CHAPTER I. THE MODEL NOVICE. (1504-1528.)
|Vision of St. Pius V|
The cloudless sky and blazing noontide sun of early summer in Italy : a little flock of sheep nibbling the short grass by the roadside along the edge of the wood: in the shadow of a great tree an eager-faced boy, his curved hand shadowing his eyes, gazing earnestly up the dusty, glaring road at two white-robed approaching figures,—Dominican friars making their way home by the little village of Bosco, hidden away just below among the trees.
The shepherd-boy was Michael Ghislieri, the future Dominican, Cardinal, Pope, and Saint; the man who in ruling Christendom was to stir it to its depths, and alter the course of history.
Michael Ghislieri was born and baptized on 17 January, 1504 (Feast of St. Antony, Abbot), at the little village of Bosco near Alessandria, a town about half-way between Turin and Genoa, in the Duchy of Milan, and diocese of Tortona. His parents, though very poor, were of ancient and noble family. His father, Paolo, was grandson of that Sebastian Ghislieri who in 1445 was with his entire family driven out of Bologna by a cruel decree of the Senate during a civil war. Exiled for political reasons, a few of the family went to Rome. 1 The rest separated, Antonio, the eldest son, settling down at Bosco as a peasant-proprietor, for practically nothing had been saved out of the wreck of the family fortunes.
Of Michael's mother, Domenica Augeria, we know only that she was to her little son all that a good mother should be; that as soon as he could speak she taught him to lisp the holy names of Jesus and Mary: that from his babyhood she instilled into him a great love for Our Lady; that she taught him to be regular and diligent in his prayers.
They were very poor, for Paolo only possessed a small vineyard and a flock of sheep; but their history was known, and the family was loved and respected. The tiny cottage was a happy home—so happy, so poor, that it has been compared by an old writer to the stable at Bethlehem. From his earliest childhood Michael loved to be alone. The noisy games of the village children did not amuse him in the least. His greatest delight was to be in church, where he prayed regularly, morning and evening, meditating and hearing Mass daily. Never did he pass the church-door without entering to spend a few moments in the presence of his Maker. The foundations of the spiritual life of St. Pius V were laid at his mother's knee, and in the old church at Bosco. No wonder that throughout his life his tenderest memories centred round the little, unknown village.
When Michael was not in church he was at school, for he had a thirst for knowledge. Prayer and study were to him the only things worth living for, and his parents were wise enough not to thwart or repress the tendencies of this boy who was not like other boys. When at the age of twelve they were reluctantly obliged to take him from school to help on the tiny farm, Michael had probably learnt all that his master could teach him, but it was a great grief to him to leave. His parents, especially his mother, longed to send him to college, but it was impossible. They were too poor. Michael must face the prospect of a trade as soon as the other children grew big enough to look after the sheep and help with the vines. His father proposed one or two plans to him, but the boy begged him not to decide on any calling for a year or two. Meantime he watched his father's sheep, and spent hours in prayer, continually reciting the Rosary, to which he ever had a great devotion. In his heart he had decided to enter religion. He had no love for the world; his one desire was to serve God by prayer and study in the habit of one of the great Orders,—he knew not which, for he did not know any of them, and there was no monastery at Bosco. And Our Lady, to whom he prayed, and whom, as Chief Pastor of Christ's Holy Church he was so greatly to glorify as Help of Christians, did not fail him. But it was more than two years later when, as he was saying his Rosary under a great tree, surrounded by his sheep, he saw the two Dominicans coming towards him as the angels came to Abraham of old under the shadow of the oak.
Michael ran to them—he understood that this was his opportunity—but his sensitive shyness almost overcame him, and he spoke to them timidly, though so respectfully and earnestly that they were struck first with his manner and then with his personality. They asked him questions, and he told them his simple story, asking them if they thought it possible that he should ever enter religion. The two friars were deeply touched; the boy showed such " simplicity., candour, uprightness and innocence" that they were much attracted by him. In the conversation which followed they were so impressed by his answers, by his evident gifts of mind as well as of heart, and by his angelic aspect (of which every biographer speaks particularly), that they offered, if he could obtain his parents' consent, to take him with them to their convent of Voghera, seven miles distant, whither they were now returning; where they promised " to take care of him," to allow him to study to his heart's content, and if he was a good boy and a diligent scholar to clothe him after a certain time in the white habit of St. Dominic.
Michael's heart overflowed. This was the answer to his prayer! Running home, he implored his father and mother on his knees to give their consent. Perhaps they were taken by storm by their boy's eagerness; perhaps, the signs of vocation being so abundantly evident, they had long looked forward to a sacrifice like this. They consented with tears, but gladly, and the mother embraced her son, whether for the last time his history does not tell us, at any rate for ten years. The Dominicans were awaiting him under a tree just outside the village. He ran to them, turning often to wave his hand, his mother doubtless watching him out of sight, as he set out with his new friends for Voghera, " with a firm and light footstep," holding a fold of the habit of one of the friars. He was not yet fourteen and a half, 2 tall for his age, slight, with a line, clear-cut face and luminous eyes, full of intelligence, enthusiasm, and zeal.
From the moment of his entrance into the monastery at Voghera, where the Prior received him with true fatherly kindness and affection, Michael was able to indulge his two great desires,—to give himself wholly to God in the Order of St. Dominic, and to study. Every one in the monastery loved the clever, attractive, modest boy, who worked so hard, and absorbed so eagerly the spirit of the Order. Though Voghera was not a novitiate-house a father was specially appointed to teach him Latin and instruct him in spiritual things. And Michael himself, praying and studying to his heart's content, daily serving several Masses in succession (to which practice he had a great devotion), and flitting about the sunny, peaceful cloister, was perfectly and serenely happy. He probably looked back upon these two years and his subsequent novitiate as the happiest in his life. He used them to such good purpose that in 1520 the Prior felt the time had come for so much diligence and zeal to be rewarded. An old French writer speaks of the boys " passion for learning anything that would help him to become a Friar Preacher He had completely mastered the Latin language, and his favourite study was the Divine Office, which he always loved. It was probably in May that he received the holy habit from the hands of the Prior of Voghera, in the Conventual Church of Our Lady of Sorrows. He asked to be allowed to retain his baptismal name. 3 It was then the custom for the novice-friar to add to his own name that of the village or town whence he came. The Provincial put the question to Michael " I am from Bosco," said the boy. " But no one has ever heard of Bosco! " cried the Provincial; " you must be called Alexandrin, 4 as you come from the neighbourhood of Alessandria." The name thus given him was retained by the holy Friar throughout his life, until his succession to the Pontificate.
Next day he was sent to Vigevano, the novitiate-house of the Dominican Province of Lombardy, not very far from Voghera, and seven leagues from Milan. " Never was seen a novice more humble, more obedient, more modest, a greater lover of prayer, of retreat, of penance." He was intensely in earnest. In the Profession-book at Vigevano are these words: " Frater Michael Ghisilerius, Alexandrinus de terra Boschi, die 18 Maii 1521 fecit Solemnem professionem in manibus P. Fr.: Jacobini de Viglevano nomine conventus Vogheriensis".
After his profession he remained for a short time at Voghera before beginning the work of instructing others for which the Fathers of the Order considered him eminently and peculiarly fitted. It was a terrible time for Italy. Torn by foreign and civil wars, she was an easy prey to religious dissension and even heresy, especially in Lombardy, Michael's native land. Cradled as he was in war and bloodshed, no doubt he had often heard as a child of the dreaded Cazzari or Patareni, identical with the Albigenses in France against whom St. Dominic had so valiantly fought with that simple weapon, the Holy Rosary. He must have heard, too, of the new Protestant ideas which had already infected Switzerland, and were now attacking many districts of Northern Italy.
Michael, a true son of St. Dominic, determined to be worthily prepared for the battle against heresy. So earnestly did he study, and so promising a pupil was he, that not only did his superiors send him to the famous University of Bologna, to take his degree in theology and philosophy, but as soon as he had done so he was appointed Professor of Philosophy for the province. " The very Fathers who had been his guides now looked upon him as their model" His lectures were crowded. He sought not only to teach philosophy, but to lead the minds of his pupils to heavenly things, and this he did even more by his example than his eloquence. As well now as in later years he was a living illustration of the words : " Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also
After his course of Philosophy, made according to the custom of the Order, he became Professor of Theology (S.T.L.) to the great joy of the religious of the Province; and this office he held for sixteen years. " He treated the Divine Science divinely," says an old writer, " ever mingling with the thorns of learning the thorns of Calvary, and leading his pupils to the foot of the Cross." Thus passed the next seven years of his life, in the friaries of Fermo, Pavia, Ravenna, and Reggio.
After receiving minor orders, together with the subdiaconate and diaconate, Michael was ordered by his superiors to prepare for the priesthood.
On hearing the news he wrote a long and humble letter to the Provincial, pointing out his own unworthiness and unfitness for the State which demanded such supernatural purity and holiness that angels themselves might dread it But his earnest pleading only confirmed his superiors in their determination. After the long retreat preparatory to his ordination, during which he solemnly renewed the sacrifice he had made of his entire being to Almighty God in the Dominican Order, he received the priesthood at Genoa, in the early part of 1528, " with the love and humility of a Saint". He was in his twenty-fifth year. He had not been home or seen his parents since the day he left Bosco ten years before, and the Provincial, with tactful kindness, desired the young priest to say his first Mass in the old parish church in his native village. Father Michael set off joyfully at once to walk to Bosco. He pictured to himself the old home—the meeting with his mother—his first Mass at the altar where he had first received Holy Communion. . . .
He found the village—what was left of it—burnt to the ground by the French troops 5 some months before; his little home half-ruined; the church desecrated and roofless. All the inhabitants had fled. This was his home-coming. Was it to teach his courageous soul a still sharper lesson of detachment? He accepted the blow without a murmur. Hearing that his family and friends had taken refuge at the little village of Sezze, 1 a few miles away, he sought them there, across the trampled and desolate fields. It was at Sezze, in the little church which had escaped the fate of Bosco, that he celebrated the Holy Mysteries for the first time among his own people—perhaps in the presence of his father and mother—while the Pope was still the Emperor's prisoner in Rome, and terrible tales of war and misery were in everyone's mouth. But in the young priest who stood at dawn at the altar of the little church of Sezze, God was raising up a man after His own heart, one who in virtue of his Divine commission should assert the authority of the Church over mighty princes, and rule Christ's kingdom without fear or favour.
1 They took the name of Consigliari, retaining, however, the family arms. Under this name they became illustrious, and later resumed that of Ghislieri.
2 There is a good deal of confusion among his biographers as to dates, at this point. Gabutius, writing in 1605, says Michael was fourteen when he arrived at Voghera, which would tlx the year at 1518. Touron, whose history is founded on the process for the canonization of St. Pius, says he was scarcely fourteen when he received the holy habit. As the date of his profession is fixed beyond a doubt (18 May, 1521) it is practically certain that he remained for two years as student and postulant at Voghera, being clothed there, May, 1520. This supposition is borne out by all the details of his story.
3 "Suo retente nomine, Sanctissimi Dominicani ordinis habitum induit" (Gabutius, bk. I, c. 1, p. 5).
5 The sack of Rome by the Imperial troops took place in 1527, the previous year. The Battle of Pavia was just over.