Pope St. Pius V

by Brent Klaske

The following article appeared in our May 1979 issue of The Angelus. We present it here again in honor of his upcoming feast this Sunday.

The active life is concerned with men and things; the contemplative is in the realm of supreme truth and has to do with the very principle of life, Almighty God. Christianity’s chief business ”officium principalissimumae” St. Thomas Aquinas says, is the union of these two lives; but the contemplative is better than the active. Vita contemplativa simpliciter melior est . . .et potior quam activa.

What else but this constant uniting of spiritual contemplation and active works, with preference given to the former, so marvelously maintained by Michael Ghislieri throughout his life as monk, Prior, Bishop, Cardinal and Pontiff, was the source of the radical and far-reaching spiritual and temporal reforms Pius V was able to bring about, in but six years of pontificate, for the Church and Christian civilisation? Whether fighting heresy within, or enemies without, dealing with the disloyal Emperor and wayward sovereigns abroad on vice and lawlessness in his own States and Rome, he was all the while by his own self-denial, penances and piety drawing more and more people back to the faith and practice of true religion.

“In long vigils of silent, interior communion,” wrote Evelyn Waugh in his classic biography of St. Edmund Campion, “Pius contemplated only the abiding, abstract principles that lay behind the phantasmagoric changes of human affairs . . .This it was that enabled him to see things and situations with such complete clarity.”

From time to time, leaving the Vatican where he lived in a small suite of rooms away from the great state apartments, Pope Pius would take up residence in the Dominican monastery of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, or at Santa Sabina on the Aventine hill. There, in the still greater silence and peace of the cloister, the Pope whose culminating act in his work of spiritual reform had been to proclaim St. Thomas a Doctor of the Church would live again, sometimes for a few days, as a simple religious, regathering spiritual and physical strength for further enterprise.

During the first year of his reign, he would occasionally pause to go and dine at the papal villa not far from the city, in whose garden cultivated by his personal physician with exotic plants and shrubbery, he found some rest and refreshment for mind and body. But later, the sole recreation he allowed himself was an outing to his beloved Santa Sabina.

When Paul IV had made him a Bishop, saying he had done so to “chain his feet and prevent his ever returning to live in monastic seclusion,” he had replied that the Pope was “taking him from Purgatory to Hell.” Now, he told the Venetian ambassador, who noted the conversation, that the trials and labours of the papacy were far greater causes of suffering than monastic discipline and poverty, or any other trial and hardship; and that the dignity of the papal office could come near to being a hindrance to the soul’s salvation.

Never passively resigned to the present course of events—the ‘historic moment,’ as some today like to call it—he knew no half measures in his dealings. Nothing could make him change his mind once convinced of what had to be done. But he gave way on occasion to what he realized was another’s better judgement; nor did he shrink from simply beginning over again and making due rectification if by its results a course of action embarked on proved defective.

Living with the utmost frugality and least possible regard for his own health and comfort, his goodness, humility and generosity twoards others went to heroic lengths. When his nephew Cardinal Bonelli became seriously ill, Pius looked after him with the loving care of a parent. But another time, when he found silk hangings put up in his apartments, not in keeping with religious poverty, he ordered their removal, refusing to accept the excuse of the major-domo’s having done it. Pius’s anger grew on learning that his nephew was being counselled by another Cardinal; and he forbade further relations with such severity that it took Cardinal Bonelli some time to recover.

Pius V forgave his enemies, and did good to them. A nobleman who treated him very badly when Inquisitor, but had forgotten this, was recognised by the Pope during an audience granted to a diplomatic mission. “I am the poor Dominican you once wanted to throw down a well,” he quietly said to him. “You see, God protects the weak and innocent.” Then quickly putting an end to the man’s embarrassment, with one of his rare, enchanting smiles he embraced him and promised special consideration for his mission. A writer, brought before the Pope for libelling him, received no sentence, but was pardoned and told that if in future he had any fault to find with the Pope he should come and tell him personally about it. Turkish prisoners in Rome acknowledged their kind treatment. Those who had most offended him often became the recipients of his tenderest concern.

He expressed his own readiness for martyrdom, and more than once showed his willingness to die for others. But he said, too, that God, Who had called him to the highest office, would at the same time protect him in spite of what any human power could do.

Characteristic of him was the gratitude he showed in many ways to all who had benefited him.

Loving and prizing truth above all else, he had a horror of insincerity and feigning.

Such was the holiness of Pius V that his worst foes were often overcome by it. God attested to this great holiness of the Church’s head by miracles even during his lifetime. Once, according to several accounts, on stooping to kiss the crucifix before which he was accustomed to meditate in his private apartments, the figure withdrew so that he could not touch it with his lips. The cry of anguish that came from the Pope, who feared he must have done something unworthy to deserve such a rebuke, brought servants running into the room. Hearing what had happened, and the reason for the Pope’s distress, they thought differently. Foul play was suspected. The figure was rubbed with bread crumbs and these were given to an animal which died after eating them. The well-known picture of St. Pius V with the crucifix depicts the pontiff gazing in an attitude of dismay at the withdrawn feet of the figure on the cross.

