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Paul VI

A Dictionary of Popes

J. N. D. Kelly,

Michael J. Walsh

Paul VI 

(21 June 1963–6 Aug. 1978)

Son of a prosperous lawyer who was also a newspaper editor and parliamentary deputy, and of a pious mother to whom he was devoted, Giovanni Battista Montini was born at Concesio, the family's country house near Brescia, on 26 Sept. 1897. Shy and of precarious health, but with an appetite for books, he attended the diocesan seminary from home, was ordained on 29 May 1920, and then pursued graduate studies in Rome at both the state university, La Sapienza, and the Gregorian University. From the end of 1921 he was a student at the Academy for Noble Ecclesiastics. From 1922 he worked in the papal secretariat of state, a brief spell (May–Nov. 1923) in the Warsaw nunciature being broken off for health reasons. Continuing in the secretariat, he became deeply involved as a chaplain (1924–33) in the Catholic student movement, and from 1931 also taught diplomatic history at the Academy. On 8 July 1931 he was made a domestic prelate to the holy see, and on 13 Dec. 1937 assistant to Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, then secretary of state. When Pacelli became *Pius XII in 1939, Montini continued to work closely with him, being assigned charge of internal church affairs in 1944. Promoted pro-secretary of state in Nov. 1952, he declined a cardinal's hat in Dec. 1953, and on 1 Nov. 1954 was appointed archbishop of Milan, an enormous diocese teeming with social problems; the nomination has been interpreted as a sign of papal disfavour. Styling himself ‘the workers' archbishop’, but accompanied by his now legendary 90 crates of books, he threw himself with immense energy into the task of restoring his war-battered diocese and winning over the disaffected industrial masses; for three weeks in Nov. 1957 he carried out an intensive mission aimed at reaching every parish in the city. If his efforts as a missioner and diocesan were not as successful as he had hoped, he found time for experiments in Christian unity, holding discussions, for instance, with a group of Anglicans in 1956. On 5 Dec. 1958*John XXIII named him cardinal priest of SS. Silvestro e Martino ai Monti, a customary promotion withheld under Pius XII—who never held another consistory after that of Dec. 1953—in spite of repeated appeals from the Milanese, and as John's confidant he played a noteworthy part in the preparations for the Second Vatican Council (1962–5); his attitude to the first session (11 Oct.–8 Dec. 1962), at which he only spoke twice, was cool, not to say critical. During these years he travelled widely, visiting Hungary (1938), the USA (1951 and 1960), Dublin (1961), and Africa (1962). At the conclave of June 1963, attended by 80 cardinals and the largest so far in history, he was elected as John's successor at the sixth ballot. He chose a name which suggested an outward-looking approach.

Greatly under the spell of his predecessor, Paul immediately (22 June) promised to continue Vatican Council II, interrupted by John's death; he would also revise canon law, promote justice in civil, social, and international life, and work for peace and the unity of Christendom (a theme to become increasingly close to his heart). He opened the second session of the Council on 29 Sept. 1963, introducing important procedural reforms (e.g. the admission of laymen as auditors, the appointment of four moderators, and the relaxation of confidentiality), and closed it on 4 Dec. 1963, promulgating the Constitution on the Liturgy and the Decree on Mass Media. On 4–6 Jan. 1964 he made an unprecedented pilgrimage by air to the Holy Land, meeting Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I in Jerusalem. Having on 6 Sept. announced the admission of women, religious and lay, as auditors to the council, he opened the third session on 14 Sept. 1964 and closed it on 21 Nov. 1964, promulgating the Constitution on the Church (with a note attached explaining the collegiality of bishops, i.e. the doctrine that the bishops form a college which, acting in concert with and not independently of its head, the pope, has supreme authority in the church), the Decree on Ecumenism (modifying several passages on his own authority), and the Decree on the Eastern Catholic Churches; he also proclaimed, notwithstanding the fathers' reluctance, the BVM ‘Mother of the Church’. During the recess he flew (2–5 Dec. 1964) to Bombay for the International Eucharistic Congress. At the fourth and last session (14 Sept.–8 Dec. 1965), during which he flew to New York (4 Oct.) to plead for peace at the United Nations, he undertook to establish a permanent synod of bishops, with deliberative as well as consultative powers. Before mass on 7 Dec. a joint declaration by himself and Patriarch Athenagoras I was read out deploring the mutual anathemas pronounced by representatives of the western and eastern churches at Constantinople in 1054 and the schism which resulted. Next day he solemnly confirmed all the decrees of the Council, and proclaimed an extraordinary jubilee (1 Jan.–29 May 1966) for reflection and renewal in the light of the Council's teachings.

