Stern, wise, manful, charitable, generous, and courageous, St. Pius V was a stout-hearted defender of the Faith and of Christendom at a period of the greatest crisis in the history of the Church since the Great Schism and the Fall of Rome. He headed the Church with such inestimable vigor and grace that his name can scarcely be left off a list of contenders for the title of the greatest pope in history.
Born in 1504 in Bosco, a town in Lombardy, Italy, Michael Ghisleri was of noble lineage but poor. Discerning in youth a desire to be a priest, he became a pupil of Dominican friars nearby. Under their auspices, he excelled in his philosophical and theological studies, as well as austerities and mortifications. He became a philosophy professor for the province at 20 and was ordained priest at 24; he taught for 16 years. He served also various roles in the order, and his fasts, penances, vigils, and mortifications (such as walking on foot without a cloak in silence, no matter the weather) built his reputation until he was selected as bishop of Sutri by Pope Paul IV, an inquisitor in Milan and Lombardy, and a cardinal (against his desires in all cases). Among his deeds were preventing Emperor Maximilian II from abolishing clerical celibacy. At last, in 1566, against his tearful protests, he was elected the Supreme Pontiff and successor of Peter, the third Dominican to hold that office.
His first actions were to donate exceedingly to the poor; he also visited hospitals, consoled the sick, washed the poor's feet, and kissed lepers. His penances were in no way relaxed with his office, but actually increased; his austerity and intensity became well-known, even intimidating—though he was ever a gentle, if stern, ruler and leader. His spate of achievements is remarkable, and it suffices just to name them briefly, so famous are they: the revision and codification of the Roman Breviary, the codification of the Roman Missal, the enforcement of the disciplines of the Council of Trent, reformation of the clergy (among other things by requiring bishops to stay in their dioceses), and support of the missions in the Americas. In Rome itself, he endeavored to thwart prostitution and forbade bullfighting. His time was plagued by Protestant heresies, and much of his efforts were made fighting these: he supported German Catholics against Protestant rulers, sent financial aid to France to fight heresy there, aided Spain in its quest to oppose false doctrines, and excommunicated Elizabeth I of England as a heretic. Perhaps his greatest success, however, was in exhorting a last-ditch defense of Christendom against the Turkish Muslim onslaught, which loomed even larger, perhaps, than the internal threat of the Protestants. After fortifying towns and supporting military orders, in 1571, he raised naval forces from Spain, Venice, and the Papal States to fight Suleiman II's attempt to dominate Western Europe, as well as exhorting all of Christendom to participate in public prayer for victory. His efforts were rewarded when, on the day of the battle at Lepanto, he received a vision showing the unlikely victory of the vastly outnumbered Christian fleet. His death followed soon after in 1572; he was canonized 140 years later.
This short, readable biography details all this and more about the illustrious life of this holiest of Holy Fathers. Saint Pius V, pray for us!
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