September 28, 2018

Reflection / John F. Fink

Pope Paul VI’s legacy leads to canonization on Oct. 14

John F. FinkI have to admit that I have a soft spot when it comes to Blessed Pope Paul VI. Perhaps it’s because he was the first pope I ever met, or because he did things that affected my life in various ways.

Pope Paul VI is one of six people that Pope Francis will canonize on Oct. 14. El Salvadoran Oscar Romero is one of the other five.

When Pope Francis canonized both Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II on April 27, 2014, it seemed that Paul VI was skipped over since John preceded Paul and John Paul II came later. That is finally being corrected.

Perhaps no man since Pope Gregory VII in the 11th century was better prepared to be pope when Pope Paul VI was elected in 1963. He was born Giovanni Battista Montini on Sept. 26, 1897, in northern Italy. He was ordained a priest in 1920 and immediately sent to study at the Accademia dei Nobili Ecclesiastici, the training school for Vatican diplomats. Two years later, he joined the staff of the Secretariat of State.

By 1937, he was assistant secretary of state under Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli. When Cardinal Pacelli became Pope Pius XII two years later, Msgr. Montini became the top official in the Secretariat of State while also serving as the pope’s private secretary.

During World War II, Msgr. Montini established an office to assist refugees, mainly Jews. More than 15,000 of them were sheltered in the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo. During and after the war, Msgr. Montini was recognized as the second most important person in the Vatican.

However, Pope Pius XII never made Montini a cardinal. Instead, he made him archbishop of Milan in 1954. Since he wasn’t a cardinal when Pope Pius died in 1958, Archbishop Montini was not elected pope at that time.

When John XXIII was elected pope, he almost immediately named Archbishop Montini a cardinal. After Pope John called the Second Vatican Council, Cardinal Montini was one of his closest advisers. When Pope John died after the first session of the council, Cardinal Montini was elected pope, took the name Paul VI, and immediately announced that he would reconvene the council.

Although Pope John XXIII convened the council, Pope Paul VI guided it through its final three sessions, and it was Pope Paul who had the responsibility for carrying out its decisions.

Pope Paul, like the council, was greatly interested in ecumenism and trying to heal the division between the Catholic Church and Orthodox Churches. His meeting with Patriarch Athenagoras I in 1964 was historic.

It was also historic that the meeting occurred in Jerusalem because Pope Paul began traveling. Today we’re accustomed to the popes traveling, but he was the first pope in more than 100 years to travel outside Italy, eventually visiting 20 countries.

After his trip to Jerusalem in 1964, he recognized that the Holy Land was becoming a museum for Christianity. He did two things to try to reclaim a presence there for Christianity. He founded Bethlehem University and asked the Christian Brothers to staff it. And he asked his friend, Holy Cross Father Theodore Hesburgh, president of the University of Notre Dame, to start the Ecumenical Institute of Tantur in Jerusalem, still operated by Notre Dame. (I studied there for three months in 1997.)

During later travel, he was the first pope to speak to the United Nations, in 1965. In his moving address, he cried out, “Never again war.”

Pope Paul is also known for his encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” in 1968. It was controversial at the time because it reinforced the condemnation of contraception right in the middle of the sexual revolution. It turned out that he was prophetic when he spelled out the consequences of widespread contraception.

My meeting with Pope Paul was in 1977 while I was president and publisher of Our Sunday Visitor (OSV). OSV was the U.S. publisher for The Pope’s Family Prayer Book, with prayers selected by Pope Paul. I presented the first copy to the pope and also a packet of other things published by OSV. We spent about 20 minutes talking about the papers in the packet.

(John F. Fink is editor emeritus of The Criterion.)

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