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reforms, as a pioneer of ecumenical embrace, as an absolute oppositionist, as a worrywort, or someone who is personally withdrawn, yet loving.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.