A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


A life that demands struggle

Giovanni Battista Montini—from 1963 to 1978 Pope Paul VI—died 36 years ago today. As a young person with no historical experience of his papacy, nor any particular interest in the lives of popes, I'm surprised that I'm writing this.

But since Pope Francis announced the man will be beatified this fall, I began to notice how often Pope Paul VI has come up in my reading, and how variously he's been characterized: as a "transitional" pope, as a stumbling block to Vatican II-inspired reforms, as a pioneer of ecumenical embrace, as an absolute oppositionist, as a worrywort, or someone who is personally withdrawn, yet loving.

He inherited a large to-do list from Vatican II. He went against his own theological commission—plus a majority of Catholic consciences—to re-ban birth control in Humanae Vitae. He drafted a joint Catholic-Orthodox declaration with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at a time when the Vatican did not recognize Israel as a state. He scolded the Archbishop of Canterbury for considering the possibility of women's ordination in a letter which John Paul II quoted in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. He denounced the greedy financial practices allowed by liberal capitalist markets, and how the power of those markets influenced a true 'Christian democracy' He called on Christians to establish a "greater justice in the sharing of goods" on both national and international levels, because 'development is the new name for peace.' He was gravely worried about the future of the Church, worried that by the end of the twentieth century it would become 'un pugno di vinti,' a bunch of broken men.

According to Commonweal he was "one of the holiest and most loving of Popes" but "may also be remembered as one of the saddest." The editors predicted that "in the long run" historians would speak well of Pope Paul. "We say 'in the long run' not just because any great man's life demands perspective to be understood, nor because the Vatican as a not-so-open society is slow to let historians know the full truth'' they explain, "but also because the areas in which he lost the support of so many Christians—those dealing with sex—are so personal and powerful that it may be a little while before we can best say what kind of a leader and shepherd he has been."

What they do say about Paul VI's leadership in 1978 sounds familiar to me, as a young Catholic who necessarily has been exposed to criticism of the papacy: that he had an "exaggerated notion of the papacy's authority," that, particularly, "in his absolute opposition to birth control, married priests and women priests, he failed to comprehend the world's and even the church's new and more positive understanding of married love and the dignity of women." And of course this means "he was isolated from ordinary experiences." I can imagine how, if he was the pope, this might happen to a person.

When the editors wrote "The Death of the Pope" they did not yet know who would be elected next, but they prescribed some prerequisites:

Today the church needs a strong prophetic leader who will really bring the church into the modern world, someone who will once and for all escape the bonds that in modern times have kept the first figure of the universal Church a 'prisoner of the Vatican'

Well, it does seem that leader has arrived. But, as someone who usually isn’t interested in the lives of popes, I want to know—so what? To quote Pope Paul VI, who unsurprisingly sounds exactly like my mother, "those who have everything given to them become lazy, selfish, and insensitive to the real values of life.” As Christians, however often or not we look to Rome, we still have work to do for the world, which is most plainly a bunch of withdrawn, yet loving 'broken men' and women.

About the Author

Kaitlin Campbell is Commonweal's Assistant Digital Editor.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

Thanks for this lovely...I was going to write "reminiscence" but of course that's the wrong word to describe a piece written about a man who died before your time...meditation on Paul VI's papacy, and for the bracing "so what?" about the current pope.  It's a fine reminder of our own responsibilities and roles as Christians in and for the world; reading it provided a wonderful start to the day.

That Paul VI died on the Feast of the Transfiguration, a mystery that held special meaning for him throughout his life, and that the feast fell, in 1978, on the Lord's Day was Providential.

He had prepared remarks for that Sunday's "Angelus" at Castelgandolfo, though his grave illness prevented him from speaking them.They are available here in Italian, Spanish, and French (but not in English).

Paul said in part:

Quel corpo, che si trasfigura davanti agli occhi attoniti degli apostoli, è il corpo di Cristo nostro fratello, ma è anche il nostro corpo chiamato alla gloria; quella luce che lo inonda è e sarà anche la nostra parte di eredità e di splendore.

That body, which is transfigured in the sight of the astonished apostles, is the body of Christ, our brother. But it is also our body that is called to glory. That light which bathes it is and will be also our inherited portion and splendor.

The last chapter of Peter Hebblethwaite's biography of Paul VI is entitled, "The Secret of Transfiguration." It might aptly be called: "The Mystery of Transfiguration."


Un pugno di vinti!  How prescient was that?

The irony is that with the infamous Humane Vitae Paul6 seems to have sealed the fate of the hierarchs as a bunch of broken men exhausted by scandal and corruption driving the church over the cliff and into the abyss.

I always thought of Paul6 as the one of the first churchmen to understand that Vatican2 while it held great promise for the future it was also a dagger pointed at the heart of the clerical hegemony over the church.

I've always thought that for Paul VI to be so severely criticized from both left and right, he must have been doing something right!

If we call our bishops today "John Paul II bishops", then isn't it fair that the generation that issued "Economic Justice for All" and "The Challenge of Peace" be known as "Paul VI bishops"?

My favorite Paul VI docs: Populorum Progessio and Evangelii Nuntiandi.  In both of them, it's easy to detect the influence of the same Spirit that seems to infuse the papacy of Francis.

That Paul VI died on the Feast of the Transfiguration, a mystery that held special meaning for him throughout his life, and that the feast fell, in 1978, on the Lord's Day was Providential.

Providential? I wonder which way the causation runs. Did Providence arrange for news of the lifting of the Siege of Belgrade to arrive in Rome on August 6, 1456, moving Pope Callixtus III to celebrate by making the Transfiguration a feast day in the entire Roman calendar and thus coordinating it with the foreseen and fixed date of Paul VI's death 522 years later? Or did Providence see to it that Paul died on the date that he did because that was the Feast of the Transfiguration? If that date was missed, it would not be until 1989 that it fell again on a Sunday, and the world would have lost eleven years of Paul's sainted successor's reign. Indeed, did Providence have that in mind?

Or finally, is God really that busy sending signals that most people mistake for coincidences?


Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment