Piety, Protection and Perseverance: The Legacy of Pope St. Pius V

In her darkest hour, God gave the Church a shepherd who understood that when under attack, there are only two true options: surrender or fight.IMG_1984

Destined for Sainthood

Born Antonio Michele Ghislieri on January 17, 1504, Pope St. Pius V was destined to do God’s work from the beginning. Though descended from noble genes, his family was of modest means. Ghislieri studied under the tutelage of the Dominican Friars.

Ghislieri took the Dominican habit at the age of 15 and there was no limit to his determination to please God and live in full accordance with His will. Ghislieri spent countless hours fasting, praying, performing various forms of penance and doing great acts of charity. He was zealous in his self-mortification because he understood that the key to connecting with the God is detachment from earthly comforts.

This early dedication to principles rooted in faith and service to God would shape his papacy and lead to his crucial role in the history – and, indeed, the very survival – of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Inquisition

Ghislieri was a central figure in one of the most notorious – and misunderstood – periods of Church history: the Inquisition. Ghislieri was first appointed Commissionary-General of the Inquisition then, later, Grand Inquisitor of all Christendom. In his latter role, Ghislieri had final say in the guilt or innocence of the accused. He is the only person in Church history to have been trusted with such power.

The primary purpose of the Inquisition was to root out heretics and turn them over to civil authorities. Misunderstandings about the Church’s role in the Inquisition is one of the many areas in which anti-Catholic bigots attempt to use to discredit the Church. The Church never executed anyone nor was torture used with reckless abandon, contrary to popular smear-tactics.

The Inquisition investigated, tried and pronounced judgment on those accused of heresy – a role only the Church was qualified to play, as the authority on religious matters  – but it was the civil authorities who sentenced and carried out punishment.

When compared to many “justice” systems of the time, the Inquisition was actually quite fair to those under accusation of heresy. Surprisingly to most modern people – who make the intellectual error of judging the events of history in the context of today’s moral standards – the Inquisition was actually one of the first judicial orders that granted rights to the accused. Full trials were held and those convicted, who would repent, could gain pardon.

One final moral and ethical note on the Inquisition: centuries of poor leadership in the Church combined with a self-centered priesthood and uncommitted laity resulted in thousands leaving the Church in favor of the Protestant Reformation; this was placing the eternal fate of those ignorant souls in peril of damnation.

It is the central moral question every single person who is part of any religion must face: do I believe the teachings of my faith are true? If so, one must defend that faith at all costs. To be derelict in this duty would make the person complicit in the eternal damnation of others. The heresies of the Protestant reformers could not be allowed to further infiltrate the Church; they had to be driven out into the open, lest all Catholics be led astray.

Ghislieri was as merciful as he was relentless in his charge to pursue heretics. Upon a conviction of heresy, he would spend countless hours ministering to the guilty and would even bring redemption to many by convincing them to renounce their heretical statements. He also obtained pardons for several heretics who had initially been released after renouncing their sin, but later returned to preaching heresy.

The saint understood the will of God and was one of the unique individuals who could look at the world through the eyes of the Lord. He knew God did not want any of His children condemned, but the gift of free will mandates that the individual must return to God of his own volition.

When Pope Pius IV died after several months spent battling a severe illness, Ghislieri was chosen to succeed him on January 17, 1566. Ghislieri had fervently opposed his own election– fearing he was not worthy of the post – but ultimately accepted in fear that to decline further would be rejecting the call of God.

“God, grant me the grace that they may grieve more for my death than for my election.” – Pope St. Pius V

There were a multitude of tasks facing the new pope, the most pressing being the salvation of souls by returning the Catholic Church to order in the wake of the chaos into which it was plunged by the Protestant Reformation.

The Council of Trent

Though he was not pope during any of the three periods of the Council of Trent, Pius V was arguably the most important related figure, as the monumental task of implementing the decisions of Trent rested on his shoulders. Pius V took this duty with the same diligence and zeal as he did everything else.

The Council of Trent convened in three parts from 1543 to 1563. It was called as a response to the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther’s opposition to papal authority had taken root and was causing the Church to collapse. Luther’s attack on the church was the result of somewhat legitimate charges of corruption against members of the Church hierarchy, specifically involving the sale of indulgences – remissions of temporal punishment for sins that have been forgiven through the sacrament of Confession.

Luther had valid points – which made his message resonate with so many Catholics – but he was wrong to start his own church rather than continue his push for reform from within. The Council of Trent directly refuted each argument raised by Luther – and also by other reformers such as John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli.

Main Decrees of the Council of Trent:

  • The Protestant belief that faith in Christ alone – absent of good works before God – is sufficient for salvation was condemned as heresy.
  • The Protestant reformers rejection of seven books that had been part of the original canon of the Old Testament since the year 382, was condemned and a justification for excommunication.
  • The Doctrine of Transubstantiation – that upon the priest’s words of consecration, the bread and wine become the actual body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ – was affirmed. Martin Luther, himself, confirmed that early Christians had always believed in the real presence in the Eucharist, but the doctrine was heavily debated during the Reformation.
  • That God gave two modes of revelation to man: Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, as taught by Jesus Christ to the Apostles, and then passed down to their successors, the Bishops of the Catholic Church, was affirmed. The Protestant reformers rejected the long-held belief in tradition and argued that all that was needed for salvation was contained in the Bible.
  • Catholic doctrine states that, while the Sacrament of Confession relieves one of the eternal punishment for sin, in Hell, the soul is still unable to enter the presence of God until it is purified. The soul is purged of this final remnant of sin in purgatory, so that it may attain perfection necessary to enter the presence of God. The Council upheld this doctrine in response to the Protestant assertion that no purification was necessary, because all who profess faith in Christ have been justified by grace and are thus granted eternal salvation.
  • Indulgences – perhaps the most controversial practice of the Catholic Church in the centuries preceding the Reformation – were remissions of the eternal and temporal punishments for sin.

Indulgences grew exponentially during the Crusades, when Christian men going off to fight in the Holy Land would not have access to a priest – should they die on the battlefield – in order to receive the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, the anointing and preparation for death, including final Confession and absolution for sins.

The Church – under the power of binding and loosing, given it by the Lord Jesus Christ – granted to all those who took up the Cross in defense of Christianity in the Holy Land  an indulgence, enabling the man to go straight to Heaven, upon his death.

The problem stemmed from the fact that, long after the Crusades, some leaders in the Church began to sell indulgences to finance the building of cathedrals and other projects. This was essentially allowing people to believe they could buy their way into Heaven – and it was completely contrary to Christ’s teachings – and the teaching of the Church herself.

But, because these local authorities had so grievously erred in trust, the Council reformed the manner and circumstances under which indulgences could be granted – while affirming the truth that the Church had the power to grant them.

There were other issues addressed by the Council of Trent, but these were the ones in direct response to the Reformation and the grievous wound it had dealt the Catholic Church. The job of implementing these decrees in order to restore the Church to power fell upon Pius V – and implement them he did.

A Return to Order

Pope St. Pius V inherited a Church in disarray. Catholics were leaving by the thousands in favor of new Christian movements led by Martin Luther, John Calvin and others. He had the decrees of the Council of Trent, but taking them from paper to practice would be no small task.

From the moment of his election, Pius V made decisions that would bring the Catholic Church back to her place as a model of Christian virtue and order. His first act as Pope was to do away with the pomp-and-circumstance of the papal coronation, instead, diverting the vast amount of money that would have been spent on the celebration to aid the poor.

Pius V visited hospitals and personally ministered to the sick and the poor, anointing them in preparation for death. He established a Church dowry for the marriage of poor women. He also strongly encouraged Catholics to be learned in many ways. He was a pope for the people – a model of the charity and humility of Christ.

He enacted strict codes in Rome regarding behavior, including severe public punishment for adulterers, granting prostitutes the option of joining a convent, finding marriage or leaving the city, banning the employment of young girls as servants in order to protect them from predatory masters, and instituting the swift execution of bandits and thieves.

Pius V also mandated the proper reverence at Mass, under severe penalty for those who disobeyed. Proper dress, modesty, and respectful behavior was required.

Once he had established that the Church would return to a model of virtue, Pius V had to tackle the executive tasks that would be necessary to ensure she would survive the attempted death-blow dealt by the Protestant reformers. First, he published the Catechism of the Council of Trent, a massive text that strongly affirmed the doctrines of the Catholic Church that are still valid today.

Not a single doctrine affirmed at Trent was removed for the publishing of the current Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992.

In addition to the Catechism, Pius also standardized the Roman Missal, reformed the Breviary and set up the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine Classes for the Young which called upon lay people to teach young Catholics the fundamentals of the faith.

Pius V also was militant in driving corruption out of the Church and removing the stain of former abuses of local church leaders. He held bishops and clergy to far higher standards than they had been accustomed to, and no longer were appointments made based upon political ties. Rather, Pius V had all priests who were candidates for bishop fully vetted for piety before he would appoint them. Bishops had to become the faithful shepherds that their predecessors, the Apostles, were.

The Turkish Threat

The Ottoman Turks were a constant threat to Christendom due to the Muslim empire’s close proximity to Christian Europe. Pius V recognized this early and cried out for European leaders to address it, from the very first months of his papacy. He pleaded with the European nations to unite for their own survival. For reasons ranging from political infighting to greedy self-interest – including trade agreements with the very empire that was threatening their existence – Pius V’s warnings went unheeded.

Seeing the wound inflicted by the Reformation upon Christ’s Church, the Ottoman emperor decided the time had come to conquer the continent and drive Christianity from the face of the earth.

