The Holiness of the Church in the Nineteenth Century – Pope Pius IX

Pope Blessed Pius IX, c.1878Whenever the Church has had to struggle through difficult times, God has always raised up great men who, by their eminent qualities, by the holiness of their lives and their convincing devotion to the things of God, have encouraged the timid and have given new life to wavering faith and relaxing zeal. The nineteenth century was to the Church an ordeal by fire. That she has come out of it unscathed and purified is due first to the assistance of God and after this to the faithful allegiance of the supreme pastors to whom her destinies were confided. All the Popes of the nineteenth century were an honor to the Church, distinguished by their virtue and learning, powerful beacons who spread wide a heavenly light throughout the darkness of the world.

For the longest time of all Pius IX stood out as the guardian of Sion and it was he who steered the Bark of Peter through stormiest seas. There is scarcely any pontificate that surpassed his in importance and which was obliged to solve such weighty problems. But Pius IX was in every sense the man whom Christ could put in charge of His flock during that critical period. A saint was needed in whom the sharp eye of the enemy could not discover any fault — a man inflamed by the zeal of faith, who would not sacrifice a single jewel of that precious heritage which the spirit of the time sought with determined energy to drag away from the Church. Such a man was Pius IX. Only a few facts from his virtuous and eventful life are needed to convince us of this. The whole life of Pius IX was pervaded and sustained by the spirit of faith, the most precious heritage he received from his parents. He was born at Sinigaglia on May 13, 1792, son of Count Jerome Mastai-Ferretti, and he received in baptism the name of John Mary. Once his pious mother, kneeling before a picture of the Mother of Sorrows, lifted up the infant John and said: “O Mary, adopt him as your son as you adopted his patron, the beloved disciple. I consecrate him to you and give him up wholly to you.” Thus at his mother’s breast the boy learned to know and to love Mary and later on he was to bear witness before the whole world and to all coming generations what a mighty flame of holy love for the pure Mother of God had been then enkindled. We shall see how Mary on her part showed herself the most powerful protectress of his life. To the Mother of Sorrows he had been dedicated and the sword of sorrow would often pierce his heart.

Another trait which manifests the true Christian spirit of the family is too touching to leave unmentioned. It was in those sad days when the French took Pius VI a captive into France. The mother, who said prayers in common with her children, was accustomed to add an Our Father and a Hail Mary for the Holy Father. One evening she told her children with tears what a hard trial had come upon the Holy Father and that therefore they should pray for him with the greater fervor. John, then only seven years old, knelt down weeping. When the prayers were ended, he asked how God could permit His representative to be so ill-treated. His mother tried to make him understand that the Pope was the Vicar of the Crucified Saviour and on this account had to suffer very much. “But then,” pursued the little reasoner, “they are wicked men who treat the Holy Father so cruelly and we must pray that God may punish them.” “My child,” was the reply, “we should never pray God to punish any one. What did Our Saviour Himself do, even on the Cross? He prayed for His enemies; and Pius VI surely does the same at this very moment.

Let us join him then and pray to God, not that He should punish all these wicked men who have laid sacrilegious hands upon the Lord’s anointed, but rather that He may enlighten them and turn their wicked hearts toward good.” Then all of them knelt down again and said a second “Our Father” for the welfare of the enemies of the Pope. If the boy could have looked into the future and have known what was to come he would have seen that it would be the chief feature of his life to be persecuted as Christ’s Vicar by the enemies of the Cross and to implore Heaven’s mercy in behalf of those very enemies. Joyful and happy were the days spent in his father’s palace. We may be assured that his devout parents were very careful to keep everything evil far from their promising boy and to plant virtue deeply in his young heart. After making his first Holy Communion, John Mastai in his tenth year was sent to the old mountain town of Volterra to apply himself to higher studies in the college of the Piarists. It was not long before he became the favorite of the whole house on account of his angelic modesty and amiability, his piety and docility. His talents enabled him to acquire the knowledge required of him without difficulty and his teachers could never sufficiently praise the purity of his morals.

