The announcement by Pope Francis on May 10 that Pope Paul VI would be beatified on Oct. 19 at the close of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family cast a new focus on the pontificate, the life and the holiness of the pope who labored to guide the Church in the decade after the Second Vatican Council. Looking back some 36 years since his death, it is possible to appreciate both Paul’s abiding holiness and also the prophetic quality of his teaching, in particular in two encyclicals, Populorum Progressio (“Development of Peoples”) in 1967 and especially Humanae Vitae (“On Human Life”) in 1968.
A child of Brescia
The man who seemed at times to be standing almost entirely alone in the years after the council was born Giovanni Battista Montini at Concesio, near Brescia, the son of a lawyer and political editor of the Catholic paper Il cittadina di Brescia. He was a sickly child but demonstrated an aptitude for reading. Entering the seminary, he studied mostly from home and was ordained on May 29, 1920.
After further studies at the Gregorian University in Rome, the young Father Montini was invited in 1922 to work in the Secretariat of State before serving briefly in 1923 in the Warsaw nunciature. Back in the secretariat, he devoted himself to the students of Rome and became an assistant to Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (the future Pope Pius XII). Pacelli was elected pope in 1939, and in 1944 he named Father Montini pro-secretary for the internal affairs of the Church. In 1952, he was named pro-secretary of state but declined elevation to cardinal. Almost two years later, in November 1954, Pius sent him to Milan as its archbishop; Pius died in 1958 without giving Montini the red hat.
As archbishop of Milan, Montini was deeply concerned with the pressing social problems of that enormous see and the need to repair the terrible physical and spiritual damage caused by the war. After Pius’ death in 1958, Montini was considered a possible candidate to succeed him, despite being only an archbishop, but the cardinals chose Pope St. John XXIII instead. John wasted no time in appointing Montini one of the first new cardinals of the pontificate.
Cardinal Montini was a particular supporter of Pope John’s great project of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), and when John died in June 1963, Cardinal Montini was the strongest candidate entering the conclave. He was elected pope on June 21, 1963, and took the name Paul out of a desire to emulate the missionary labors of St. Paul.
Paul’s immediate order of business was to bring the council to a successful conclusion. Three of his most notable actions during the council were the creation of a permanent Synod of Bishops, the declaration of the Blessed Virgin Mother as the Mother of the Church and adding to Lumen Gentium (the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church”) a note clarifying the statements concerning the collegiality of bishops.
When the council was brought to a close in 1965, he was confronted with the challenge of steering the Church toward a universally authentic interpretation of the decrees. He set up a large number of commissions and promulgated many statements that led to the introduction of the new Mass in 1969 and the reform of the Church calendar in 1970. Still, Pope Paul struggled to hold to the frequently difficult road of reform and suffered spiritual torment in the face of opposition from some who resisted the changes and others who accelerated the process to such a degree that serious disorientation began occurring in Europe and the United States. While criticized by some for his leadership, Paul VI can today be seen as a valiant figure who prophetically anticipated many of the problems that have plagued the world since his death.
Given the attention paid to Humanae Vitae, the casual student of the modern Church might think Pope Paul issued only one encyclical. In fact, he issued seven, including Sacerdotalis Caelibatus (“Priestly Celibacy”), in which he reaffirmed priestly celibacy throughout the Western Church at a time when dissenting voices were calling for its end.
Two encyclicals, however, stand out as some of the most important in recent papal teachings. In the 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio, he appealed to wealthy countries to take “concrete action” to promote human development and to remedy imbalances between richer and poorer nations. In his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”), Pope Benedict XVI stressed the prophetic and influential role of Paul’s encyclical in the history of Catholic social teaching, especially in the areas of globalization and economic inequality.
Even greater recognition has been given in modern times to the prophetic quality of Humanae Vitae. In the lead-up to the papal encyclical, some Catholic theologians and Catholic publications raised the false hopes of those who desired a change in Church teaching on contraception. Rather than surrender to the demands of the media and dissenting Catholics, the pontiff reaffirmed authentic teaching on contraception.
He predicted the effects of a contraceptive mentality on culture, seeing accurately so many of the crises we are facing today, including the breakdown of family life, the decline of the birthrate in the First World and the imposition of a contraceptive culture upon entire societies by their governments.
Blessed Paul VI
The pope issued no further encyclicals after Humanae Vitae. The encyclical was thus seen as a kind of turning point in his pontificate. He continued to travel and to proclaim hope to the world, but he was deeply troubled by crises in the Church and international or political upheaval. His health declined slowly from the mid-1970s, hastened by the violent state of affairs in Italian politics; most tragic of all was the kidnapping and death of his friend, the Italian Christian Democrat leader Aldo Moro in May 1978. Paul’s last public appearance was, in fact, at the funeral of his good friend. He died at Castel Gandolfo on Aug. 6, 1978.
From virtually the time of his passing, there was a movement to promote Paul’s canonization. While criticized in some quarters for his response to the crises after the council and vilified by dissenting theologians for Humanae Vitae, Paul nevertheless was loved and respected by those who knew him for his intellect, his gentle courtesy, his humility and, above all, for his personal holiness.
The diocesan process for his canonization began in May 1993 under Pope St. John Paul II, and in December 2012, Pope Benedict XVI approved the declaration of Pope Paul VI as a person who had led a life of heroic virtue, granting him the title of venerable. It was most fitting that the approved miracle needed for his beatification was the healing of an unborn child in California. With that miracle, the way was cleared for Paul to be beatified at the equally fitting closing of the synod centering on the family life that Paul sought to defend.
In 2007, then-Pope Benedict XVI gave a testament to Pope Paul on the 110th anniversary of the latter’s birth:
“Paul VI was cautious and courageous in guiding the Church with realism and Gospel optimism, nourished by indomitable faith. He looked forward to the coming of the ‘civilization of love,’ convinced that evangelical charity is an indispensable element for building an authentic universal brotherhood.”
Matthew Bunson is OSV’s senior correspondent.