The intermittent pains he had long suffered from ‘stones’ at length grew almost unbearable. But he chose to suffer still more rather than be operated and have other people’s hands touch his body.

A servant seeing how weak he had grown in Lent from fasting, tried to get him to take a little more nourishment by surreptitiously adding some meat sauce to his usual diet of wild chicory. Pius detecting this reprimanded the man with the words: “My friend, do you wish me during the last few days of my life to break the rule of abstinence I have observed these fifty years?” When he found the small measure of wine, mixed with his water under doctor’s orders, had been increased he threatened to dismiss the servant who had done it. His cook was forbidden, under pain of severest sanctions, to put any unlawful ingredients in his soup on days of fasting and abstinence, and during Lent.

Throughout his pontificate, Pope Pius never failed to be present at every prescribed ceremony, even when not feeling well; in addition, though told it was not customary for the Pope to do so, he insisted on attending the funeral rites of all deceased Vatican prelates and clergy.

After the Holy Week ceremonies, on Good Friday 1572 he was obliged to take to his bed. But ordering the crucifix to be carried into his room, he got up and prostrated himself several times before it.

To his physical pains were added at the last a number of spiritual griefs, mainly caused by the behaviour of certain Catholic sovereigns Philip II’s ambassador was threatening rupture of diplomatic relations if the Pope granted a dispensation for Henry of Navarre’s marriage which the French ambassador, on the other hand, was seeking to obtain by threatening withdrawal from papal obedience. Pope Pius’s disapproval of the marriage at the same time earned him the resentment of Charles IX of France and Catherine de Medici. He could, nevertheless, sing his Nunc dimittis in the knowledge that reform of the Church had been achieved in head and members, heresy at least circumscribed and the Turkish peril definitely averted.

It was rumoured the Pope was dying.

Informed of the people’s sorrow at his illness, and remembering how he had hoped they would have greater reason to regret his death than some had been disappointed by his election, Pius summoned up all remaining strength to give them his customary Easter Blessing.

A vast crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square and when the Pope appeared on the balcony of the Basilica, in pontifical vestments, and chanted the Blessing in feeble, but gravely sweet tones, the hush was so intense his voice could be clearly heard by those farthest off. Many wept for joy, hoping and praying the Pope’s life would be prolonged.

Feeling greater strength returning, to the dismay of his physicians, household and Cardinals, Pius then determined to make his regular visit to Rome’s seven Basilicas, on foot, and could not be dissuaded. “God Who began the work will see it to the end,” he said, glancing up at the sky.

At the Lateran, he wanted to climb the Holy Stairs, but was unable to, and kissed the bottom step in tears.

Awaiting him in getting safely back to the Vatican was a group of English Catholics exiled by Elizabeth. The Pope stayed talking to them, and exclaimed before leaving them and recommending them to the care of a Cardinal: “Lord, Thou knowest I have always been ready to shed my blood for their nation.”

The day before he died, Pius wished to get up and celebrate Mass for the last time, offering himself in holocaust at the altar. But this he could not do, and had to be satisfied with hearing Mass said in his room.

On the last day of April, aware that his death was approaching, he asked for the Last Sacraments, first rising and going down on his knees, to humble himself before God. He desired to die in his Dominican habit.

After receiving the Viaticum, he addressed his last words to the Cardinals assembled at his bedside. He declared amongst other things that, although his sins and failings had not allowed him to see the final achievement of all he had endeavoured to do, he adored God’s holy will and accepted His judgements.

Among his final utterances were repeated incitations to continue the allied crusade against the Turks.

On May 1st, in great agony, he lay motionless, except for constant kissing of the crucifix. Those nearest him made out the words, alternated with the prayers he was murmuring: “Lord increase my pain, but may it please Thee also to increase my patience!”

With this heroic act of love, in utmost peace, and features as never before radiant, Pius V died.

St. Teresa of Avila, who like St. Pius had the gift of prophecy, seems to have been supernaturally aware in that moment of the Pope’s passing and told her nuns to mourn as the Church had just lost her most holy Pastor.

On opening his body, the doctors found stones of such size they wondered how he had been able to live with the pain they must have caused him.

After death, Pope Pius’s body remained for some time fresh, supple and fragrant as a child’s.


Brent Klaske
Brent Klaske


Director of Operations at Angelus Press. I have worked in Catholic publishing for more than 20 years. I currently live near St. Marys, KS with my wife and 10 children.

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