After six years John had completed his college course and the youth of sixteen found himself confronted with the weighty problem of choosing a state of life. He had hesitated between the career of a soldier and the priesthood. But God had taken the decision into His own hands.

Once during his boyhood John Mastai while playing had fallen into a cold lake and was saved from imminent death only through the presence of mind of a servant. But after that time he became sickly and there gradually developed the dreadful disease of epilepsy. Physicians declared that a cure was impossible. So the young man with his splendid mental endowments was doomed to a life of inactivity. All his bright hopes for the future were stricken from him at one blow which made him incapable of bearing arms and unfitted him for service at the altar. But difficulties are for the saints only the rounds of a ladder on which they ascend to the height of their confidence in God; and young Mastai was not the man to fold his arms in discouragement. His lively faith knew well the grand promises held out to persevering prayer. Therefore, his resolution was quickly made — he decided to dedicate himself to God in Holy Orders and by unremitting prayer obtain freedom from the malady that would bar the door of the priesthood against him. In the spring of 1809 he received the tonsure and then returned to his home, because, for the time, he could do nothing more than to take care of his sick body and to pray.

In the meantime grievous trials had fallen to the lot of the successor of Saint Peter. Pius VII pined in French captivity. But Providence exacted a terrible retribution for the crime and in the very same castle of Fontainebleau where he had kept the Pope a prisoner, the French Emperor was obliged to sign his abdication. The coming home of Pius VII was like a march of triumph, so splendid as never had been seen by a Roman emperor. The way led the Pope through Sinigaglia and here he was the guest of Count Mastai-Ferretti. The whole event made a deep impression on John Mastai, who was at the time twenty-two years of age. He accompanied the Pope and entered the Eternal City with the Pontiff on that memorable day, May 24, 1814, while all Christendom rejoiced. He resided in the house of his uncle, a canon of Saint Peter’s, and attended the lectures at the Roman University. He undertook besides to assist the director of the orphan asylum, Tata Giovanni, in the instruction and management of the children. Still his insidious mal- ady did not leave him. He now began to think that it might be better for him to join the noble guard of the Pope. Then one day he suffered an attack in the street more violent than any he had had before. Pius VII himself heard of it and bade the young man to come to him, for the Pope wished to console him. Soon after, John Mastai disappeared from Rome and remained a considerable time at Loretto, making most fervent appeal to the Blessed Virgin. When he left Loretto, all was bright and sunny in his heart, for he did not doubt that Mary had heard him. His sickness speedily diminished and he immediately applied to obtain the necessary dispensation for the reception of Holy Orders. On April 10 the goal was reached at last, and on the day following he celebrated his first Holy Mass in the midst of the orphan boys of Tata Giovanni. What the Blessed Virgin does, she does thoroughly. After the day of his ordination to the priesthood all traces of epilepsy disappeared and until his death, at the venerable age of eighty-six years, Pius IX was never seriously ill. So his sickness was in the designs of Providence only a means to bring him to his true vocation, to compel him to rest his confidence in God alone, and to give him an evident proof of the favor of the Mother of God, to show him the power of her intercession.

For a while the young priest retained the humble position of assistant at the orphan asylum. During this time he drew great spiritual profit from an intimate intercourse with the noble-minded prelate, Prince Charles Odescalchi. Through the latter he became acquainted with the Venerable Vincent Mary Strambi of the Congregation of the Passionists. The choice of such friends shows the tendency of his own mind. The beatification of the Venerable Strambi is not far distant. Odescalchi also died in the repute of sanctity. In 1838, Odescalchi, then a cardinal, obtained permission from Gregory XVI to renounce his purple and finally to realize the vocation to which his heart had drawn him from his earliest years. He became a member of the Society of Jesus and the former prince and cardinal took his place with the young novices and asked to be treated in every respect as the youngest of them. After living three years in the Society of Jesus he was called to receive the reward of his blameless life.

