Antonio, we are told in Shakespeare’s play, ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ commissioned his dearest friend, Bassanio, to write his epitaph. Robert Emmett would have no man write his epitaph, insisting that he and his cause be left to the verdict of history. Both history and the one dearest to her could be said to have written the epitaph of Margherita Sanson, the mother of Saint Pius X.
The historian would crystallize her greatness into a brief, impersonal, ‘She was the mother of a modern Pope who was raised to the honours of the Altar.’
Antecedent to history’s verdict are the words of an unpretentious tombstone over a humble grave in the Italian town of Riese. Saint Pius X, or Cardinal Giuseppe Sarto, as he then was, left over her grave this tribute to his mother: ‘Margherita Sanson: the exemplary wife, the prudent woman, the incomparable mother, who, May 2, 1852, lost her husband, Gianbattista Sarto. In sad and happy days, she kept brave-hearted courage and devotion; raised as good Christians her nine children, and crowned a life of toil and sacrifice by her death, February 2. 1894. Cardinal Giuseppe Sarto and his brothers and sisters pray for everlasting peace for their dear parents.’
By these words, Cardinal Sarto did more than show his filial affection for the woman whom God gave him for mother. ‘The exemplary wife, the prudent woman, the incomparable mother,’ was the ideal he would keep before all mothers as their true vocation. The epitaph and the subsequent history of her son give us the real picture of Margherita Sanson. The son painted the picture; history has projected it and, in the process, focussed the attention of mothers throughout the Christian world.
Margherita Sanson never occupied an important official or social position. She lived the ordinary life of a simple, hardworking mother of a large family. ‘In sad and happy days she kept brave-hearted courage and devotion; raised as good Christians her nine children.’
But Margherita was by no means an ordinary person – no mother is. Her influence was as deep and as enduring as it was far reaching; for Margherita influenced, as God would have her influence, those whom He entrusted to her care, and, of these, Giuseppe was to influence the whole world.
For this woman, who never spared herself in her ‘life of toil and sacrifice,’ motherhood was not a burden to be dreaded or a last shift to be endured. It was a vocation from God, and it was part of the mother, Margherita, to fashion under God, a soul to whom God was to give the highest possible honour on earth – the occupancy of the Chair of Peter.
Margherita Sanson was not destined to live to see her son – the parish priest of Tombolo – crowned Pope and become the parish priest of the world; nor were her ears to hear the world’s acclaim, June 3, 1951, when he was raised to the honours of the Altar.
But Margherita had her consolations. She experienced a mother’s pride when her beloved Giuseppe was ordained, became Archbishop, and later, a member of the Sacred College of Cardinals. Observers have recorded her simple utterance when she met her son after his Consecration as Archbishop. Pointing to her wedding ring and to the episcopal ring of the future Pius X, she said: ‘My son, if I had not had this, you would not have had that.’
Margherita knew that Our Divine Lord instituted Sacraments for two states of life only – the married and the priestly. It was not in spite of marriage, but in and by marriage that she herself was to be sanctified. Such was the calibre of her soul that marriage, mutilated and debased and rendered sterile by selfishness was simply beyond her comprehension. God’s Will alone counted. Does not marriage supply God’s Church with priests and religious? This was Margherita’s truly Christian outlook. How pleasing to the profound, theological mind of her son must have been that simple utterance: ‘If I had not had this, you would not have had that.’
Margherita was of the people. Her skill later withstood many demands when providing for the needs of her rapidly growing family.
Widowed after nineteen years of marriage, Margherita held the large family together by the sheer force of her maternal love and influence. She provided for Giuseppe’s education to the priesthood and balanced the domestic budget as only the good housewife can.
The years passed and left their mark. Giuseppe was made a Cardinal in 1893. He hastened to the aged and infirm mother at Riese as soon as official ceremonial permitted. Margherita’s cup of happiness was almost overflowing. Almost, but not quite. Real woman that she was, Margherita had one request. Would Giuseppe don his Cardinal’s robes that she might see him in them? He agreed and changed. Margherita could only sit and look at him speechlessly, while the tears of pride and joy and gratitude to God ran down her cheeks.
Then the mother faded into the true daughter of the Church. She tried to kneel for his blessing. His Eminence gently restrained her. Having blessed her, he kissed her affectionately. It was Margherita’s ‘Nunc dimittis.’ (‘Now, O Lord, You can dismiss Your servant.) After that day, she never saw her son again in this life.
Giuseppe Sarto never forgot the influence of Margherita, his mother. He could declare that, through the years, he had always been aware, even when distant from her, of her love reaching out to him; of her strength giving him strength.
Whatever may be added of Margherita, her son’s wording of her epitaph – ‘the exemplary wife, the prudent woman, the incomparable mother,’ remains the highest tribute that could be paid to any mother.