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Blessed Paul VI: The Helmsman of the Second Vatican Council

Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB

September 25, 2018
Image © 2014 Catholic News Service

Blessed Paul VI: The Helmsman of the Vatican

By: Fr. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B 
Giovanni Battista Enrico Antonio Maria Montini was born on September 26, 1897 at Concesio (Lombardy) of a wealthy family of the upper class. His father was a non-practicing lawyer turned editor and a courageous promoter of social action. Even after entering the seminary (1916) he was allowed to live at home because of his frail health. After his ordination in 1920 he was sent to Rome to study at the Gregorian University and the University of Rome, but in 1922 he transferred to the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy in Rome to study diplomacy and pursue his canon law studies at the Gregorian University. In 1923 he was sent to Warsaw as attaché of the nunciature but was recalled to Rome (1924), because of the effect of the severe Polish winters on his health, and assigned to the office of the Secretariat of State where he remained for the next thirty years. During those years he also taught the Ecclesiastical Academy and was named chaplain to the Federation of Italian Catholic University Students (FUCI), an assignment that was to have a decisive impact on his relations with the founders of the post-war Christian Democratic Party.
In 1937 he was named substitute for ordinary affairs under Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the Vatican Secretary of State. On Pacelli's election as Pius XII in 1939, Montini was reconfirmed in his position under the new secretary of state, Cardinal Luigi Maglione. When the latter died in 1944, Montini continued to discharge his office directly under the pope. During World War II he was responsible for organizing the Vatican’s massive relief work and care of political refugees.
In the secret consistory of 1952 Pope Pius XII announced that he had intended to raise Montini and Domenico Tardini to the Sacred College of Cardinals but that they had both asked to be dispensed from accepting. Instead he conferred on both of them the title of Pro-secretary of State. The following year Montini was appointed Archbishop of Milan but still without the title of cardinal. Soon he became known and loved as the "archbishop of the workers." He revitalized the entire diocese, preached the social message of the Gospel, worked to win back the laboring class, promoted Catholic education at every level, and supported the Catholic press. His impact upon the city at this time was so great that it attracted world-wide attention. At the conclave of 1958 his name was frequently mentioned, and at Pope John's first consistory in December of that year he was one of 23 prelates raised to the cardinalate with his name leading the list.
Montini’s response to the call for a Council was immediate and even before it met he was identified as a strong advocate of the principle of collegiality. He was appointed to the Central Preparatory Commission for Vatican II and also to the Technical-Organizational Commission.
On the death of Pope John XXIII, Montini was elected June 21, 1963 to succeed him, taking the name of Paul VI. Few imagined the upheaval that would shake both church and world in the next decade. Within a short span of five years, Papa Giovanni had humanized the papacy and launched an ecumenical council that captured hearts, stirred imaginations and elevated hopes of many outside the Roman Catholic Church, as well as within.
In Paul VI’s first message to the world, he committed himself to a continuation of the work begun by John XXIII. The historical backdrop of the Council must never be forgotten: it was a post-war period where fears diminished, economies began to grow in many industrialized countries, a young Catholic president in the United States breathed courageous hope into what many had considered an uncertain future.
In a seeming flash, the hopes and dreams of the early 1960s were dashed as senseless, political assassinations were followed by violence, terrorism, race riots and a far-away war in Vietnam that would suddenly overtake our world. And with that war came a new wave of poverty, unemployment, violence, mass protests and massive disorientation. This was the modern world over which Pope Paul VI would preside; these were the confusing and often violent times into which Paul VI would introduce the themes of “Sacrosanctum Concilium”, “Gaudium et Spes”, “Lumen Gentium”, and “Dignitatis Humane”—first fruits of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). The waters upon which the barque of Peter would sail those years were choppy and stormy.
Throughout his pontificate the tension between papal primacy and the collegiality of the episcopacy was a source of conflict. Paul VI overcame the resistance of reactionaries and implemented the reforms established by the council in the areas of liturgy, church governance and the attitudes of Catholics toward other religions. The pope’s highly personal encounters with other religious leaders ushered in a new openness of the Roman Catholic Church to other faiths.
On September 14, 1965 he announced the establishment of the Synod of Bishops called for by the Council fathers to pursue the council’s accent on episcopal collegiality. National conferences of bishops were strengthened or newly established, and Paul VI would preside over five synods of bishops from around the world. Certain issues that seemed suitable for discussion by the synod were reserved to himself. Celibacy, removed from the debate of the fourth session of the Council, was made the subject of an encyclical, June 24, 1967); the regulation of birth was treated in Humanae vitae July 24, 1968), his last encyclical. Controversies over these two papal documents often overshadowed the last years of his pontificate.
As the world came undone, Paul VI breathed into its very fabric the idea, hope and dream of a lasting justice and peace for humanity through a very personal campaign that was fought by his own, peaceful and passionate personal witness and his magnificent papal documents noted for their clarity, depth and beauty.
President John F. Kennedy meeting with Pope Paul VI at the Vatican in July of 1963.
Those who knew him best, however, described him as a brilliant man, deeply spiritual, humble, reserved and gentle, a man of "infinite courtesy." During the final years of his life, Paul VI often spoke of the burdens of age and the imminence of death. He was deeply troubled by the senseless violence and terrorism in the world and tried to stir human consciences to seek peace.
Though profoundly saddened at the cheapening of human life, he never failed to see beyond the tragedy of our times and glimpse the radiant beauty of the transfigured Lord. It was no coincidence that he closed his eyes on this sad yet beautiful world on the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, August 6, also the day in 1945 on which the first atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima. Could it be that the Lord Jesus, whom Paul loved so deeply, was letting this successor of Peter know that despite the darkness of our times, the blazing radiant light of Jesus would overcome the shadows and the night, and lead Paul VI home to a place of enduring light and peace?
After 80 years of earthly pilgrimage, Paul VI found his own transfiguration in that Light. Pope Paul VI asked that his funeral be simple with no catafalque and no monument over his grave.
Pope Paul VI presides over a meeting of the Second Vatican Council in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in 1963.
On October 19, 2014, during the concluding mass of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in Rome, Pope Francis spoke these words at Paul’s Beatification:
“When we look to this great Pope, this courageous Christian, this tireless apostle, we cannot but say in the sight of God a word as simple as it is heartfelt and important: thanks! Thank you, our dear and beloved Pope Paul VI! Thank you for your humble and prophetic witness of love for Christ and his Church!"
In his personal journal, the great helmsman of the Council wrote, at the conclusion of its final session: “Perhaps the Lord has called me and preserved me for this service not because I am particularly fit for it, or so that I can govern and rescue the Church from her present difficulties, but so that I can suffer something for the Church, and in that way it will be clear that he, and no other, is her guide and saviour” (P. Macchi, Paolo VI nella sua parola, Brescia, 2001, pp. 120-121). In this humility the grandeur of Blessed Paul VI shines forth: before the advent of a secularized and hostile society, he could hold fast, with farsightedness and wisdom—and at times alone—to the helm of the barque of Peter, while never losing his joy and his trust in the Lord.
May this great helmsman of the Church watch over us, teach us and help us to never lose our joy and our hope (gaudium et spes) in the Lord. Blessed Paul VI, pray for us.
This article came from Salt+Light's 2014 Fall Magazine. To view the full magazine click HERE.
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