In contact with these and similarly minded men of mature spirituality and holiness, the religious life of Father Mastai increased in depth and substantial worth while faith sank its roots ever more firmly into his susceptible mind. The years that followed were free from burdensome occupations. It was now his opportunity to seek intimate and loving intercourse with God and to learn how inestimable to the priest are the enlightenment and consolations of prayer. Else there would be danger that, later on, his mind might be swallowed up in merely external affairs because of the multitude of his distracting occupations and would not be able to penetrate into the depths of the life of faith. Now he could gather fuel for the kindling of that fire of divine love which he was afterward to spread throughout the whole world.

It was not long before the eminent qualities of the young priest were recognized. Toward the end of 1823 we find him in distant Chile as Socius of the papal delegate, Mgr. Muzi. After his return, he became president of the great Hospice of Saint Michael in 1825, was made archbishop of Spoleto in 1827, transferred to the see of Imola in 1832, and was created a cardinal in 1840. These were years of wide activity, very difficult affairs in his dioceses requiring settlement. With consummate skill, however, he always made himself master of the situation. His paternal mildness and the purity of intention on which lay the foundation of his indefatigable zeal gained even the most obstinate hearts. The high confidence placed in his ability was evidenced by the fact that he was elected Pope on June 16, 1846, after a conclave of only two days, although he was one of the youngest cardinals and the electors knew well what heavy storms the Church was about to encounter. The Pope-elect quite broke down under an agony of tears when he saw that the required two-thirds of the votes really bore his name. Asked if he would accept the election, he looked up at the image of the Crucified and said: “Lord, behold Thy unworthy servant, Thy will be done.”

In grateful memory of Pius VII he took the name of Pius. When amidst the acclamations of an immense multitude he was on the following day driven to the Quirinal, he said to his companion: “To-day begins the persecution.” It was a prophetic word. The ninth Pius was to be a martyr of the Papacy.

It would exceed the limits of this work to picture the heroic combats and unspeakable sorrows of the “Grand Sufferer,” Pius IX, or realistically to sketch in full effect the grandeur of his character and the blessing his pontificate bestowed on Christendom. His life displays traits of likeness to that of Him whose representative he was. What most excites our reverent admiration in Our Lord Jesus Christ is His great submission to the will of His Heavenly Father, His love for mankind, and the excess of suffering and humiliation undergone of His own free will. “Non possumus,” “We can not,” was the firm expression of Pius IX when, with their shocking menaces, the foes of the Church demanded of him anything that was against the divine law. His kindness of heart and his ineffable meekness toward all, even toward his enemies, exercised an overpowering charm. Yet soon after his accession to the throne of Peter, in fear for his life, he must flee the Eternal City and hear from afar how the holy places were profaned with the wildest abominations.

In defiance of all international law they despoiled him of the inheritance of Saint Peter, and among all the heads of the world’s governments not one had the courage to protest against the crime, save only the noble Garcia Moreno, president of Ecuador. Finally, as a prisoner, Pius IX came to the close of his thorn-crowned life.

We shall lay particular stress upon three events which gave a very special significance to his pontificate; namely, the declaration of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the proclamation of the Syllabus of 1864, and the definition of papal infallibility in faith and morals.

The modern world hates the supernatural. The doctrine of grace, of sin and redemption, is for it a senseless puzzle. It had no understanding, therefore, of the realm of things above nature, of the nobility of the divine sonship, of the grand meaning and wondrous deep beauty of redemption through Christ. This is why it sinks more and more deeply into all the sins of the flesh and seeks its happiness in sensual delights alone. In direct opposition to this, Pius IX dared to bind the whole world to believe in the Immaculate Conception of the ever Blessed Virgin Mary, a fact of the supernatural order. This mystery demonstrated as none other the high esteem God has for sinlessness. What a glorious ideal Pius IX proposed to the sinful world! The splendid white purity of our heavenly Mother shall fix our attention and charm us to imitation. Through Mary Pius IX hoped to save our age from the horrible curse of impurity. His act met with enthusiastic approval in the hearts of all true Catholics, and contributed mightily to foster love and imitation of the Stainless Virgin.

