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SIXTUS V: the Hermit of Villa Montalto, by W.T. Selley
Reviewed by Michael Daniel
With the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the accession of Pope Francis, the Church's attention has been focused on the papacy. Sixtus V explores the life and legacy of this fascinating pope, one largely unknown even to those familiar with Church history. The author, W.T. Selley, served in the RAF during World War II and was a teacher and educational administrator.
While a few biographies have been written of Sixtus V over the centuries and his pontificate was analysed by both Leopold von Ranke and Ludwig von Pastor in their famous histories of the popes, this is the first modern biography.
It is generally agreed that Felice Peretti, who was to become Sixtus V, was born on 13 December 1521 at Grottamare in the then Papal States into a poor family. An uncle, Fra Salvatore, the warden of the Fransiscan friary near Montalto, provided for the young Felice's education. As a youth, he showed interest in religious life and joined the Fransiscans.
His intellectual prowess was soon noted by his superiors. At the time of his entry into the Fransiscans in 1537, the order was in a state of flux. Furthermore, this was the period of the Reformation, with Selley noting that the year in which Felice entered the Fransiscans was the same year they were suppressed in England.
Within a few years of his ordination in Siena in 1547, Peretti developed a reputation as an outstanding preacher and theologian. Preaching a series of Lenten Sermons in Rome in 1552 brought him to the attention of senior churchmen, including Cardinal Carpi, the protector of the Fransiscan order, and Cardinals Carafa and Ghislieri, the future Popes Paul IV and Pius V. A series of appointments in Siena, Rome and Naples saw him rise in prominence, until being eventually appointed Inquisitor of Venice.
This was the era of the Counter Reformation and his relentless and unremitting pursuit of heretics brought him into conflict with the civic authorities who did not want the Church to impinge on what they believed were their rights. Venice thus had the reputation of being more tolerant of heretics and authorities successfully demanded Peretti's recall.
Upon his return to Rome, he became a lecturer. In 1565 Pope Pius IV tasked him to accompany Cardinal Boncompagni, the future Pope Gregory XIII, to Spain to investigate charges of heresy against the Archbishop of Toledo. As a consequence, an antipathy was to develop between the two men.
His next major advancements came during the reign of Pope St Pius V, who appointed him Bishop of Saint Agathe, a diocese in the kingdom of Naples. At this stage, the Council of Trent's requirement that bishops reside in their dioceses was being rigorously enforced. Peretti juggled commitments in Rome with those in his diocese. Pope St Pius V also created him a cardinal. After his career eclipsed during the reign of Gregory XIII, he retired to the Villa Montalto and devoted himself to study, editing the works of St Ambrose.
Peretti was elected Pope in 1585. Selley's account of the conclave made for interesting reading while the recent conclave was in progress. One detail that particularly struck this reviewer was the relative youth of the cardinal electors.
Civic and curial reform
Upon his election as Pope, Sixtus V as head of the Church and of the Papal States began a program of civic and curial reform. The reputation he had developed for being thorough and strict now bore fruit. For example, extensive bands of brigands that roamed the Papal States severely impeded trade and travel. Sixtus solved the problem by taking what nowadays might be described as a "zero tolerance approach", which saw the killing of numerous bandits.
His other civic achievements included improving Rome's water supply through the creation of a major new aqueduct. He also had put in its current place the obelisk in St Peter's Square, originally in the nearby Circus of Nero where the Apostle Peter was executed. Sixtus also carried out extensive reforms of the curia.
However, perhaps one of his less than impressive achievements was the edition of the revised Vulgate published just before his death. A thorough study of manuscripts recommended sweeping changes to the standard text, many of which Sixtus rejected, in the belief that they would compromise the integrity of the received edition of the Vulgate. One of his successors, Clement XIII, recognising the problematic nature of Sixtus' edition, had it reissued with numerous amendments in 1592. This was known as the Sixto-Clementine edition and remained the standard edition until the Nova Vulgata (1969-1979).
Sixtus V is an interesting study of a pope who has been largely overlooked in recent times, a curious oversight given the extensive reforms he made to Church administration.
Michael E Daniel is a Melbourne secondary school teacher.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 26 No 4 (May 2013), p. 18
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