By Matthew E. Bunson, Oct. 13, 2018
On June 30, 1963, a large crowd gathered in Rome for the formal installation Mass for the newly elected Pope Paul VI. As Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, he had entered the conclave to choose a successor to Pope St. John XXIII on June 19 as the heavy favorite to win election, and he had been elected pope only two days later.
Paul began his pontificate with a statement of humility but also trust.
“It is before the whole Church,” he said, “we, trembling, but confident, accept the keys of the Kingdom of heaven — heavy, but powerful keys, healthy and mysterious, that Christ entrusted to the fisherman of Galilee, made Prince of the Apostles, and that now they have transmitted to us.” Paul’s reference to the weight of the keys is significant, for it can be argued that the heaviness of the papacy had begun for Montini not June 21, but many years before, when he first became a major figure in the Vatican, a trusted adviser to Pope Pius XII and then one of the pivotal leaders in the preparations for the Second Vatican Council that opened in 1962. It can be said that Montini had been in preparations for the papacy for much of his life. But it was something he had never sought.
The canonization of Pope Paul VI 40 years after the end of his papacy and 50 years after the promulgation of Humanae Vitae is an opportunity. It is a chance to note the sanctified life of a pontiff soon to be honored as a saint of the Church, but also to appreciate more fully the dimension of his teachings. He was a prophet, and 50 years on, we can appreciate just how prescient and forward-seeing he truly was.
Coming between the beloved “Good Pope John” and the colossus Pope St. John Paul II, Paul seemed for many years to be in eclipse. His pontificate was dominated by the Council (and the problems that attended its implementation) and the controversy over his important and prophetic 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth).
He was charged with being too cautious, with lacking courage, and being at times overwhelmed by events and the very change — social, ecclesiastical, political and economic — that the Second Vatican Council pledged to confront. Still, Pope Paul held to the frequently difficult road of reform and suffered spiritual torment in the face of opposition, and can today be seen as a valiant figure who prophetically anticipated many of the problems that have plagued the world since his death.
Born Giovanni Battista Montini, near Brescia, Italy, on Sept. 26, 1897, he was the second of three children. His father, Giorgio Montini, was a lawyer, a member of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, and political editor of the Catholic paper Il Cittadina di Brescia. His mother, Giuditta Alghisi, was a member of the local noble families and president of the Brescia chapter of Women’s Catholic Action.
He was plagued by poor health in his youth and even studied for the priesthood mostly from home.