No pope of the 20th century has been more eclipsed by his predecessors and successors than Pope Paul VI. Blessed Pope John XXIII is remembered for his goodness, large heart and radiant humanity. His predecessor, Pius XII, is seen by those who remember him as the last Counter-Reformation pope and was thought by many in his lifetime to be a liVing saint. John Paul I's memory is effaced by the brevity of his reign. John Paul U holds a monolithic place in people's memories that only time will decrease.
Between these longer serving pontiffs, Paul occupies an almost spectral presence entirely divorced from the fame of the rest. He never became victim to a personality cult, yet no pope of the second half of the 20th century had a more decisive influence on the modern Church. During Paul's reign of 15 years (1963-78) more changes were introduced in the Church than in all previous centuries combined.
Giovanni Battista Montini was born in Concesio, near Brescia in Lombardy, on September 29 1897. He came from a privileged, intellectual family. His father Giorgio was a prosperous lawyer and landowner, editor of a local Catholic newspaper and a parliamentary deputy with a strong desire for social reform. His mother Guiditta — Alghisi came from a family of local nobles and was a leader of the Catholic women of Brescia. Montini had two brothers, Lodovico, who followed a political career and became a senator, and Francesco, who became a doctor.
Educated by the Jesuits, Montini began studies for the priesthood in Brescia in 1916 and was ordained in 1920. His bishop sent him to Rome for further studies at the Sapienza University but a combination of parental, political and ecclesiastical influence saw him admitted to the Vatican as a student at the College for Noble Ecclesiastics in the Piazza Minerva, the school for Vatican diplomats. In 1923 he embarked upon his Roman apprenticeship in the Secretariat of State, at the age of 26, as the chaplain to the Catholic students of Rome. to be followed six years later by his appointment as national chaplain.
In 1922 Benito Mussolini became Prime Minister of Italy. Montini's appointment to the Federazione degli Universitaria Catolica Italian° (FUCI), part of Catholic Action, quickly made him the covert leader of the intellectual opposition to Fascism. He had to meet the needs of Catholics who for the first time in their lives found themselves invited to choose between an anti-Christian ideology and a personally appropriated Christian faith. Montini was an intellectual. He believed that intellectual activity was in itself deeply spiritual and was inspired by the French Dominican peri odical, La We intellectuelle, which developed a spirituality of intellectual work. In • addition to exercising profound spiritual influence on the students, in 1927 he and Igino Righetti, the national president of FUCI, founded a small publishing house, and Montini became the editor and main contributor to the monthly intellectual review &tedium. They developed the programme and organisation of FUCI through study groups, retreats, regional conventions and national congresses. Fascist attacks on FUCI and Catholic Action intensified in 1931 and on May 29 all Catholic youth movements in Italy were dissolved and their property confiscated. FUCI premises were violently attacked throughout Italy, public gatherings were suspended and members were physically beaten.
In 1930 Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli was appointed as Secretary of State. In 1933 Montini was relieved of his post as national chaplain to FUCI and thereafter he not only became Pacelli's closest colleague but a skilled diplomatic technician whose work became indispensable. In 1937 Montini was appointed Pacelli's substitute and on his election to the papacy in 1939 Pius XII quickly became dependent on him and he discharged his duties without any intervening Secretary of State. He organised and directed the Holy See's extensive relief work; he helped to hide political refugees, especially Jews, and help them with means of escape. He was in charge of the Vatican Information Office which brought news of vanished prisoners of war and relayed to them messages from their families. After the war he took a leading part in founding Caritas Internationalis and the Catholic Migration Commission. He was largely responsible for organising the Holy Year in 1950 and the Marian Year four years later. In 1953 he was appointed pro-Secretary of State.
His intellectual gifts inspired envy and distrust among his curial colleagues. In 1952 Pius put Montini at the top of a list of new cardinals, yet when the list was published he was not included. The reason was that Montini declined the honour because he knew that he would have lost whatever influence he had in the Secretariat of State. There is no truth in the surmise that Pius excluded him because he did ' not want him as his successor.
In 1954 Montini was appointed Archbishop of Milan, after Rome the most prestigious see of Italy. His work there was outstanding. He embarked on a massive programme of post-war reconstruction, culminating in 1957 in the Mission to Milan, the greatest experiment of its kind in the history of the Church. He built many new churches but also schools, community centres and dispensaries for the poor. His energy was consistently on the side of the workers and the underprivileged. He preached the social message of the Gospel and strove unceasingly in the Communist stronghold of Milan to win the labouring classes back to the Chiirch.
In 1958 Pius Xlidied and was succeeded by Angelo Roncalli, Pope John XXIII. Though not a cardinal, Montini was wanted by many as Pius's successor. If that had happened there would have been no Second Vatican Council. The Church appeared so well-structured and secure that it seemed better to let well alone. But he loyally supported the Pope's decision and played a major part in the preparations. On John's death in 1963 Montini was elected his successor and took the name Paul because it was indicative of an outwardlooking approach. He gave the Council direction by clarifying its goals: the renewal of the Church, the promotion of Christian unity, and dialogue with the modern world. He declared that his entire pontificate would be devoted to the Council and its consequences.
The aftermath of the Council took place at a time when an age of political dissent unforeseen by the Council Fathers marked the life of entire generations: no climate could have been more difficult for the implementation of the decrees. Two consequences need identification. The promulgation of Paul's most radical encyclical, Humanae Vitae, and the revised Roman Missal of 1970 should be seen against this background when all authority figures were called into question. Humane Vitae is the most prophetic encyclical of Paul's reign and led to permanently divisive consequences in the Church. The availability of the contraceptive pill led to one of the profoundest social changes in the evolution of human society and Paul's prediction of the consequences lie all around in the unbalance of nature created by a contraceptive mentality. Catholic opposition to the encyclical appealed to a responsible approach to birth control but that fades into insignificance in the light of subsequent developments in secular society, developments that have also profoundly affected later generations of Catholics. Not least, Humanae Vitae led to the expansion of dissent from the authentic voice of the Church's Magisterium and the emergence of polarised doctrinal positions which remain with us still.
The revised Roman Missal was the fruit of the 20th-century liturgical movement and was promulgated by Paul in the name of tradition. Paul explained to Jean Guitton: "Not only have we maintained everything of the past but we have rediscovered the most ancient and primitive tradition, the one closest to the origins." After the Council the historic appeal was soon obscured in the desire for liturgical creativity and the distortion of the traditional canons and liturgy of the Eucharistic ceremony. These were defended by some on pastoral grounds. Benedict XVI's present liturgical reforms should be seen in the context of celebrating the Roman Rite in the way that the original reformers intended. a style of celebration quickly subsumed in the general tumult that swept society from 1968 onwards. This disruptive interval post_ poned the authentic implementation of the Council for many years and explains recent-papal initiatives.
There is infinitely more to Paul's reign than these two overshadowing developments and their consequences but both influenced the lives of Catholics at the -profoundest level. Paul's great achievement, secured as much by travel as teaching, was to put the Catholic Church and the papacy itself into the centre of the world stage. His pontificate defined the papacy's new role. He suffered acutely during his reign and the consequent confusion and his humanity waeas great as John XXIII's.
His other signal achievement was that he kept the Church together at one of the most disruptive periods of world history and he safeguarded the substance of the Catholic faith intact Later popes have built on his legacy. Paul's reforms bemused and antagonised many and led to false hopes in others but even the most cursory study of his life points to the likelihood that history will be kinder to Paul VI than his critics would like.
Paul VI, a short biography by Anthony Symondson SJ, is to be published by the Catholic Truth Society on September 1, priced I .9.5