male lui, sto male io!"[*] His sisters saw him on the Tuesday evening, and went home after leaving a message for the cardinal that the Holy Father was doing well, and would be all right in the morning. He had been at his writing-table as usual, and had received a Franciscan friar, who left him without any idea that he was ill. During the night of Wednesday, the 18th, he became very much worse, and at eight o'clock in the morning was declared to be seriously ill, though the doctor had not given up all hope. A few hours later it was announced that the pope was dying.
[*] "Tell the cardinal to get well, for when he is ill I am ill too."
Those of the cardinals who could be present, hastily summoned, knelt around him, unable to restrain their tears. The pope lay, or rather sat, propped up with pillows and breathing with difficulty; his sisters were by his side, a Brother of St. John of God in attendance as nurse. The last consecutive words he had spoken were to his confessor; "I resign myself completely," he said, after which his answers to the prayers grew fainter and fainter until they ceased altogether.
"One was not conscious of time and it was all unreal," wrote one who was present. "Suddenly the deep notes of St. Peter's great bell boomed out, tolling 'pro pontifice agonizzante,' and at that signal Exposition began in all the patriarchal basilicas, with special prayers. The hot scirocco, the buzz from the Piazza San Pietro far below, whispering prelates and attendants, the boom of the bell—how strange it all seemed; and behind everything the catastrophe of the present public situation and war."
So the hours of the afternoon wore on into the night. The pope could not speak, but he recognized those who approached him, received the clasp of their hands with an answering pressure, raised his own to bless them, and from time to time made slowly on his brow and breast a long sign of the cross. At a little after 1.15 a.m., in deepest peace and calm, Pius X passed away.
He died as he had lived, quietly and simply; and few strangers, had they seen the plain, austerely furnished bedroom where he lay, majestic in death, could have believed that this was the death-chamber of a pope. Opposite the bed, which was surrounded by four great candles, stood an altar, where from the small hours of the morning Mass succeeded Mass; two Noble Guard were on duty beside the dead pontiff. The grief felt for his loss was deep and universal; cardinals, prelates, servants, all sorts and conditions of men, wept openly as they went about their duties. Diplomats expressed in heartfelt accents to Cardinal Merry del Val their admiration, veneration and love for the saintly pope who had passed away. "The whitest soul in this blood-stained tempest-torn world has left us," wrote an Italian prelate to a friend. "The Holy Father has died of a broken heart," said another.
The body of the pope lay in state in the Sala del Trono and afterwards was carried to St. Peter's, where it was placed in the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, raised aloft and visible to the crowd. A continuous stream of people passed through the basilica, getting thicker and thicker as the day went on. Pius X had asked that he might be buried in the crypt of St. Peter's, absolutely forbidding the embalming of his body. His wish was carried out on the 23rd of August.
"The will of the Holy Father," said one of the cardinals, "is the will of a saint." Opening with an invocation of the Blessed Trinity and an expression of confidence in the mercy of Almighty God, it continued thus: "I was born poor, I have lived poor, and I wish to die poor." A sum not exceeding £12 a month was left to his sisters, and 48s. a month to his valet, while a legacy of £400 was bequeathed to his nephews and nieces, subject to the approval of the next pope. The maintenance of 400 orphans, victims of the Messina earthquake of 1908 and undertaken by the Holy Father, was also provided for.
"Pius X has left his mark on the world," wrote Monsignor Benson in The Tablet of August 29th, "perhaps more than any pontiff of the last four centuries. That humble cry of sorrow, which, we are told, broke from him only a few days ago when he deplored his impotence to check the madness of Europe, indeed witnessed to the great historical lesson that those who reject the arbitration of Christ's Vicar and the elementary principles of Christian justice will surely reap—indeed are already reaping—the bitter fruits of disobedience; but along other lines he has done more than any predecessor of his since the days of that great schism to reconcile by love those who throw over authority; and the secret of it all lies in exactly that which he would be the last to recognize—namely, the personal holiness and devotion of his own character . . . .
