100 years ago the Decree Quam Singulari summed up Pope Sarto's project of reform
It is impossible to understand Pius X's Pontificate (1903-1914) without bearing in mind that the focus of his mental universe was the problem of the act of faith. If the Church is the instrument of salvation, the ecclesiastical institution must serve to preserve and strengthen the faith of Christians, to safeguard its content, to explain its meaning, to protect its integrity, to guarantee the sacramental life and the life of grace. In fact throughout his priestly life, spent in country parishes and provincial curias, Giuseppe Sarto saw the teaching of the Catechism as his first and principal duty. Having been elected Pope, it was natural that he should impose this priority upon the whole Church.
Hence came into being first the Encyclical Acerbo Nimis (15 April 1905) — which aimed at illustrating the fundamental importance of religious instruction — then the famous Catechism called after him, followed by the Decree Quam Singulari (8 August 1910), which lowered the age of First Communicants to about seven and the centenary of whose promulgation we are commemorating today.
In spite of being conditioned by the theological context of the time the Encyclical went straight to its goal. "Christian teaching", the Pope writes, "reveals God and his infinite perfection with far greater clarity than is possible by the human faculties alone. This same teaching also commands us to honour God by faith, which is the tribute of the mind, by hope, which is that of the will, by love, which is that of the heart; and thus the whole man is subjected to the supreme Moderator and Ruler of all things".
In few lines and with few words, in conformity with Giuseppe Sarto's style, it is explained why religious instruction must be the centre of the Church's concern. And in fact the Encyclical prescribed precise and imperative norms so that in every parish room would be made for catechetical instruction and that special religious schools would be established in every diocese.
Nor was the preaching of priests to be based on "ornate sermons", as suggested by the canons of sacred oratorical speech of that time. Rather, it was to be founded on a solid and sound exposition of the truths of faith.
What we mean today by the word "evangelization" Pius X described more simply and didactically as "instruction" on "divine things", prescribing it for priests as their first and most important task: "For the moment it is well to emphasize and insist that for a priest there is no duty more grave or obligation more binding than this. Who, indeed will deny that knowledge should be joined to holiness of life in the priest? For the lips of the priest shall keep knowledge. In fact, the Church strictly demands this knowledge of those who are to be ordained to the priesthood".
Thus it may be said that the compilation of the Catechism was the crowning point of Pius X's mission of governance. In his study on the Catechism of Pius X (Rome, Las, 1988), Luciano Nordera has documented the great dedication with which Giuseppe Sarto worked from the years of his episcopate in Mantua (1885-1894) to achieve a single if not universal catechism, at least in Italian. He was one of the first Bishops to take stock of the urgent phenomenon of emigration, both in Italy and abroad, a phenomenon that became dramatic in the years between the end of the 19th century and the First World War.
He had foreseen all its devastating social and cultural consequences but also those inherent in the faith. As a man attentive to the problems of his time, he had realized that by removing people from their traditional environment and customary habits the increase in human mobility had a negative effect on their religious beliefs and on their faith, exposing it to the risk of becoming meaningless unless it was supported by adequate instruction.
With reference to this problem too, he therefore hoped it would be possible to prepare a unified catechetical text, namely a sort of manual of the faith to which Christians might refer whatever
their environment and situation. In this hope was the profound awareness that a complex religion such as Catholicism must give absolute priority to the need to define the object of its belief with the greatest possible precision and clarity. A Church increasingly alone and unprotected could not permit the luxury of leaving to itself the faith of the baptized at the very moment when many of them could no longer rely on the support of their traditional background.
So it was that with the text he had prepared for the Diocese of Rome, on whose outskirts already existed at that time tragic conditions not only of civil but also of religious neglect, "he prepared to put in the hands of priests a clear and complete volume in which the precision of the dogmatic definitions would not permit of personal interpretations or omissions".
With regard to the Catechism that Sarto himself had conceived of and diligently transcribed in a notebook when he had been parish priest in Salzano (1867-1875), a country village located in the Province of Venice and in the Diocese of Treviso, it should be noted that the vivacity of the expressions he used and the didactic immediacy of the layout with questions and answers are at times sacrificed to the need for doctrinal precision.
However the limitations that were noticed straight away (intellectualism, a weakness of biblical references, the prevalence of teaching by precepts) did not prevent this Catechism from becoming
an anchor for several generations of Christians. As well as its limitations, it had equally obvious merits: precise concepts, clear doctrine, a didactic ease, both for the priest who had to use it and for the faithful who were to benefit from it.
This explains why, although it was prescribed as obligatory only in the Diocese of Rome (from 1905), it ended by becoming the standard version not only in Italy but throughout the Church. Besides, Pius X himself was perfectly aware that it was an ongoing task far from being completed and that it could always be perfected. Indeed, the first draft underwent alterations and adaptations while the Pope was still alive. He would probably have been the first to be surprised at how long it was to stay in use. To his merit, we may add that the demanding work of compiling new catechisms done after the Second Vatican Council demonstrates how difficult it is to transmit the content of faith to people today.
The Pope's intention to propose to the Church a more solid faith life went hand in hand with the idea that faith must be expressed in a more modest, less formal and less ostentatious liturgical practice.
The reform of sacred music and the recovery of Gregorian chant went precisely in this direction. This overall project for the reform of both the lex credendi and the lex orandi found a sort of synthesis in his revolutionary decision to bring souls closer to the Eucharist — understood as the fulcrum of the life of faith — encouraging and almost imposing the practice of frequent Communion.
It should be remembered that a firmly-rooted mentality of Jansenist origin had dissuaded Christians from frequent Eucharistic practice, almost as though it were the culmination of the journey toward Christian perfection rather than the way in which to attain it, "a prize and not a medicine for human frailty", the Pope was to write. With the insight of that great pastor of souls which he was and continued to be during his Pontificate, Pius X cut short hesitations, fears, and perplexities, still rather widespread among theologians, promoting and encouraging with his Decree Tridentina Synodus of 16 July 1905 the opposite practice in stead: frequent, even daily communion.
Five years later, with the Decree Quam Singulari — the centenary of whose publication we are celebrating today as mentioned above — he completed the overall project of the reform of the care of souls, prescribing that the age for the First Communion of children be lowered to about seven, that is, to use his own words, "when a child begins to reason".
With these two provisions an age-old rigorist culture was surmounted and set aside to return to a practice already in use in the early centuries of Christianity, later reaffirmed both by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 and by the Decrees of the Council of Trent. In brief, a 1,000-year old practice was recovered, which had only been put in the shade in recent centuries, as La Civiltà Cattolica wrote, "because of antiquated customs, the lack of correct ideas and neglect".
Pietro Gasparri, who in those years was working, as the Pope had ordered, on the codification of canon law, placed the Decree among the "memorandi" documents of the Pontificate and added: "God wanted it to be observed everywhere"