One of the great periods of the papacy was the reign of Sixtus V. He was a great man with many of the characteristics common to great men. He was devout, determined, swift and tireless in his duties. No detail escaped his notice, nothing was too trivial for his attention and he can truly say that he left Rome, the Church and Christendom better than he found it. He was born Felice Peretti on December 13, 1520 to a farm hand in Grottammare, Italy. Like many great pontiffs he was a monk, having joined the Order of Friars Minor three years after entering a monastery when he was nine years old. This, combined with his rural background, made him a man familiar with adversity, resourceful, purified and strong. After being ordained he became renowned for his preaching and won many friends, including cardinals, future popes and holy people like St Philip Neri and St Ignatius Loyola. He would need all of the strength of his background and the inspiration of these people after he was elected to the See of Peter on April 24, 1585 at the age of 64.
Taking the name Sixtus V he succeeded Pope Gregory XIII but had more in common with the predecessor of Gregory, Pope St Pius V. They were both monks, both strict reformers, bold in facing their enemies and both servants of the Holy Office as Sixtus V had been the Inquisitor of Venice. In fact, the government of Venice requested his reassignment, which is probably an indication of how good a job he was doing. Sixtus was also intent on pressing ahead with the Catholic Reformation and the implementing of the reforms of the Council of Trent. Sixtus worked for a Church more austere, pious and aggressive in combating wickedness. Yet, he did not neglect immediate concerns such as the condition of the Papal States and Italy. Brigands and criminal gangs were as thick as, well, thieves and as big a problem as they had ever been. But, they were no match for Sixtus who was determined to eradicate them. He used the full strength of his papal forces to crush them and those who supported them.
Thousands of criminals and their mob bosses were executed by Sixtus, perhaps as many as 27,000 and Italy was revitalized within 2 years. The countryside was safer and as a result the economy grew, more people went to work, more investments came in and Italy prospered. Quite different from the modern Papacy which condemns the death penalty, Sixtus V used it frequently and fairly and it certainly had the desired effect. In fact, after this crackdown the Papal States were the safest country in all of Europe. In Rome itself Sixtus threw himself into the work of reform. First on his list was the treasury. He inherited an almost penniless papacy from Gregory XIII, though as his spending was on great building projects and education it can hardly be called wasteful. Sixtus V cracked down on waste and corruption, he cut spending, reformed taxation and, it must be said, sold offices at times and generally did all he could to refill the treasury. Yet, he was no miser and spent a great deal on public works, finishing the cupola of St Peter’s Basilica, building the Lateran Palace, a hospital for the poor, an improved water system, wider streets and numerous other projects and monuments.
Part of the reason for the amassing of this wealth was the wider aims of Sixtus V throughout Christendom. He wanted to go on the offensive against the Protestants, stamping out heresy like any good inquisitor, and to call another Crusade. Among his more ambitious plans was the conquest of Egypt. He also supported the Spanish Armada King Philip II sent to invade England and penned a new and detailed excommunication of Queen Elizabeth I and a condemnation of her rule. However, he was never very trusting of Philip II and wisely decided to withhold his financial support and hold back on issuing the condemnation until after the invasion had succeeded, which of course it did not. Later, after all these well laid plans came to nothing, Sixtus had to marvel at the ability and success of the English monarch, lamenting that if only she were a good Catholic she could be a great force for Christendom. He also, as part of his campaign against heresy, excommunicated the future King Henri IV of France and supported the Catholic League which was fighting for the Church in that country.
It was, though, in Church administration that Sixtus V had the most lasting impact. In 1586 he issued a papal bull officially limiting the number of cardinals to 70, a regulation which lasted for quite some time. The following year, in another papal bull, he organized the curia into 15 congregations to oversee the various aspects of the Church, all still under the ultimate authority of the Pope, but which greatly improved how the papacy managed all the vast areas of responsibility the Pope had to deal with. This basic structure which Sixtus V put in place was to go unchanged until the Second Vatican Council and even now remains very similar to what he established then. He also reintroduced the rule that bishops come to Rome regularly to report to the Pope directly on their dioceses and these visits are still held to this day even though the number of bishops is drastically larger than in the time of Sixtus V.
The Pope liked to quote the old Roman Emperor Vespasian that a prince should die on his feet in the midst of action and he certainly seemed to take that to heart considering his many accomplishments before his death on August 27, 1590 after reigning 5 years, 4 months and 3 days. Looking on what he managed to do during that time, it is no wonder Sixtus V stands out so. He made Rome a baroque masterpiece, showed such determination in combating corruption and heresy that he was called the Iron Pope and instituted reforms that have lasted to this very day. He left the Church more solid, efficient and wealthier than he found it, left the Papal States in a vastly improved condition and left behind numerous testaments to his legacy such as the Vatican Press, the Vatican Library and the new Lateran Palace. After the terror that was the Protestant Revolt, the reign of Sixtus V marks a high point for the Church, Papal Rome and the See of Peter.