Page 3, 11th August 1978

11th August 1978
Page 3
Page 3, 11th August 1978 — An extraordinary gift for calm and quiet in the midst of apparent chaos

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Locations: Rome, Milan


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An extraordinary gift for calm and quiet in the midst of apparent chaos

A tribute by Gerard Noel, former editor of the Catholic Herald who wrote Paul VI, the Pope's biography.

THE 263rd Vicar of Christ is dead, and words pour in their thousands from the presses of the world in appreciation, analysis or perhaps in some eases, little more than polite dismissal, of Paul VI.

Such obvious pegs as Humane:re Vitae, Populorium Progressio and the "Pilgrim Pope' image are being heavily overloaded with verbal vestment. But the true significance in history of the papal reign just ended is more subtle than most suppose and defies instant assessment, however shrewd.

I will thus crave indulgence for stressing an earlier phase of Paul's life, containing forgotten clues to his personality and thus, to his eventual pontificate.

The starting point for this examination is a personal one. I first met Mgr .Montini, as he then was, in the early 1950s, as a student at the Roman College of which he was "Protector" and to which he was a fairly frequent visitor.

The Rector singled me out to Our Protector as an Italian speaker, but there was little need for this as Mgr Montini preferred to practise his adequate if never completely fluent English whenever possible.

From the time of that meeting onwards, the first of many, I took a particular interest in the man with the intense gaze and firm "double-grip" handshake. Seeing him as a probable future Pope I began to collect information about his fife and had a short book completed by the spring of 1963.

The day after he was elected to the Chair of Peter (June 20, 1963) proofs were on my desk of what became, a couple of weeks later, the first biography of the new Pope.

It is now a question of looking back to re-examine the events and portents of the pre-1963 period. For a key to the later and better known events is provided by those formative years whose pattern and significance seem to have been neglected for the moment.

His birhthplace, "Brixia", founded by the Celts in 500 BC and re-settled by the Gauls, was a tranquil outpost of Christianity until the eighth century when in a small neighbouring community, the famous Lombard King, Desiderius, came into the world.

From then on, Brescia, captured by Charlemagne, steadily grew up into a town of unusual geographical, historic and artistic importance.

Like King Desiderius, but destined to bring even greater renown to Brescia, Giovanni Battista Montini was also born (in 1897) in a small neighbouring community, namely Concesio, a suburb of the modern town.

His father, Giorgio Montini, a popular and influential banker and leader of Catholic activities in the region, could scarcely dream that his son would one day be the world's most famous citizen, or cittadino, of Brescia.

A newspaper of this name, /I Cittadino di Brescia, was edited by him for a quarter of a century, and he was also head of the Electorial Union of Italian Catholics, on the personal nomination of Pope Benedict XV, and three times a member of Parliament.

Of importance in view of subsequent events is the fact that this happened at a period when Catholics had only just been allowed once again to take a full part in politics.

The relaxation of Non Expedit, barring Catholics from polities after the Risorgimento and occupation of the Papal States, was given by Pope Pius X in 1904 to the region around Bergamo, birthplace of John XXIII, while, not many miles away, Giovanni Banista received his first schooling from the Jesuits at the Institut° Arici.

He soon passed from elementary subjects to a keen interest in economic and social questions which, at this time, were a topic of grave concern throughout Italy.

A starving mob was massacred in Milan when "Giambattista" lay in his cot 50 miles away, and as he went to school he could hear about, if not understand, the first appearance of 'syndicalism," born at the Brescia Conference of 1904, and aiming at armed violence if necessary to secure workers' rights.

The Church made a belated — if inadequate — effort to catch up, with the appearance, in the decade of Montini's birth, of Leo XIII's Encyclical, Return Noverum, a blueprint at least, for matters close to the heart of "Giambattista".

Montini's parents were rewarded for the piety they had handed down, along with a rigid sense of realism, when their son was ordained at the Cathedral of Brescia in May, 1920.

Many years later, it was to receive its crowning tribute when, in a private audience, Pope Pius XII said to them: "You have given to the Church a man who possesses every quality to a preeminent degree."

A vital period of Montini's active career began in earnest in 1923, principally consisting, in the next 10 years, of his close connection with higher education and youth movements and the beginnings of a long term of service in the Secretariat of State.

He was appointed ecclesiastical assistant to the university section of Italian Catholic Action and a minutante (clerk) in the Vatican Secretariat on the eve of the delicate negotiations with the government which culminated in the Lateran Treaty of 1929.

The year, 1923, however, was a sad one for organised Italian Catholics as Fascism was tightening its grip on the country. As had Guelphs and Ghibellines, Moderates and Clerico-Fascists chose Brescia as a battleground — for the life or death of the Popular Party, with Giorgio Montini and Longiotti on one side and Livio Tovini on the other.

Montini, Gronchi, and de Gasperi, at Right, Left, and Centre, waged dignified but passionate battle in the fateful 1924 election, but it was becoming apparent that the Vatican regarded the Popular Party as an obstacle to better understanding between Church and State.

However, a great and, as history was to show, decisive hope for the Church (and, for that matter, Italy as well), became centred on the partnership between Fr Montini and a young leader of Catholic Action called Igino Righetti.

Even Pius XI appeared lukewarm toward the Catholic And Fascists at this confused moment, though the religious case against the regime, pleaded by Donati from the pages of /I Cittadino di Brescia, was taken up later by the Pope, when in 1931, he partially condemned Fascism in the encyclical Non Abbiamo Bisogno,

The work of Montini can be detected in the background, when Fascist youth organisations were caliming a monopoly of education over the younger generations, and Pius XI strongly criticised the Fascist concept of education and the State.

The Montini-Righetti alliance was consolidated from 1925 onwards in the University Students' Federation (FUCI) and in the vigorous campaign that followed. The Fascists hampered Montini's work with mounting intensity, but not so as to disturb his extraordinary gift for calm and quiet determination in the midst of apparent chaos. This gift has often been mistaken (in recent years) for coldness, just as his gift for balancing opposing forces so as to avoid or contain needlessly damaging conflicts has been mistaken for an inability to make up his mind.

People who make this charge show that they have never spoken with or got to know the late Pope. They have virtually missed the heart and soul of his life's work.

In 1924 Montini's response to the prospect of prolonged harassment of his co-operation with the subdued, unofficial and embryonic Christian Democratic "opposition" — and also his youth work — was to say: "If we cannot advance with flags unfurled, we will work in silence."

His declaration turned out to be prophetic, but the "silence" was an outward one only; the work went on with increased intensity with results that are already history. Rome never acclaimed Mussolini with such profound joy as it greeted de Gasperi when his work after 1943 was rewarded by a brilliant victory in 1948.

Few could know of the decisive part played by Montini, both then and 20 years earlier. The defeat of Communism, moreover (at this 1948 election) was largely due to Montini's vigorous reorganisation at this time of that very Catholic Action which had been de Gasperi's political cradle in the 1920s.

The triumphant post-war phenomenon of Christian Democracy, and its resulting spread to France and Germany, thus owes an enormous, if hidden, debt to Giambattista Montini (the corruptions and blunders of a much later phase are another story).

Having appointed no successor to Cardinal Maglione, Pius XII virtually acted as his own Secretary of State after 1944, receiving reports directly from Mgr Tardini, in charge of the Secretariat's "First Section", dealing with "Extraordinary Affairs," and Mgr Montini, in charge of the even more important "Second Section," deal ing with "Ordinary Affairs."

In 1953, Tardini and Montini were both given the title of ProSecretary of State, in charge of their respective departments, and in the following year Montini was entrusted with the second most important pastoral post in the world when appointed Archibishop of Milan.

"The man for whom Milan has waited," was the description then given of him by his Auxiliary, Mgr (now Cardinal) Sergio Pignedoli (the latter, of course, has long been considered highly papablle and could well be the "Roman favourite" in the coming conclave).

Neither as effervescent as John XXIII nor as awe-inspiring as Pius XII, Pope Paul's geniality and almost childlike naturalness made him extremely easy to meet while in no way dimming the inevitable sense of his profound astuteness and spirituality.

He excelled as a good listener, though willing and able to talk about almost any subject — except himself! His delicate, pale features, long nose and dazzling, dark .grey eyes, gave depth and intensity to an expression softened by the half smile never far from his lips.

"The Archbishop of the Workers" was the description of him by Mgr dell'Acqua (as he then was) in the farewell speech on his departure from Rome to Milan.

He soon proved his worthiness of the title and put special accent on the workers in one of his first addresses in the turbulent, industrial See, launching at the same time a tremendous "prefab" building drive to replace the many churches destroyed or damaged in the war.

He had admiration and high praise for the Christian Association of Italian Workers and speaking before them in Milan in 1955, said: "No man must lack bread, a roof over his head, clothing and work. All those in a position to guide politics and economics must make every effort that this be realised."

Such remarks seem worth recalling despite the more portentous and official pronouncements of Montini as Pope. But the amount of people who actually read and take in the "small print" of encyclicals is notoriously small.

The late Pope's posthumous image will, for the time being, suffer most from the polite indifference of the "establishment" media who years ago wrote him off as unexciting copy. It is almost true to say that his character has been thus assassinated by default.

It would be nice to be able to say that he did not mind this; but it would not be true. He was very human, and his faults were not concealed.

But the intensity of his inner suffering as part of his living martrdom in the case of bringing the Church through the initial perils of the post-Conciliar period without being rent completely asunder, rarely emerged.

A great friend of mine witnessed an occasion when his temper and frustration, for once, got the better of him.

He, Archbishop Heston — then in charge of what passes for a Vatican "Press Relations" office — entered the Pope's private study where they were then alone. Paul VI was obviously in a towering rage. He told the American Archbishop that some of his "advisers" were driving him mad with their petty quarrels and often very stupid advice.

"One would like," said the Pope, "to bang their heads together." And he accompanied his words by a vigorous knocking together of his clenched fists.

But in a moment Of two his familiar calmness once more softened his face, and he said with 13 sigh: "But of course, one can't."

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