Pope Paul VI was a strong proponent of dialogue between the Church and the modern world.


Pope Paul VI was a strong proponent of dialogue between the Church and the modern world.

October 20, 2014

Pope Paul VI, the man who oversaw and implemented the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, was a pope who believed passionately in a dialogue between the Church and the modern world.

Serving as supreme pontiff through 15 tumultuous years, Pope Paul's desire for dialogue led him to become the first pope in modern times to travel outside of Italy, visiting six continents in seven years.

His personal holiness will be recognized Oct. 19 when Pope Francis beatifies him during the closing Mass of the Synod of Bishops on the family.

With Pope Paul's beatification approaching, the 50th anniversary of the publication of his first encyclical letter, Ecclesiam Suam, and the 36th anniversary of his death Aug. 6, 1978, became the occasion for multiple reflections on his life and legacy in the Vatican media.

"Although he was not always understood, Paul VI will remain the pope who loved the modern world, admired its cultural and scientific wealth and worked so that it would open its heart to Christ, the redeemer of mankind," wrote Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re.

The Italian cardinal, a former papal diplomat like Pope Paul, said that while St. John XXIII is remembered for having convoked the Second Vatican Council and presiding over its first session, it was Pope Paul who was the "real helmsman of the council."

It was Pope Paul who presided over the last three of the council's four sessions and who guided its implementation.

Both Re and Pope Francis repeatedly refer to Pope Paul as a man sensitive to the problems and anxieties of modern men and women.

That sensitivity, said Re, led the pope "to seek dialogue with everyone, never closing the doors to an encounter. For Paul VI, dialogue was an expression of the evangelical spirit that tries to draw close to each person, that tries to understand each person and tries to make itself understood by each person."

Ecclesiam Suam laid out the vision for his papacy, looking at ways the Church could and should continue God's action of setting out to encounter humanity and bring people to the fullness of truth and salvation.

"How vital it is for the world, and how greatly desired by the Catholic Church, that the two should meet together, and get to know and love one another," he wrote.

But in the turbulent 1960s, it was not that easy. A 1977 biography of the pope by Catholic News Service said, "He described himself as an 'apostle of peace,' but Pope Paul VI knew scarcely a peaceful day" as head of the Church.

"Called to the papacy in 1963 to succeed the universally popular Pope John XXIII, Giovanni Battista Montini faced a Church and a world experiencing a period of self-criticism and upheaval. His years as pope were most notably marked by the Second Vatican Council – its hopes, reforms and crises."


Celebrating the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul's June 21, 1963, election, Pope Francis told pilgrims from Paul VI's home diocese of Brescia that the late pope "experienced to the full the Church's travail after the Second Vatican Council: the lights, the hopes, the tensions. He loved the Church and expended himself for her, holding nothing back."

Pope Paul was a reserved and reflective man who was trained as a Church diplomat and who spent most of his priestly life in the Vatican. His papacy was marked by public and often bitter debates over changing sexual morality, the validity of the Church's traditional teaching and the changes in its liturgy called for by Vatican II.

The Mass most Latin-rite Catholics celebrate today is sometimes referred to as the Paul VI Mass.

Under his leadership there was a complete revision of liturgical texts, something he said was a source of joy, but it also was a source of some of his deepest anguish. In the last years of his pontificate, he repeatedly repudiated both those who made further, unauthorized changes to the Mass as well as those who rejected the council's liturgical reforms.

Pope Paul is also remembered for his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. The encyclical, usually described as a document affirming the Church's prohibition against artificial contraception, places that conclusion in the context of Catholic teaching on the beauty and purpose of marriage, married love and procreation.


Because of his travels, Pope Paul was known as the "pilgrim pope." His meetings with bishops from around the world led him to speak out forcefully against the nuclear arms race, the starvation of millions of people while the rich got richer, a worldwide move toward liberalized abortion and the wars in Vietnam, Israel and Lebanon, not to mention terrorism and guerrilla warfare in many countries.

Under his leadership, the Catholic Church made huge strides in promoting Christian unity and formalizing its ecumenical dialogues, as well as improving relations with Jews, Muslims and other world religions.

He was born Sept. 26, 1897, in Concesio, a farm town outside the northern Italian city of Brescia. Known as studious and pious from a young age, Giovanni Battista was admitted to the Brescia seminary in 1916, but was allowed to live at home because of his frail health.

Six months after his ordination to the priesthood in 1920, he was sent to Rome for graduate studies. In 1922, he was selected to attend the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, where the Vatican trains its diplomats.

After a year at the academy, Pope Pius XI sent him to the Vatican nunciature in Warsaw, Poland, an assignment cut short because of his health. He returned to the academy and to his studies.

In 1924, he began working in the Vatican Secretariat of State, slowly being given more and more responsibility. At the same time, he served as a chaplain to the Catholic Italian Federation of University Students, which worked to imbue Catholic students with the values needed to counter the fascist student movement.


In December 1937, he was named undersecretary of state for ordinary affairs, a position that made him a close collaborator of Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the Vatican secretary of state who became Pope Pius XII in 1939.

He worked alongside the pope throughout the Second World War and was in charge of the information bureau that gathered the names of prisoners of war from all sides and forwarded the names to worried family members.

After 30 years of service in the Secretariat of State, he was named archbishop of Milan in 1954. He spent the next eight years rebuilding and reorganizing Italy's largest archdiocese.

When Pope Pius died in 1958, many people thought Archbishop Montini could be elected pope even though he was not yet a cardinal. Instead, the College of Cardinals chose Cardinal Angelo Roncalli of Venice, who became Pope John XXIII. One of his first acts was to create new cardinals, including Montini.

After Pope John died in June 1963, Montini was elected pope on the fifth ballot, cast on the second day of the conclave. He was the last pope to be crowned with a tiara; five months later, he solemnly laid the crown on the altar of St. Peter's Basilica as a sign of his renunciation of "human glory and power."