Seeing that Christendom was now split, the Turkish military tested the waters by launching a series of assaults on Christian territories. It was the brutality with which the fortress of Famagusta on the island of Cyprus was taken, that finally awakened Europe to the very serious threat the Ottoman Turks posed to Christendom.

Upon the surrender of the city under the promise of safe passage for its defenders, the Turkish emperor inexplicably reneged and had all the men beheaded and their heads piled up as a symbol of his victory. The Christian general, Marcantonio Bragadino was tortured for several days, having his nose and ears cut off and then his skin sliced off from his waist up.

The Spanish and Venetians finally agreed to join the pope’s Holy League, but the Turks were already sailing toward European waters in order to take control of the Mediterranean Sea and subsequently launch an invasion of the continent.

The Holy League amassed all the ships it could, but was still severely outnumbered, and with the wind against them, it seemed like annihilation for Christendom. But Pope Pius V knew the secret to victory – complete faith in God.

The Battle of Lepanto – the most important battle in the history of European Christianity – is covered in detail in the author’s article, Living on a Prayer. The crux of it was that Pope Pius V put out the call to all Christians in Europe to unite and pray the Rosary in an appeal to the Most Blessed Virgin Mary to intercede. It worked, and the Christians were victorious in defending their homeland – and, indeed, their faith.

Queen Elizabeth I

Pope St. Pius V was a fierce defender of God’s Holy Church against all enemies. Though she had ascended to the throne largely with Catholic support, Queen Elizabeth I of England renounced papal authority and declared herself head of the Church of England; terrible oppression would soon follow for English and Irish Catholics. Pope Pius V acted: he declared her illegitimate, excommunicated her and relieved all Catholics who were under her rule of any oath of obedience to her.

Later Life

Pope St. Pius V suffered from internal stones which, toward the end of his life, grew so large that they caused him a tremendous amount of pain. He embraced the pain as he did the mortification with which he had lived his entire life – as another way to glorify God and unite with the sufferings of Christ upon the cross.

The last days of Pius V’s life were spent embracing his crucifix repeatedly kissing the five wounds of Christ. He maintained his rigorous fasting, in defiance of his advisors, even as the strength left his body. Pius V was connected to the Lord on such a level that he truly was dead to the flesh. He died on May 1, 1572.

“Lord increase my pain, but may it please Thee also to increase my patience.” – Pope St. Pius V

In death, as he had in life, Pope St. Pius V sought only to do the will of God. He showed no concern for himself, other than to ensure that he was pleasing the Lord.


Beatified in 1672 and canonized in 1711, Pope St. Pius V was a powerful example for Catholics to follow, especially in the current age. Pius V was devoted to the Catholic Church as he knew it was man’s only hope for salvation. Regardless of the odds, Pius V held fast to God’s will and followed the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Staying true to tradition, Pius V was able to shepherd the Catholic Church through one of her most perilous periods since the fall of the Roman Empire. Through the grace of God, he brought the Church back from the brink of destruction. The disaster of the Protestant Reformation, the threat of the Muslim Ottoman Empire and the betrayal of Queen Elizabeth could each, alone,  have destroyed the Catholic Church. But God had given His Church the right leader at the right time.

500 years later, the Church is facing another fierce enemy, though one far more subtle than the 300 ships of the Ottoman Empire. The Church is in trouble because a lack of firm leadership has modern Catholics questioning whether or not she even matters. There are conflicting statements by bishops of different dioceses, and priests who are teaching a message that is anything but that of Christ, in a well-intended but misguided attempt to appeal to a modern audience.

The absence of strong leadership that will stand up and boldly proclaim of every single Catholic teaching that “this is what we believe, this is what we stand for and we will absolutely stand, not only, for it but also against anything or anyone that threatens it – for it was given to us by Our Blessed Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God”, has resulted in the regression of many Catholics into what are dubbed Cafeteria Catholics: they pick and choose the doctrines in which they believe. That is not how Christ taught and it certainly is not what the Church has taught for 2000 years. The Church is filled with people who want to please the world – tragically, this is the path to certain destruction.

The world will hate the Church regardless of what Catholics do to try to fit into secular society. This is good news, not bad. Christ said the world will hate those who speak His truth, as it first hated Him. The Church needs to embrace that truth and rise as a beacon to light this dark and scary world rather than hiding in the shadows. Lay Catholics must lead the way, as the clergy is struggling to make sense of it all.

The world is broken and those who cling to it will end up lost. Pope St. Pius V understood this. Under his papacy, the Church withstood the gravest threat to her existence since the early days of Roman persecution. To face the challenges the world is throwing at her today, the Church must hearken back to Pius V; she must stand strong against the world – just as she did against the Ottomans and the Reformers – and proclaim the eternal truths that Christ taught. In doing so, the Church might just save the world.

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