Giorgio Montini and Giuditta Alghisi met on the steps of St Peter’s Basilica in 1892. Little did they know that they would eventually marry and give birth to three sons; one of whom would become pope on the very steps where they met. That same pope would change the course of the Catholic Church and is now being recognised for his saintly virtues.
Giovanni Battista Montini was born on September 26, 1897. He was a quiet and reserved child, pious and studious. Before discerning the religious life, he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father and become a journalist.
After being found unfit to serve in the army, he enrolled in a seminary and was ordained in 1920. His stay in his native Brescia was short-lived. He was called to Rome where he began to study to serve in the Diplomatic Corps of the Holy See. His first engagement was in newly-independent Poland. In 1924 he was recalled to Rome.
A year later, he was appointed chaplain to the Federazione Universitaria Cattolica Italiana (FUCI). Although of a shy and introverted disposition, he built a lasting rapport with the students. He continued to say Mass at the Sapienza University and organise retreats for students even after his appointment was terminated.
Montini’s rise through the Vatican hierarchy came at a difficult time. The Lateran Accords of 1929 recognised the Vatican City State and led to an increase in Catholics taking part in public life. This often raised the ire of the Fascist regime and various Catholic youth groups – including FUCI – were suppressed in the process.
Things took a turn for the worse when Pius XI published the encyclical Non Abbiamo Bisogno which condemned “statolatry” – the near-pagan worship of the state – as well as the hateful, violent and irreverent impulses of fascism.
In 1939, Pope Pius XII was elected Pope. Montini was one of his right-hand men. World War II proved to be a delicate period for the Vatican as it attempted to save Jews from Nazi extermination camps.
He was appointed Archbishop of Milan in 1954. Milan proved to be a good training ground for the future pope. It is one of the largest dioceses in Europe and was then home to over 3.5 million people served by over 1,000 churches and 2,500 priests.
John XXIII succeeded Pius XII in 1958. Just two weeks after his election, he announced a consistory and Montini was the first among the 23 names on the list. John XXIII decided to hold an ecumenical council – the Vatican Council II. This defined and shaped Montini’s legacy.
At the inauguration of the council, in October 1962, John XXIII was terminally ill. He was aware that his successor would not be bound to continue the work of the council. Moreover, the response to the council was mixed. While some bishops supported this initiative, others hoped to be able to return to their diocese by Christmas.
John XXIII died on Pentecost Sunday of the following year. Cardinal Montini was elected Pope on June 21, 1963. He chose the name “Paul” in honour of the Apostle to the Gentiles, and he immediately announced that the council would continue. He expressed four hopes for the council; he wanted to discuss the nature of the Church, its renewal and its openness both towards other Christians and the contemporary world.
There were some innovations to the pastoral approach of the new pope. He began to add a short greeting in several languages, and he requested that people with disabilities should sit close to the dais. He made full use of the technological advances in air travel and embarked on various missionary trips around the globe.
His first was to the Holy Land in January 1964. There he embraced Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople. In later years, Athenagoras was hosted at the Vatican, and Paul VI paid a visit to the patriarchate in Istanbul.
Paul VI was prophetic in his defence of the truth – even when this proved to be unpopular and countercultural
Other visits took him to different corners of the globe; India, the United States, Portugal, Colombia, Uganda, Iran, Pakistan, the Philippines, Samoa, Australia, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Sri Lanka. A stiff linen collar spared his life during an assassination attempt at Manila Airport.
He had an ecumenical heart and longed for greater unity among Christians. He visited Geneva – long considered the city of the Reformation. He welcomed Michael Ramsay, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in Rome. During this visit, the Pope gave the Archbishop an episcopal ring while the Pope was given a pectoral cross.
Paul VI, however, was not universally popular. He was shy, reserved, and lacked the charisma of his predecessors. Some decisions raised the ire of certain factions. Traditionalists protested that the new liturgy removed much of the mystery and the beauty of the old Latin Mass while paving the way for various liturgical abuses.
1968 was a turning point. It was the year of student protests; the sexual revolution; campaigns for greater democracy in the Soviet Bloc and of the assassination of Martin Luther King.
Paul VI struck a discordant note with the encyclical Humane Vitae. Both the laity and some episcopal conferences dissented openly. Those who do not read beyond the now all-too-familiar criticism fail to appreciate its contribution to the importance of giving dignity to human life. It was, and remains, a prophetic encyclical. Wounded by these reactions, Paul VI opted to never write an encyclical for the remaining years of his papacy.
The last years were painful. In 1972, he described the post-conciliar period as being one of “tempests, darkness and doubt”. Vocations decreased, church attendance declined, and critics became more vocal. A private note written during this period, exemplifies his state of mind: “Am I Hamlet? Or Don Quixote? On the left? On the right? I do not think I have been properly understood.”
Then, in March 1978, former Prime Minister Aldo Moro was kidnapped by the Red Brigades. The Pontiff begged his captors to show mercy, even offering himself in exchange. His calls went unheeded. Moro was assassinated. A frail Paul VI addressed the congregation at St John Lateran describing Moro as his “good, gentle, wise and innocent friend”. Paul VI died in August of the same year at the papal villa in Castelgandolfo.
A tragic dark cloud of indecision and disappointment always seems to hang over the life of Pope Paul VI. And yet, there is much that contemporary Church life could learn from his work.
As Archbishop of Milan he often gave this advice to his priests: “Knock on everybody’s door, but don’t knock the door down.” This advice remains relevant particularly in a Church which is often too timid to knock. He often spoke of the difference between progress and development and that true progress cannot ignore the human dimension.
In this regard, the establishment of the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice was much needed. The involvement of the laity brought in new energy in the Church. It was through the council that the phrase “People of God” gained traction within the Church.
Finally, Paul VI was prophetic in his defence of the truth – even when this proved to be unpopular and countercultural. Indeed, Pope Paul VI reminds us that the way to God also involves the Way of the Cross.
Paul VI’s life seems to be exemplified in the words of his namesake: “Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”
André DeBattista is an independent researcher in politics and international relations.
This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece