Pope St Pius V – “Crushing of the Enemies of thy Church”

St Pius V was born Antonio Ghisleri, and when he entered the Dominicans, he took the name Michele – Michael – which he used in preference to his baptismal name thereafter.

There are many aspects of the life of this very great saint which might catch the interest of pious Catholics.

His youth spent tending sheep and practising virtue.

His entry into the order of St. Dominic at the age of fifteen.

His sixteen years teaching theology.

His outstanding government of two dioceses, which produced such fruits of good order, peace, and spiritual renaissance in those regions.

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Image: Cardinal Ghisleri as a younger man. Wiki Commons.

But certain elements of this wonderful man’s life stand out and trace a pattern which provides particular interest to we who are witnesses of the most frightful devastation which Holy Church has ever seen – to we who are witnesses of the veritable Passion of the Mystical Body and the desolation of a new Holy Saturday. For Pope Pius V was a true Vicar of Christ, of whom Jeremias’s words ring clear and true:

“Behold I have given My words in thy mouth: lo, I have set thee this day over the nations, and over the kingdoms, to waste and to destroy, and to build and to plant.” (Offertory for his feast).

His choice of the name Michele provides an insight into the nature of the young saint. He had a fervent devotion to St. Michael the Archangel, the Captain of God’s Army; a devotion which seems to have presaged his own eventual appointment as general of the Church Militant.

Yet he spurned every honour offered him. He was, successively, made prior of various convents of his Order, then bishop, Roman Inquisitor, Cardinal, and finally, Supreme Pontiff. And in every single case he accepted the promotion only after tears and strong representations of his own unworthiness and unwillingness had failed to avert the honour.

How much faithful Catholics owe to St. Pius V is impossible to over-estimate.

“Behold I have given My words in thy mouth”

St. Pius V, Antonio “Michele” Ghisleri, was a Dominican. A thorough Thomist, his perfect knowledge of philosophy and theology was rivalled only by his virtue. Alban Butler tells us:

“Constant devotion and study he called the double breast from which religious persons draw a spiritual nourishment, which maintains in them the love of God and contempt of the world.”

Thus he knew that learning without piety is worse than useless, and that piety without the solid foundation of true doctrine is unstable and dangerous.

Hence he loved the truth, because he loved The Truth, the Word incarnate. With such a perfect appreciation for sound doctrine, along with a wonderful piety, he was an ideal choice for the role of Inquisitor, in which he had to dig out the lying heretics – whose hypocrisy and malice made them desire to be recognised as members of the true Flock – whilst protecting and saving the many individuals who were falsely accused to his tribunal by unscrupulous enemies.

Heretics that he hunted down and punished hated him. Indeed, all of the enemies of Holy Church hated him, while they also feared him. But many whom he judged and punished ended by loving him also, for he was known as most merciful to those who showed signs of true contrition. Butler records the case of a Spaniard who had bitterly slandered our saint, for which the magistrate had confiscated his estate and condemned him to death. However Pope Pius pardoned him and requested that the Spaniard admonish him in future should he notice any fault in the pope!

Likewise heretics were converted by seeing the charity with which he kissed the ulcers of the feet of the poor.

Ghisleri was raised to the cardinalate by Pope Paul IV, the famous pope of the Council of Trent. But Pope Paul IV is also well known to us today for his promulgation of a very important piece of papal legislation.

Cum ex apostolatus

In his 1559 Apostolic Consitution Cum ex apostolatus, Paul IV legislated that any Catholic, even a mere layman, may refuse to accept a papal claimant that he believed to be an heretic even if the entire Church should accept the heretic as pope.[1]

A more clearly providential papal document could hardly be imagined.

The background of Cum ex apostolatus sheds abundant light on the principles it embodies. Ghisleri, as Roman Inquisitor, held Cardinal Morone suspect of heresy. And yet Morone was one of the leading candidates to succeed Paul IV. The situation was extremely worrying for both Ghisleri and for Pope Paul IV himself. What if the cardinals, after Paul’s death, should choose an heretic as the next pope! 

Cum ex apostolatus was the answer. It codified the constant tradition of Holy Church, which was that no heretic can validly exercise authority in Holy Church.

This codification of the tradition of the Church had two effects. Firstly, it put on notice the cardinals who might think that Morone could be safely elected to the papacy. If they tried it, they could not be sure he would be universally accepted; and the bull made it clear that even if he was accepted by all initially, at any point in the future men could simply change their minds and refuse to adhere to him.

Thus Michele Ghisleri and Pope Paul IV wrecked the hopes of certain cardinals of imposing an heretic upon the faithful.

To further ensure that Morone was not elected, Ghisleri took the dossier on Morone into the subsequent conclave, ready to reveal its contents if Morone’s name should figure prominently in the first rounds of voting.

The second effect of Cum ex apostolatus was to settle definitively an element of the controversy which had exercised the minds of theologians regarding heretical “popes.”

Some theologians held that no pope could become an heretic, whilst others held that this disaster was indeed possible. Furthermore, some held that should the unthinkable happen, an imperfect general council would have to meet to declare the heretic “un-poped”, whilst others held that such an heretic would be automatically deposed, by his very act of heresy.

But Cum ex apostolatus circumvented the controverted question of whether a true pope could become an heretic: without attempting to resolve that question, it simply dealt a death-blow to the idea that an heretic could be pope at all. It did this by laying down that, if any heretic was elected to the papacy, the election would be null and void, and incapable of future ratification even by obedience accorded by all, or through the lapse of any period of time.