Paul now began implementing the Council's decisions with great courage as well as an acutely felt sense of the difficulties; it was to his credit that he was able to steer the church through a period of revolutionary change without schism. He set up several important post-conciliar commissions (e.g. for the revision of the breviary, the lectionary, the order of mass, sacred music, and canon law), and carried through the substitution of the vernacular in the liturgy with unflinching determination. He reorganized the curia and the Vatican finances (in both administration and investments), and confirmed the permanent secretariats for the Promotion of Christian Unity, for Non-Christian Religions, and for Non-Believers. In pursuit of ecumenism he held meetings with the archbishop of Canterbury (Michael Ramsey) in Rome (24 Mar. 1966), and with Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I at Istanbul (25 July 1967) and Rome (26 Oct. 1967). In May 1967 he flew to the shrine of the BVM at Fátima, Portugal (at her personal bidding, he claimed), to pray for peace. His public pronouncements included Mysterium fidei (3 Sept. 1965), paving the way for liturgical reform and reasserting traditional eucharistic doctrine; Populorum progressio (26 Mar. 1967), a pointed plea for social justice; Sacerdotalis coelibatus (24 June 1967), insisting on the necessity of priestly celibacy; Humanae vitae (25 July 1968), condemning artificial methods of birth control; and Matrimonia mixta (31 Mar. 1970). While the last permitted modest relaxations in the regulations for mixed marriages which scarcely satisfied non-Roman Catholics, Humanae vitae disappointed many in the church, not least because the majority of the pontifical commission appointed in 1963 to examine the subject had reported in favour of contraception in certain circumstances. On 6 Aug. 1968 the Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops rejected the encyclical; and while Paul remained confident of the rightness of his decision, he was profoundly shaken by the critical international reaction to it.

After 1968 some detected a deepening shadow over the pontificate. Paul seemed to withdraw into himself, worried by such trends as international terrorism and by tensions within the church (e.g. growing demands for the marriage of the clergy, the defiant resistance of Mgr. Marcel Lefebvre (1905–91), who was to go into open schism in 1988, and others to the liturgical reforms, the struggles between traditionalists and progressives, the signs of the emergence of a new modernism). There were rumours of his possible resignation in 1974; but real though it was, his inner malaise could be exaggerated. These years saw some of the ‘pilgrim pope's’ most striking international journeys: to Geneva to address the International Labour Organization and the World Council of Churches and to Uganda to honour its martyrs in June and July 1969; to Sardinia to celebrate Our Lady of Bonaria in Apr. 1970; and to the Far East (where he narrowly escaped assassination in Manila) in Nov.–Dec. 1970. On 25 Oct. 1970 he canonized, notwithstanding earlier Anglican protests, forty English and Welsh Roman Catholic martyrs of the 16th and 17th centuries; he also proclaimed St Teresa of Avila (1515–82) and St Catherine of Siena (1347–80) doctors of the church, the first women to be so entitled. In the same year he fixed the retirement age for priests and bishops (75), and decreed that cardinals over 80 should not participate in curial business, including the election of a pope. In furtherance of collegiality (which he supported so long as it did not impinge on the pope's primacy) he convened international episcopal synods in 1971 (on the priesthood), 1974 (on evangelization), and in 1977 (on catechesis). In Apr. 1977 he and the archbishop of Canterbury (Donald Coggan) issued a Common Declaration which pledged united work towards reunion, but made no mention of the intercommunion for which the archbishop had called. But perhaps his most important legacy to the church, brought to completion in this closing phase, was his steady enlargement and internationalization of the sacred college. When he was elected it had some 80 members, but by 1976 he had raised the total to 138; moreover, its Italian members were a small minority, and it included many representatives of the third world.

Although not a man with the common touch, Paul had a flair for the dramatic gesture; yet he tended to leave an ambiguous impression. John XXIII had described him as ‘a little like Hamlet’. He was always torn between his forward-looking vision and his suspicion of any innovation which might undermine the integrity and authority of the church's teaching. He consistently emphasized the mystery and other-worldliness of the faith, and dreaded anything suggestive of scientific naturalism. Characteristically, he reduced the pomp and circumstance of the papacy, and sold the tiara presented to him at his election for the benefit of the poor. In his last year he was profoundly disturbed by the kidnap and eventual murder (c.9 May 1978) of his lifelong friend Aldo Moro, the Christian Democrat statesman, and his last public appearance was to preside at his funeral in St John Lateran. Not long after he was stricken with arthritis, and after suffering a heart attack while mass was being said by his bed, he died at Castel Gandolfo on 6 Aug.

Further Reading

AAS 55–70Find this resource:

    N. Vian, Anni e opere di Paolo VI (Rome, 1978)Find this resource:

      Insegnamenti di Paolo VI (15 vols., Vatican City, 1963–77)Find this resource:

        P. Arató, Paulus PP. Elenchus bibliographicus (2nd edn., Brescia, 1981)Find this resource:

          E. Noel, The Montini Story: Portrait of Pope Paul VI (London, 1968)Find this resource:

            F. Bea, Vocabor Paulus (Turin, 1963)Find this resource:

              J. M. P. Guitton, The Pope Speaks: Dialogues of Paul VI with J. Guitton (ET, London, 1968)Find this resource:

                P. Ambrogiani, Paul VI, le pape pelerin (Paris, 1971)Find this resource:

                  P. Poupard, ‘De Paul VI à Jean-Paul II’, Communio1979, n. I, 71–6Find this resource:

                    Daniel-Ange, Paul VI: Un regard prophétique (Paris, 1979)Find this resource:

                      Histoire xiii. 58–82, 127–28Find this resource:

                        NCE xi. 26–33 (P. Granfield)Find this resource:

                          EB (15th edn.) xiii. 1088–90 (E. L. Heston)Find this resource:

                            DSP xii (1983), 522–36 (A. Boland)Find this resource:

                              La Documentation catholique, no. 1748 (3–17 Sept. 1978)Find this resource:

                                Levillain ii. 1131–43 (P. Levillain)Find this resource:

                                  P. Hebblethwaite, Paul VI: The First Modern Pope (London, 1993)Find this resource: