A defender of Catholic doctrine and Christian civilization during the tumultuous 16th century, Pope Saint Pius V has his liturgical memorial on April 30.
The Dominican Pope is known for implementing the reforms of the Council of Trent, and for organizing the “Holy League” that defeated the Turkish naval fleet at the 1571 Battle of Lepanto.
Though St. Pius V’s pontificate was not extremely lengthy, it was a turning point in the history of the Church. In a 2004 letter for the fifth centenary of his predecessor’s birth, Blessed John Paul II mentioned some of St. Pius V’s groundbreaking achievements, which have continued to shape the liturgical and devotional life of the Christian West:
“He strove to apply faithfully the decrees of the Council of Trent: in the liturgical field, with the publication of the renewed (Tridentine) Roman Missal and the new Breviary; in the area of catechetics, by entrusting to parish priests in particular the ‘Catechism of the Council of Trent’; and as for theology, it was he who introduced St. Thomas' ‘Summa' into the universities,” Bl. John Paul II recalled in his tribute to St. Pius V.
“Conscious of the mission he had received from Christ the Good Shepherd, he devoted himself to tending the flock entrusted to him, encouraging daily recourse to prayer and making Marian devotion a priority. He contributed significantly to spreading it by giving strong encouragement to the practice of praying the Rosary, and he himself would recite the whole of it every day, despite his many exacting tasks.”
Born in the Italian region of Alessandria on Jan. 17, 1504, Michael Ghislieri belonged to a family that was living in poverty despite its distinguished past. He was taught by members of the Dominican Order, and chose to join them when he was only 14. After a decade of further study and formation, he became a priest in 1528.
In keeping with the Dominican tradition, Michael combined intense prayer and penance with intellectual rigor. He taught philosophy and theology, helped form new recruits, and led several houses of the order. His personal holiness and orthodoxy were acknowledged by Pope Paul IV, who made him a bishop in 1556 and a cardinal in 1557. During the same year he assumed leadership of the Holy Office of the Inquisition in Rome.
Against his own wishes, Michael was elected Pope in 1566. Taking the name of Pius V, the new Pope set an example for the faithful through acts of humility and charity. He visited the sick, washed the feet of the poor and suffering, and adopted a stripped-down lifestyle in accordance with his Dominican formation.
At the same time, the Pope had to address grave internal and external threats to the Church. Protestant forces had gained state support and were taking steps to extinguish the Catholic faith in some countries. Meanwhile, the Turks – having conquered Constantinople just over a century before – were advancing westward and asserting their sea power in the Mediterranean. Turkish forces attacked Malta in 1565, and conquered Cyprus in 1570.
While counteracting Protestantism through the Tridentine reforms, Pius also took steps to stop the spread of militant Islam. He brought together Spanish and Italian naval forces, together with those of the Papal States, under the command of Don John of Austria. Though seriously outnumbered, the “Holy League” won a dramatic and decisive battle against the Turkish fleet at Lepanto on Oct. 7, 1571.
Aided by the prayers of the Church, and particularly by the prayer of the Rosary, the Holy League’s victory secured Western Europe against Islamic domination for many centuries. Pius V instituted the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, each year on Oct. 7, to commemorate the victory and give thanks for the Blessed Virgin Mary’s intercessory role.
During 1572 Pope Pius V was working toward a new and broader alliance of Western Christian powers against expansionist Islam. The Pope did not live to carry out this plan, however, as he became ill and died on May 1 of that year.
Pope St. Pius V was canonized in 1712. Since that time, only one other Pope – St. Pius X – has been declared a saint.