In other words, nothing could make an heretic a true pope.

The legacy of Cum ex apostolatus

With this provision of divine law clearly enunciated by papal authority, Catholics today have an invincible defence against the horrors of Vatican II. The heretics who have promulgated it and violently imposed it on the almost-defenceless flock of Jesus Christ are to be rejected for the frauds and liars that they are, and avoided “as warlocks, heathens, publicans, and heresiarchs,” in accordance with the provisions of Cum ex apostolatus.

When he was elected pope, St. Pius V himself re-confirmed the provisions of Cum ex apostolatus in a bull entitled Inter Multiplices, and some three centuries later Pope St. Pius X incorporated the same principles into the Code of Canon Law, chiefly in Canon 188.4:

Canon 188

“Any office becomes vacant upon the fact and without any declaration by tacit resignation recognized by the law itself if a cleric: […]

“§4. Publicly defects from the Catholic Faith. (Emphasis added).”

Trans. Dr Edward Peters

The footnote to this Canon cites Cum ex apostolatus itself, showing that it should be understood in the context of Paul IV’s text.[2] This is a vital issue for our day.

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“I have set thee this day over the nations”

Michele Ghisleri’s sweet and fruitful government of priories, dioceses, and the Universal Church itself, was characterised by severe justice tempered by the unction of divine charity.

His energy was astonishing. In six years he reformed the Breviary, codified the Roman Missal, and promulgated The Roman Catechism (the Catechism of the Council of Trent).

In 1570, he was responsible for giving the Church the best edition of St Thomas Aquinas’s works which had yet appeared, containing also the commentary of Cajetan; and in 1567 he solemnly recognised St Thomas as a Doctor of the Church.

He cleansed the City of Rome of certain public immorality, reformed the Roman clergy, and ensured that the reforms of Trent were carried through to success. His reforms were so thorough that he was accused of wanting to turn Rome into a monastery.

But even this list was not all.


St Pius V almost single-handedly gathered together a fleet of ships and an army to defeat the overwhelming forces of the Muslims which were threatening Europe.

The glorious battle in the gulf of Lepanto is rightly laid to St. Pius V’s credit for more reasons than one.

He it was, it is true, who bullied, implored, entreated, and convinced the various princes of Christendom to contribute to their common safety against the Turks. It is also a fact that he hand-picked the 24-year-old genius, Don Juan of Austria, who led the Christian forces.

But far more importantly, the saint instructed Don Juan to leave behind all of his soldiers whose lives were openly vicious, on the grounds that God’s assistance was of infinitely greater value than that of a few more men.

In addition to this, Pius organised public prayer for victory, and was rewarded for his perfect confidence in divine providence with a victory which continues to fascinate historians on account of its magnitude and thoroughness. The Christians were outnumbered ten to one. The Turks were better equipped and more experienced.

And yet the rout was so total that more Christians returned from the battle than departed with Don Juan to begin with, because fifteen thousand galley slaves were released from captured Muslim ships by the Catholic forces.

The Holy Rosary

Like a sacred mantle covering all of the preparations and details of this momentous event hovered the sweet power of the Holy Rosary.

In Europe St. Pius and the faithful prayed the Great Prayer ceaselessly. On the ships Don Juan ordered his men to recite it also. As the ships sailed towards the massive crescent of Turkish vessels, which dwarfed the Christian fleet and would have terrified any man, the Catholics were not watching – they were praying, as they had been ordered to do.

Each had made his confession; each spent the last minutes before battle on his knees instead of checking weapons or worrying about carnal affairs. And by the intercession of the great Mother of God, herself terrible as an army set in array, the power of Satan was definitively crushed once more.

In Rome St. Pius had ceased praying to confer with some of his cardinals about urgent matters – when he stopped suddenly, moved to a window, turned his eyes to heaven and announced that the time had come to give thanks for a great victory.

God had revealed to him the success of Don Juan’s fleet.

Finally, and fittingly, St. Pius V added to the Litany of Loreto the title, “Help of Christians,” and instituted the Feast of the Most Holy Rosary, in honour of she who had saved Christendom.

A model for us

There is much to learn from St. Pius V’s glorious example.

His love of true doctrine.

His fervent devotion.

His equal and superabundant charity and justice.

His severity towards heretics and public sinners.

His tender mercy towards the repentant.

His unsurpassed devotion to the Mother of God and her Rosary.

And his success.

In the words of the Collect of his Mass:

“O God, Who didst vouchsafe to choose blessed Pius Thy chief bishop for the crushing of the enemies of Thy Church and the restoration of divine worship, make us to be defended by his watchful care and so to adhere to Thy service that, all the contrivances of our enemies being overcome, we may rejoice in everlasting peace.

“Through our Lord Jesus, Thy Son, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen.”

May God grant us, by the intercession of Our Lady of the Rosary, Help of Christians, a holy pope after the pattern of St. Pius V, in whose mouth are His words, and who shall lay waste the New Church, destroy all heresies, build the hierarchy of Holy Church anew, and plant the true faith again in the minds of the erring, so that all hearts and minds may be united perfectly by the bonds of supernatural faith and charity.

St. Pius V, pray for us!

John Lane, Feast of St. Pius V, 2001.

Edited and updated by S.D. Wright, Feast of St Pius V, 2022.


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[1] Paul IV, Apostolic Constitution Cum ex apostolatus, trans. Mr John Daly, available here.

[2] Footnote available in the Latin edition here.

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