Paul VI’s Canonization Presents an Opportunity

Recalling the Pope’s Prophetic Papacy

Canonization banner of Paul VI hangs in St. Peter’s Square ahead of his Oct. 14 canonization.
Canonization banner of Paul VI hangs in St. Peter’s Square ahead of his Oct. 14 canonization. (photo: Daniel Ibanez/CNA)

On June 30, 1963, a large crowd gathered in Rome for the formal installation Mass for the newly elected Pope Paul VI. As Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, he had entered the conclave to choose a successor to Pope St. John XXIII on June 19 as the heavy favorite to win election, and he had been elected pope only two days later.

Paul began his pontificate with a statement of humility but also trust.

“It is before the whole Church,” he said, “we, trembling, but confident, accept the keys of the Kingdom of heaven — heavy, but powerful keys, healthy and mysterious, that Christ entrusted to the fisherman of Galilee, made Prince of the Apostles, and that now they have transmitted to us.” Paul’s reference to the weight of the keys is significant, for it can be argued that the heaviness of the papacy had begun for Montini not June 21, but many years before, when he first became a major figure in the Vatican, a trusted adviser to Pope Pius XII and then one of the pivotal leaders in the preparations for the Second Vatican Council that opened in 1962. It can be said that Montini had been in preparations for the papacy for much of his life. But it was something he had never sought.

The canonization of Pope Paul VI 40 years after the end of his papacy and 50 years after the promulgation of Humanae Vitae is an opportunity. It is a chance to note the sanctified life of a pontiff soon to be honored as a saint of the Church, but also to appreciate more fully the dimension of his teachings. He was a prophet, and 50 years on, we can appreciate just how prescient and forward-seeing he truly was.

Coming between the beloved “Good Pope John” and the colossus Pope St. John Paul II, Paul seemed for many years to be in eclipse. His pontificate was dominated by the Council (and the problems that attended its implementation) and the controversy over his important and prophetic 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth).

He was charged with being too cautious, with lacking courage, and being at times overwhelmed by events and the very change — social, ecclesiastical, political and economic — that the Second Vatican Council pledged to confront. Still, Pope Paul held to the frequently difficult road of reform and suffered spiritual torment in the face of opposition, and can today be seen as a valiant figure who prophetically anticipated many of the problems that have plagued the world since his death.

Born Giovanni Battista Montini, near Brescia, Italy, on Sept. 26, 1897, he was the second of three children. His father, Giorgio Montini, was a lawyer, a member of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, and political editor of the Catholic paper Il Cittadina di Brescia. His mother, Giuditta Alghisi, was a member of the local noble families and president of the Brescia chapter of Women’s Catholic Action.

He was plagued by poor health in his youth and even studied for the priesthood mostly from home.


From Brescia to Rome

He was a brilliant student, however, and received ordination May 29, 1920. After further studies in Rome, he began working in the Vatican Secretariat of State and eventually became a trusted assistant to Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (the future Pope Pius XII).

During World War II, Msgr. Montini helped lead refugee and relief efforts. That meant aiding the millions of refugees displaced by the conflict, helping families find displaced relatives, tracking prisoners of war and trying to shield Jews from the Nazi regime.

In 1952, he was offered elevation to the College of Cardinals by his mentor Pius XII. Montini, however, declined the red hat. Almost two years later, in November 1954, Pius sent him to Milan as its archbishop and died in 1958 without creating Montini a cardinal.

As the shepherd of Milan, Archbishop Montini demonstrated an intense pastoral zeal and a commitment to rebuilding the city after the war. Such was his reputation that it was said he would have been elected pope in 1958 had he been in the college at the time of Pius’ death. As it was, the conclave chose Cardinal Angelo Roncalli as Pope John XXIII, and the new pontiff named Archbishop Montini one of the first new cardinals of the pontificate. By agreeing to receive the red hat from Pope John, he knew that he would almost certainly become pope.

Cardinal Montini played a key role in the preparations for the Second Vatican Council, and when John died on June 3, 1963, Cardinal Montini was the obvious choice to succeed him. As pope, Paul assumed the immense task of finishing the work of an ecumenical council he had not convoked.

He could have ended it immediately, but, instead, he guided it to a conclusion in 1965 and then devoted the next years to the immense task of implementing its many reforms in the middle of social and political upheaval and the storm of the sexual revolution.

True to the Council’s call, Pope Paul sought to speak to the world. He took the name Paul to honor St. Paul and to emulate him in his desire to evangelize the world.

His papacy was noted for its then-unprecedented travels. In 1964, he made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. After visiting the many holy sites, he met Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople, marking the first meeting between a pope and a patriarch in 500 years. His apostolic journeys over the next years included India, Fatima, Turkey, Colombia, Africa, the Philippines and Australia.

In 1965, he became the first pope to visit the United States. In a famous speech before the United Nations General Assembly in New York, he called on the world, “No more war. War, never again.”


A Pope and Prophet

Paul also spoke without doubt that the Second Vatican Council did not bring some rupture from Tradition nor did it propose conformity with the passing and error-filled thinking of the age.

As Pope St. John Paul II said of him in 1993, “He desired that the ecclesial community open itself to the world, without, however, surrendering to the spirit of the world. With prudent wisdom he knew how to resist the temptation of ‘ceding’ to the modern mentality, sustaining difficulties and misunderstandings, and in some cases even hostility, with Gospel fortitude.” Still, Pope Paul held to the frequently difficult road of reform, suffered spiritual torment in the face of opposition and can today be seen as a valiant figure who prophetically anticipated many of the problems that have plagued the world since his death.

The late pope has been vilified in some quarters for seeming to have given up in his later years. Others called him “Hamlet” for his apparent doubts and hesitation, especially standing against the storm that ensued in the Church in the years after the Council and most so after Humanae Vitae reinforced the Church’s teachings on contraception.

Throughout his last years, he defended the true teachings of the Church on human sexuality, marriage and human dignity.

He called on Catholics to evangelize, to love the Eucharist and to be aware of the dangers of the age while understanding the signs of the times.

Beyond his powerful and accurate warnings of what would happen if the world embraced a contraceptive culture and the sexual revolution, Paul VI also meditated on the human condition, on atheism, on the isolation of young people in the modern world, on the risks of globalization, on the need for the dignity of the human person to be safeguarded in the face of technological and scientific breakthroughs and economic developments and on the risks of the Church becoming too closed in on herself.

The gloom, however, that seemed to hang over his papacy was epitomized in a much misunderstood homily on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, June 29, 1972, that in the face of so much “doubt, uncertainty, problems, restlessness, dissatisfaction, confrontation,” he had the terrible feeling that “the smoke of Satan entered the temple of God from some fissure,” adding, “We do not trust the Church anymore; we trust the first profane prophet who comes to talk to us from some newspaper or some social movement to chase him and ask him if he has the formula of real life.”

His reply, however, was not from someone who had given up. “Faith gives us certainty, security,” he said, “when it is based on the word of God accepted and found consenting with our own reason and with our own human soul.”

The teachings of Pope Paul VI have echoed across the pontificates of his successors, John Paul I, St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis.

On the day of Paul’s beatification in 2014, Pope Francis fittingly said that “the grandeur of Blessed Paul VI shines forth: Before the advent of a secularized and hostile society, he could hold fast, with farsightedness and wisdom — and at times alone — to the helm of the Barque of Peter, while never losing his joy and his trust in the Lord.”

Matthew Bunson is a Register senior editor.

His latest book is Saint Pope Paul VI.

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