LIFE OF SAINT PAUL VI (1) – Earthly steps to heaven

– Fausto Gomez OP

Pope Paul VI was canonized by Pope Francis on October 14, 2018. With his canonization, his papacy – his universal shepherding and his pastoral ministry, in particular his family ethics and social teachings – have come to the fore. As a result, his life and works are being positively reevaluated and better appreciated.

Allow me to consider in three pieces the continuing relevance of St. Paul VI today. In the first piece, we shall speak of his life – of his 15 years as Pope. In the second, we shall present briefly the main writings of Pope Montini. In the third, we will focus on his pace-setting Encyclical Letter Populorum Progressio. The following text, then, presents a general profile of Saint Paul VI

Giovanni Battista Montini was born on September 26, 1897, near Brescia, in Concesio, North of Italy. His father Giorgio was a lawyer, journalist and Member of Parliament. His mother Giuditta was an active member of Catholic Action. He had two brothers. After his institutional studies, he was ordained a priest in 1920 in Brescia. He continued his studies in Rome. Partly against his will, he entered the diplomatic profession: he would have preferred, we are told, theology and the humanities, and his pastoral ministry with the Catholic youth. At times, his classes in Brescia with the youth of Catholic Action were interrupted. Once he wrote to his parents then: “Fascism will die of indigestion if it continues as is, and it will be vanquished by its own over-powering.”

Monsignor Montini worked in the Secretariat of State from 1922 to 1954, and was close to Pope Pius XII. It is said that before the beginning of World War II he wrote this dramatic call for Pius XII: “There is still time! Nothing is lost with peace! Everything may be lost with war” (from Eduardo de la Hera Buedo). In 1954, Pope Pius XII named Msgr Giovanni Battista Montini Archbishop of Milan, where he worked as a humble and committed shepherd, close to workers and the youth.  In 1958, St John XXIII elevated him to the College of Cardinals.

Cardinal Montini was elected Pope on June 21, 1963. He was then 66, and took the name of Paul VI. Pope Paul VI served as Pope for 15 years. He has been described as the first modern Pope (Peter Hebblethwaite). He is the first Pope to travel to the five continents: 9 memorable pilgrimages outside Italy, including the Holy Land in 1964, the United Nations in New York in 1965, and Manila in 1970.

Paul VI is the Pope of the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II. He presided the last three sessions (1963-1965). It has been pointed out that the canonization of Pope Paul VI underlines the continuing significance of the Second Vatican Council. In a highly important speech to the Council’s General Assembly on November 18, 1965, Pope Paul VI said: “The time of discussion is closed and the period of understanding begins. This is the moment of true aggiornamento [of Pope John XXIII] … For all of us aggiornamento shall mean, from now on, clear understanding of the spirit of the Council, and faithful application of the directives outlined by the Council in a felicitous and holy manner.”

Pope Montini is the Pope of the Post-council or Post-Vatican II. He guided the Post-council from 1966 up to his death in 1978. He questioned then and now: “What help has the Council given to my faith, to my prayer, to my inquiry about God, to my spiritual life?” He advised all Christians, then and now: “Meditate on the religious spirit of the Council and answer to yourselves if the wind – mild or impetuous- of Pentecost does not come to pervade your souls.”

Pope Paul VI is referred to, moreover, as the Pope of the Church. When I ask my brother-priests on the most salient characteristic of Pope Paul VI, their usual answer is: His love for the Church, which Pope Benedict XVI described as “passionate love” for the Church. “I could say that I have loved the Church always…, and for her and not for anything else I have tried to live” (Paul VI).

The path of renewal after Vatican II was not easy. While implementing the resolutions of the Council in the spirit of the Council, Pope Paul VI was faithful to the spirit and teachings of the 16 documents of Vatican II. He tried to journey in the middle – in medio virtus -, not veering to the so-called conservative right or to the progressive left. He was a moderate. Thus, he was at times criticized by both – traditionalists who said he was going too fast, and progressive liberals who affirmed he was going too slow. He admitted he was not personally strong:  “I am fragile, but I am Peter.” He suffered terribly in particular for the exit of many priests and religious in the aftermath of Vatican II. He loved his priesthood – and the priests. It is interesting to note that the first book young Giovanni Battista Montini reviewed when he was a young priest was Bernanos’ lovely The Diary of a Country Priest.

Pope Paul VI guided the Post-conciliar Church and applied gently and courageously the reforms of the Council: significant liturgical changes, applications of collegiality (he established – and convoked four times – the celebration of the Synod of Bishops), and deeper commitment to peace (he instituted the World Day of Peace to be celebrated yearly on January one: his first papal Message January 1, 1968). Pope Paul VI gave new impulse to ecumenical dialogue, to the promotion of authentic Marian devotion (he also proclaimed Mary as Mother of the Church), and to evangelization. He was firmly pro-life, pro-human person, and pro-poor.

In 2012, Pope Montini was declared “venerable” by Benedict XVI, who said that Paul VI practiced virtue heroically. He was beatified by Pope Francis on October 19, 2014, and canonized on October 14, 2018. Before his death, the Pope had asked for a simple tomb: he wanted to “be placed in the true earth with no ornate sarcophagus.” He passed away on August 6, 1978 at Castel Gandolfo. Saint Paul VI’s feast will be celebrated every year on September 26, the day of his birth.

Paul VI was not indecisive, but certainly liked to pose questions to Christians and men and women of goodwill. Months before his death, he wrote these painful and joyful words: “What is my state of mind? Am I Hamlet? Or Don Quixote? On the left? On the right? I do not think I have been properly understood. I am filled with great joy. ‘With all our afflictions, I am overjoyed’ (II Cor 2:4).”

St Paul VI had a humble, compassionate and intense look. Many writers underline his penetrating look. It was November 28, 1970, in Manila. I remember I had the great honor of accompanying the Holy Father and his private secretary Monsignor Pasquale Macchi on the way to the Medicine Auditorium of the University of Santo Tomas, Manila. The Holy Father was going to address the Asian Bishops, after he had talked to the youth of the Philippines at the UST campus. The Holy Father, his private secretary and myself, the three together in the elevator from first to fourth floors! The Pope was still clearly moved by the youth of the Philippines he had just addressed at the UST Campus mammoth rally. He was so impressed, so amazed, so awed by the warm and joyful reception of the youth!  In the elevator, the only thing he said was: “Filipinos, Filipinos…Incredible!” For my part, I could not say anything. I was blocked! Pope Paul VI just looked at me intensely with a gentle, paternal/maternal, compassionate look. His incomparable penetrating look! I loved it. I will never forget it!

Pope Paul VI was a humble, reserved, sensitive, intelligent, spiritual, and dialogical person. He was faithful, courageous, and deeply devoted to Mary Our Lady. Pope Paul VI: a saint. He is in the company of the Pope that preceded him, St John XXIII, and of the Pope that followed him (after the 33 days papacy of joyful Pope John Paul I), St John Paul II. Three great popes, three saints!







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