Q&A with Fr John Flader: Pope Paul VI

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Pope Paul VI greets the crowds gathered to see him. Photo: CNS
Pope Paul VI greets the crowds gathered to see him. Photo: CNS

I know that Pope Paul VI was canonised in 2018. I was born during the pontificate of St John Paul II and don’t know much about Paul VI. For what should he be remembered?

Before answering your question, let me give you a brief overview of his life.

Pope Paul VI was born Giovanni Battista Montini in 1897 in Concesio in the province of Brescia, Italy. His father Giorgio was a lawyer, journalist, director of Catholic Action and a member of the Italian parliament. His mother Giudetta was from a family of rural nobility. He had two brothers, one of whom was a physician and the other a lawyer and politician.

Giovanni Battista was ordained priest in 1920 in Brescia and in the same year completed his studies in Milan for a doctorate in Canon Law. He did further studies in Rome and in 1922, at the age of twenty-five, he began work in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State. After a posting in the nunciature in Poland beginning in 1923, he returned to Rome where he held several positions in the Vatican, especially in the Secretariat of State, where he also served as a personal assistant to Pope Pius XII. During the Second World War he coordinated assistance to thousands of refugees.

In 1954 Pope Pius XII appointed him Archbishop of Milan and in 1958 Pope John XXIII made him a cardinal. Following the death from cancer of Pope John XXIII early in June 1963, Cardinal Montini was elected Pope later that month, taking the name Paul VI.

Pope Paul VI will be remembered for a number of very important acts that had great repercussions on the universal Church. The first was his decision to continue the Second Vatican Council, which had begun in 1962 under Pope John XXIII. When a Pope dies during an Ecumenical Council, his successor must decide whether to continue the Council or declare it concluded. Pope Paul VI chose the former and the result was the collection of documents produced by the Council, many of which had great significance for the life of the Church. Pope Paul closed the Council on 8 December 1965.

In July 1968 Pope Paul VI gave the Church what was undoubtedly his most important and controversial document: the encyclical Humanae vitae. Echoing the constant tradition of the Church, as articulated by Pope Pius XI in the encyclical Casti connubii (1930), he declared that no form of contraception was acceptable as a means of avoiding pregnancy. He knew the encyclical would meet with a negative response from many but, after much prayer and with considerable courage, he repeated the traditional teaching of the Church. As expected, the encyclical was applauded by many but also criticised by many, both within and outside the Church.

Pope Paul VI makes his way past bishops during a session of the Second Vatican Council in 1964. Photo: CNS file photo
Pope Paul VI makes his way past bishops during a session of the Second Vatican Council in 1964. Photo: CNS file photo

Another important contribution of Paul VI was the establishment of the Synod of Bishops as a permanent advisory body to the Pope. The Synod is a periodic gathering of bishops from around the world to discuss issues proposed by the Pope. Several meetings of the Synod were held under Paul VI, including one on evangelisation which led to his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi in 1975.

The reform of the Roman Curia was another of Pope Paul VI’s accomplishments.

Having worked in the Curia for more than thirty years, he understood it well and, in a number of stages, he reduced its bureaucracy, streamlined the existing congregations and other bodies, and brought about a broader representation of non-Italians in it.

The reform of the liturgy was still another important contribution of Pope Paul VI, with the introduction of a new Roman Missal in 1969, with four Eucharistic Prayers instead of the former one. This was followed by a new Lectionary, with a much broader selection of readings from Scripture.

In addition to Humanae vitae Pope Paul VI wrote six other encyclicals, the most important of which were Ecclesiam suam (1964) on the Church, Mysterium fidei (1965) on the Eucharist, Populorum progressio (1967) on social development and Sacerdotalis caelibatus (1967) on priestly celibacy.

Pope St Paul VI died on 6 August 1978, feast of the Transfiguration. He was canonised by Pope Francis on 14 October 2018 and his feast day is 29 May, the day of his priestly ordination.

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