Infidelity had cloaked itself with the garment of science. By means of false principles it sought to penetrate secretly into the Church and to consume the very marrow of her life. But this treachery did not escape the watchful eye of the supreme pastor. The Syllabus of 1864 pilloried a large number of such false teachings and the fury of the unmasked deceivers was unbounded. They clamored about unheard-of fetters with which the Pope had shackled science. But these fetters were none other than the laws of truth, and he had really secured freedom to true science against the caprice of passion and the uncertain currents of the spirit of the age. If in anything, certainly in this, we must admire the wisdom and courage of the Pope. And succeeding years have shown that he was right. The truth has never yet contradicted the Faith.

The third evil of the times was the spirit of revolt against authority. Here, too, Pius IX dared lay his hand upon the wound. It would have been a bold deed for Gregory VII to proclaim the Pope’s infallibility an article of faith; but now, in the revolutionary nineteenth century, which raised the worship of self to apotheosis, was it not to be feared that the faithful would abandon Rome in multitudes? Many, indeed, believed so. But Pius saw further. The Church’s enemies themselves had necessitated an authoritative declaration of this dogma by the war they had raised against it. To be silent now would show weakness on the part of the Church. Men prepared their plots against her, the press raged in all countries of the globe, political powers made threats, misguided Catholics showed themselves ready to apostatize, but Pius knew no fear when the performance of his duty for the welfare of the Church was in question and exceeding must be our gratitude for his constancy. No dogma shows us the divine guidance of the Church in a clearer light than does that of papal infallibility. In the limitless confusion about the most important questions of our existence, it is the greatest consolation for a Catholic to know that the Pope is the organ of the Eternal Truth Itself. The papacy under Pius IX lost its temporal possessions; but it made immense conquests in the spiritual domain. Through the doctrine of papal infallibility it has been interiorly strengthened and possesses the greatest conceivable authority.

To bring all this about Providence chose Pius IX. He was the instrument which possessed all the qualities for the realization of the designs of God in His Church. He was as the “Stimmen am Maria Loach” portrays him, “a character consummate in its perfection, a great man, greater than any other of the generation in which he lived, for no one consecrated so long a life as he to so grand an idea with such energy and wisdom; no one bore so loftily as he the standard of truth and justice on the cruel battle-ground of these evil days.”

A man who exhibited a martyr’s courage in defense of the principles of faith certainly would give life and expression to this faith in his personality. When Pius IX died on February 17, 1878, even his bitterest enemies bestowed unreserved praise upon his private life. No one dared call in doubt the spotless integrity of his conduct or the sincerity of his piety. Others who are great as scholars, poets, politicians, military leaders, and the like, are often most miserably small if we measure their lives by the standard of Christian morality. The only thing they found to blame in Pius IX was that he was “too Catholic.” Those who knew him more intimately considered him a saint. Cardinal Patrizzi once said that if he survived Pius he would immediately inaugurate the process of his canonization.

Pius IX had all that mildness and chanjiing amiability which is peculiar to the saints. He was inflexible against any encroachment on the sacred rights of the Church, inflexible also against anything in himself which did not correspond to the highest ideal of Christian perfection. Therefore, we find him so modest, so angelically pure, so affable, so childlike in his piety, so fervent in zeal, and so strong in suffering. Even during his lifetime miraculous works were related of him, and such occurrences so increased year by year after his death that in the year 1907 Pius X ordered the first inquiries in the process of his canonization to be inaugurated. Let us hope that the Pontiff who placed the diamond crown upon the brow of heaven’s Queen will himself soon win the victor’s crown of sainthood.

– this text is taken from The Holiness of the Church in the Nineteenth Century: Saintly Men and Women of Our Own Times, by Father Constantine Kempf, SJ; translated from the German by Father Francis Breymann, SJ; Impimatur by + Cardinal John Farley, Archbishop of New York, 25 September 1916

MLA Citation

  • Father Constantine Kempf, SJ. “Pope Pius IX”. The Holiness of the Church in the Nineteenth Century, 1916. CatholicSaints.Info. 25 February 2018. Web. 21 November 2018. <>