"It is a wonderful consolation to realize how, for the first time perhaps for centuries, the Shepherd of the flock has succeeded in making his voice heard, and a part, at least, of his message intelligible among the sheep that are not of his fold. Pontiff after pontiff has spoken that same message, and pontiff after pontiff has been, without the confines of his own flock, little more than a voice crying in the wilderness. Now, for the first time, partly no doubt through the breaking down of obstinate prejudice, but chiefly through the particular accents of the voice that spoke and the marvellous personality of the speaker, that message has become audible, and Pius X has succeeded where diplomacy and even sanctity of another complexion have failed. Men have recognized the transparent love of the Pastor where they have been deaf to the definitions of the Pontiff; they have at any rate paused to listen to the appeals of their Father, when they have turned away from the authority of the Rector mundi."
Nor was it the Catholic press alone that paid tribute to the holy life and noble aims of the dead pope. "All men who hold sincere and personal holiness in honour," said The Times, "will join with the Roman Catholic Church in her mourning for the Pontiff she has lost. The policy of Pius X has had many critics, not all of them outside the Church he ruled, but none has ever questioned the transparent honesty of his convictions or refused admiration for his priestly virtues. Sprung from the people, he loved and understood them as only a good parish priest can do. That was the secret of the love which he won amongst them from the first, and which at Venice made him a great popular power. Not that he ever courted popularity; he taught them as one having authority and could insist upon obedience. But the Roman Church mourns in him something more than a saintly priest and a great bishop; in him she also deplores a great pope. In the spheres of church politics his reign has witnessed grievous disasters. It has seen the separation of church and state in France and in Portugal, and the whole process of 'dechristianizing' national and social life, of which that measure was the symbol. Unprejudiced judges cannot blame a pope for rejecting all compromise with a policy which, on the admission of its authors, was deliberately aimed at the destruction of the faith which it was his mission to uphold. Compromise, it has been said, ought to have been possible, but there are principles which Rome cannot waive or abate. Pius X conceived that such principles were jeopardized in all the accommodations with the new system which were suggested to him. It was no light thing for him to impose upon the faithful clergy of France and of Portugal a course which brought to them the loss of their revenues, their homes, and even of all legal right in their churches. But his decision was to him not a question of expediency, but of right and wrong. He gave it in accordance with the dictates of his conscience, and the wonderful obedience which the priests whom it impoverished have shown to his commands has filled with a just pride his children throughout the world . . . . His reform of church music was in the main a return to the pure and noble manner of the best masters of the sixteenth century . . . . His zeal for establishing the true text of the Vulgate—the 'authorized version' of Latin Christianity—illustrates in yet another field the plain practical nature of his mind . . . . The sweeping condemnation of 'Modernism' was the most conspicuous act of his pontificate within the domain of dogma. It was a consequence of his position and of his character as inevitable as his repudiation of compromise with the secularism of M. Combe or M. Briand. Few persons familiar with the elementary doctrines of the Roman Church could suppose that the tendencies of the new school were compatible with them. To the downright plain sense of the pope the desperate efforts of men who had explained away the content of historical Christianity to present themselves as orthodox Roman Catholics were simply disingenuous …. The elevation of Giuseppe Sarto to the most ancient and most venerable throne in Europe is a striking illustration of the democratic side of the Roman Church to which she has largely owed her power . . . . The story is not without its lessons for statesmen and for educationists. The Church did not attempt universal education, but by her monastic schools, her bursaries and her seminaries she set up a ladder leading to the most exalted of all her dignities for the most fit. It was long since a peasant's son had won the Triple Crown. In this, as in so much besides, the reign of Pope Pius X was a return to the past."
In the crypt of St. Peter's the then last pope, who was a peasant, was laid close to the sepulchre of the First, who was a fisherman. This was the inscription on his tomb: