Just let me take a minute, this ain't no myth
To tell you the story of how he became St. Pius V
Today is the feast of Pope St. Pius V on the Novus Ordo calendar. Antonio Ghislieri was born in 1504 during the reign of Pope Julius II to a poor family in Alesandria. Early in life he determined that he had a vocation to the priesthood, but his village was too poor to afford him his studies. They set him to watch over the sheep. One day he encountered two Dominican friars and impressed them with his knowledge and piety. They suggested he accompany them and try his vocation in religion. Ghislieri made such remarkable progress in his studies that he took the Dominican habit at age 15 along with the religious name Michael, after the archangel whom he had chosen as his patron. Ordained a priest at age 24, Ghislieri was elected Prior of his monastery multiple times and would have declined each time had he not been convinced by his brothers that it was the will of God.
As Prior, his government was both gentle yet severe. He never failed to show up in Choir despite pain or illness. Ghislieri seldom left the monastery and only then for the most urgent business. He told his brothers that, "Salt, when thrown into water, becomes part of it. And religious, by God's grace the salt of the earth, absorb the spirit of the world when they unnecessarily come into contact with it."
His times were rife with heresy. Protestant literature was smuggled into Italy via Switzerland. Pope Paul III tapped the Dominicans to lead the Inquisition, and Ghislieri was unanimously recommended for the position of Inquisitor for Northern Italy. Protestant sympathizers were arrested, heretical bishops deposed and exiled, and obstinate rebels were promptly excommunicated. Ghislieri often found himself ran out of town and sometimes ran afoul of some personages in Rome, but the authorities always upheld his decisions in the end. He was eventually promoted to bishop, cardinal, and Grand Inquisitor for all of Christendom. In 1566, he attended the papal conclave which followed the death of Pope Pius IV. It soon became clear that the cardinals wanted Ghislieri. They virtually dragged him out of his cell and one by one they each affirmed their vote. Finally, Ghislieri gave his consent and took the name Pius V.
Among his many accomplishments was the reform of Rome itself. The papal treasuries were emptied in providing for beggars and the poorer convents and monasteries. Men and women of loose morals were ordered to hit the bricks upon pain of corporal punishment. Prostitutes could accept banishment, marriage, or entering the nunnery. He instituted the death penalty for adultery. One governor who was guilt of rape was beheaded. Sodomites were burned. Pius forbade cross dressing at the Roman carnival, but otherwise encouraged innocent games and amusements. He was frequently seen walking the streets, praying his rosary, and rubbing shoulders with costumed revelers. He visited hospitals, kissed the feet of the poor and of lepers, founded an organization that provided dowries for poor women's marriages, and provided especial comfort for English Catholics who had fled the tender mercies of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.
Before Pius V, popes generally wore the same clothes as a cardinal. Pius is credited with starting the custom of popes dressing in white when he chose to continue wearing his white Dominican habit. He told his clergy that bad priests are the ruin of the people. To the cardinals he said that their own lax and unedifying lives were in good part responsible for the spread of heresy, and urged them to avoid luxury and do penance. Abolition of priestly celibacy was advocated back then as a means of resolving a dearth of vocations. Pius gave a ringing endorsement of celibacy and further urged priests to start dressing like clergy again, because much like our own day, there were many who wanted to blur the distinctions between the clergy and the laity. Convinced that worldliness, lack of discipline, and bad example were the ruin of souls he dissolved religious orders that were beyond salvaging, never paying any heed to the worldly consequences of his actions.
He is perhaps most well known for organizing the defense of Christendom against the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Lepanto. Don Juan of Austria, the bastard son of the Emperor Charles V, was tasked with leading the naval fleet of the Holy League, a coalition of the Catholic maritime states of the Mediterranean. Pius exhorted the Christian people to pray the rosary and beg the Blessed Virgin Mary to grant victory to the arms of Christendom. The battle ended with the most decisive victory Christendom ever achieved against the Turks. At the moment of victory, Pius was deep in conversation with his cardinals about business matters. He left them in mid sentence to open the window and gaze into the heavens. When he returned he told them that now was not the time to discuss worldly concerns, for God had just granted them a mighty victory at Lepanto. Official news of the battle didn't reach the Vatican until several weeks later.
Pope Pius V died on May 1, 1572, having governed the Church for six years. He was beatified in 1672 and canonized in 1712. Most of us know him today for his codification of the Roman liturgy. It's called the Tridentine Mass in sloppy every day language, but it wasn't created from scratch at Trent; the Mass goes back to the days of Pope St. Gregory the Great. Pope St. Pius V is a model of sanctity regardless of our own state in life. The shepherd boy grew up to be the Shepherd of all Christendom. He was as severe as one could be while remaining within the bounds of Christian charity, but his severity was the necessary medicine his time needed. Would that there was a bishop somewhere in the world who could see that it is what our time needs. Pope St. Pius V, ora pro nobis.