By Fr. Dwight Longenecker
By the middle of the sixteenth century Catholics in Europe must have thought the entire world was falling apart. Nations that had been Catholic for a thousand years had broken away from the Church. Protestants and Catholics were at each other’s throats, while the Islamic Ottoman Empire threatened Eastern and Southern Europe. Surrounded by enemies from without and corruption and dissension from within, the Catholic Church seemed to be teetering on the edge of chaos and collapse. In the midst of all the confusion and fear, God raised up Pope Pius V to restore order, steady Peter’s ship, and move the Church into the new age of renewal.
A Head Start
The boy who would become Pope Pius V got an early start in the religious life. At his baptism in 1504 he was named Antonio Ghislieri, but he was re-named Michele when he entered the Dominican order at the age of fourteen. Ten years later, the young friar was ordained as a priest. During his formation his zeal, intellect, piety and gift for leadership began to shine.
His superiors assigned him as a novice master and lecturer in theology. By this time the Protestant revolution was in full swing and the young Dominican was writing papers defending the papacy in the face of Protestant attacks. In addition to directing the novices the strictly observant professor of theology was elected as the superior of several Dominican religious communities.
At this time many sections of the Church were weighed down by indifference, immorality, lack of catechesis and financial corruption. Prior Ghislieri not only did penance, spent long night vigils in prayer and pursued purity of heart, mind and soul—he motivated his monks to follow his example—renewing the Dominican order from the ground level.
Rome is Calling
Like most reformers, Ghislieri met opposition. He was called to serve in Rome in 1550 and was consecrated as the Bishop of Sutri by Pope Paul IV six years later, and made a cardinal a short time after and put in charge of the Office of the Inquisition.
The next pope—Pius IV—was from a branch of the wealthy Medici family. Under his short rule the papacy pushed reform forward hesitantly, and although he advanced Ghislieri, the reformist Dominican stood up to the pope when he tried to make his thirteen year-old nephew a cardinal. For that Pope Pius IV pope fired him and him sent back to his diocese.
Shortly after firing Ghislieri, Pope Pius IV died. Rome called for a second time and now the influential Bishop St. Charles Borromeo recognized in his friend Michele Ghislieri the qualities needed to push forward the renewal of the Catholic Church. In January of 1566 the cardinals gathered and Michele Ghislieri was elected as Pope Pius V.
Popes and Protestants
Pope Pius V faced the continued fallout from the Protestant Revolution, dissent and corruption within the Catholic Church and the menacing threat of the Muslim invaders of the Ottoman Empire. On the home front, Pius reformed the lifestyle of the Vatican, bringing in the monastic austerity he had championed as a reforming Dominican. Attempting to reign in the immorality in Rome itself, he attracted huge unpopularity among the people who accused him of wanting to turn the city into one big monastery.
In the Church, Pius V insisted that the reforms of the Council of Trent be implemented and stressed the need for a solemn and suitable liturgy. As part of his liturgical reform he standardized the Roman liturgy — establishing the form now known as the “Tridentine Mass” — which would be the standard liturgy until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s.
Pius also attacked the Protestant problem with similar vigor and strength of purpose. Unfortunately his attempts at repression backfired badly.
In France he took measures to stamp out the Huguenot (Protestant) influences. He vetoed the royal decree which had granted some religious toleration to the Protestants, insisted on better Catholic catechesis and opposed all compromise with the powerful Huguenot nobles. However, his well intentioned clamp down only made things worse. Just a few months after Pius’ death in August 1572, Paris erupted in the bloody St Bartholomew’s Day massacre which sparked another round of bitter battles between Protestant and Catholic forces.
If the situation in France was bad, in England and Scotland it was worse. When Queen Elizabeth I declared herself head of the Church of England, Pius responded by excommunicating her and supporting her rival, Mary Queen of Scots. The pope’s decree Regnans in Excelsis not only cut off the queen from the church, but it also released her subjects from any duty of loyalty. The result was that the practice of the Catholic faith in England was considered treason and the notorious persecution of Catholics under the Elizabethan regime kicked into high gear.
The Catholics suffered terribly. Attendance at the Anglican Church was required. Those who opted out were hunted down and fined. If they persisted their goods were confiscated. They were imprisoned, tortured and killed. To celebrate Mass was a capital offense. Spies infested the land. Priests were betrayed, captured and tortured before being publicly executed in the most gruesome ways.
If Pope Pius V’s attempts to suppress Protestantism backfired, at least everyone learned that religion cannot be imposed and forced suppression only creates martyrs for the cause.
The Threat from the East
Catholic Europe was not only threatened by division and persecution to the North and West. The Ottoman Empire in the East was also flexing its religious and military muscle. For centuries the Muslim empire had been advancing. The Turkish based
rulers controlled all the Middle East and North Africa, dominated the Mediterranean and were making inroads into Eastern Europe. Divided amongst themselves, the Christian nations of Europe could hardly rally together to fight off the Turks. The conflict reached a climax in 1571 as the warlords directing the Ottoman fleet planned a full fledged invasion of Italy. Pius hastily called together the leaders of nine Catholic nations with navies. This Holy League, led by Don John of Austria sailed out to meet the much larger and better equipped Ottoman fleet.
The famous battle took place in the Bay of Lepanto off the coast of Western Greece on October 7, 1571. Pope Pius called on all Catholics in Europe to pray the rosary for a successful outcome. When the Catholic forces prevailed the pope gave thanks and declared October 7 as the Feast of Our Lady of Victories, and this feast was later re-named Our Lady of the Rosary.
The Battle of Lepanto was a crucial turning point in history because the powerful Ottoman fleet never recovered, but also because, had the Turks dominated Southern Europe they would have controlled the Straits of Gibraltar —the gateway to the New World. If that had happened the Americas may have been colonized by Muslims not Christians.
Pius Pope. Pious Pastor
Michele Ghislieri – Pope Pius V died the year after the Battle of Lepanto. Credited with cleaning up Rome, promoting the reverent celebration of the liturgy, battling the forces arrayed against the church and reforming the church, because he wore his Dominican habit, he is also the pope who established the tradition of the Holy Father wearing white robes.
His tomb is one of the most visited pilgrimage points in the basilica of St Maria Maggiore in Rome. Pope Francis made it a point of praying there the day after his own election in 2013.
As one of the great reforming popes of the Catholic Church, Pius V’s courageous life and witness is a reminder that in every age the church is prone to fall back into immorality, financial corruption, indifference within and persecution and attack from without. Every age, therefore needs the piety and purpose of Pius V, and that reforming zeal, love for the Lord and energetic service is not only the mission of popes and priests. It is the calling—each in our own way— of every Catholic.