Salesian Saints of February: Blessed Pope Pius IX (1792-1878)

31 Jan 2018

Pius IX memorial in St. Peter’s Basilica.  Credit: Fr. Mike Mendl

Optional Memorial February 7

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Student and missionary

Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti was the ninth child of Count Girolamo and Caterina Sollazzi. He was born in Senigallia on May 13, 1792. Between 1803 and 1808 he was a pupil at the boarding school for nobility in Volterra. Wanting to become a priest, he had to interrupt his studies because of sudden attacks of epilepsy. In 1815 at Loreto, he obtained the grace of a full recovery. He resumed his theological studies in 1819 and was ordained. In 1823 he went as a missionary to Chile for two years.

Young bishop, then young Pope

At just 35 years of age he was appointed archbishop of Spoleto, then in 1832, of Imola. In 1840 he was created cardinal. On June 16, 1846, on the fourth vote, with 36 votes out of 50 cardinals at the conclave, he was elected Supreme Pontiff at just 54 years of age. As soon as he became Pope he undertook a series of reforms within the Papal States (freedom of the press, freedom to Jews, beginning of a railway, promulgation of a constitution), but when in 1848 he refused to support the war against Austria his “persecution” began.

Don Bosco’s guide in founding Salesian Society

Don Bosco had his first audience with Pius IX on March 9, 1858. Each had the feeling that he had encountered a saint. Pius IX supported and guided Don Bosco in the founding of the Salesian Congregation. It was he who suggested calling it a “society” in step with the times, of having vows, but not solemn vows, and he suggested a simple habit and intense but not too complicated practices of piety. He convinced Don Bosco to write his memoirs to leave the Salesians a spiritual legacy.

Don Bosco’s Pope

During his pontificate he approved the Salesian Society and their Constitutions, the Institute of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, and the Association of Salesian Cooperators. He was among the first to enroll as a Cooperator. Don Bosco had great love for Pius IX and accepted all his advice, even when it cost him great sacrifice: “I am ready to face any difficulty,” he would say, “when dealing with the papacy and the Church.” The Pope, likewise, had great esteem for Don Bosco and called him to Rome often to ask his help on delicate issues.

A significant pontificate

On December 8, 1854, Pius IX defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. In 1869 he called Vatican Council I, and on December 8, 1870, proclaimed St. Joseph patron of the Universal Church. On June 16, 1875, he consecrated the church in Rome dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. He died on February 7, 1878, after 32 years as Pope. John Paul II beatified him on September 3, 2000, together with Pope John XXIII.

Pius IX memorial and statue of St. John Bosco in St. Peter’s Basilica.   Credit: Fr. Steve Ryan
In St. Peter’s

In St. Peter’s Basilica, directly above the huge bronze statue of the Prince of the Apostles so venerated by pilgrims is a memorial to Pius IX, placed there because his papacy has been the longest since St. Peter. And above both these papal representations is a gigantic marble statue of Don Bosco with two youths, apparently fulfilling one of his dreams (MB 17:11).