This past Sunday, at the end of the Extraordinary Synod, Pope Francis beatified Pope Paul VI, whom I have greatly admired. Serving as pontiff from 1963-1978, Pope Paul inherited the important and challenging task to finish the work of Vatican II and to guide its implementation through the turbulence of the 1960s and ’70s. His wisdom, holiness and prudence have become more readily apparent with the passage of time.
Born in Brescia, Italy, on Sept. 26, 1897, Giovanni Battista Montini discerned his vocation to the priesthood at a young age, ordained at the startling age of 22 and finished a doctorate in canon law that same year. He entered the Vatican Secretariat of State, worked for a brief time at the papal nunciature in Poland, taught history at the Papal Academy for Diplomats and personally served Pope Pius XII in the management of his vast correspondence, especially during World War II.
At the request of the pope, Montini created an information office for prisoners of war and refugees, which processed 11 million inquiries about missing persons. He also co-founded the Pontifical Commission of Assistance that helped tens of thousands of Romans and refugees with food, shelter and medicine; thousands of such needy people found refuge within the walls of the Vatican itself.
Appointed in 1954 as shepherd to the vast Archdiocese of Milan, which had 1,000 churches, 2,500 priests and 3,500,000 faithful, Archbishop Montini embraced his new pastoral task with enthusiasm, reaching out to those alienated from the church, sending his priests to factories, schools, hospitals and street corners to preach the Gospel and launching many ambitious building projects to advance the church’s social mission.
Montini was viewed as a reformer and a progressive who prefigured the vision and energy of Vatican II.
Made a cardinal by Pope John XXIII in 1958, Montini was considered the most likely papal successor because of his pastoral vision and administrative experience, as well as his friendship with the popes he served. Elected pope on the fifth ballot during the second day of the 1963 conclave, Paul VI reopened the Ecumenical Council that September, giving it four key priorities: a better understanding of the Catholic Church, church reforms, advancing the unity of Christians and dialogue with the modern world.
Under the leadership of Pope Paul, the church experienced more change in just a few years than it had in the previous 500. From abolishing the papal court to the reform of the Curia, from the dramatic changes in the celebration of the Mass to ecumenical relationships with other faiths, from the establishment of ongoing Bishops’ Synods to unprecedented global travel, the pope charted a new course for world Catholicism and the papacy.
Pulled between opposing forces within the church, some of whom resisted Vatican II completely and others who wanted more radical change, Paul strove for a prudent balance of continuity and reform. He reaffirmed the truth of the Eucharist, mandatory priestly celibacy in the Latin rite, the traditional principles of Catholic social teaching, and the church’s opposition to artificial methods of contraception in Humanae Vitae.
That encyclical was greeted with a firestorm of protest in some liberal circles but it remains remarkably prescient today in light of the disastrous consequences of the sexual revolution. He died at Castel Gandolfo on Aug. 6, 1978, the feast of the Transfiguration.
Sandwiched between Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II, two charismatic and outgoing personalities, Pope Paul VI may seem shy and cautious in comparison, but underneath his unassuming humility and gentle prudence, he was a man of great courage, deep spirituality and abiding hope.
Think about it. Pope Paul VI guided the church through the sexual and cultural revolutions of the 1960s, the nuclear menace of the Cold War, the emerging independence of many Third World countries, the tumultuous implementation of Vatican II when priests and religious were leaving by the thousands, conflicting voices were calling out for myriad of changes within the church while others wanted no change at all and some felt that Catholicism had lost its way in the cacophony of modernity.
Through it all, Paul VI stood steady at the center of the storm, looking to Jesus Christ and the Gospel as the enduring roadmap for the church to follow.
His legacy will forever endure. His completion and implementation of Vatican II; his loving outreach to all Christians, believers of other faiths and those of no faith at all; his reforms and renewal of Vatican and church structures; his internationalization of the College of Cardinals, the College of Bishops and the Curia; his global travel; his deep love for Mary and reaffirmation of the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church stand as his gifts to us.
Whenever I am blessed to visit St. Peter’s Basilica, I always make my way downstairs to the papal tombs. Before their remains were moved upstairs, Popes John XXIII and John Paul II always had the longest lines of visitors in that narrow space. I would always go over to Pope Paul VI’s tomb, away from the crowd and whisper a little prayer of thanksgiving for such a good and holy man. With his beatification, I know I will be standing in a long line the next time I go to visit Blessed Paul VI.