Paul VI: The First Modern Pope
My Witness for the Church
Peter Hebblethwaite’s timely and well-documented biography of Giovanni Battista Montini (1897–1978), whom he calls “the first modern pope,” brings into focus the character of a remarkable prelate, whose intelligence, ecclesial background, and career paradoxically made him overqualified for the position of supreme pastor of the Roman Catholic Church, to which he was elected in 1963. Tacitus undoubtedly would have rated him capax imperandi nisi imperasset—“a capable governor, if only he had never governed.”
This would not be an unfair appraisal of the considerable achievements of Paul VI, who in 1963 reconvened John XXIII’s Vatican Council and brought it to a successful conclusion after four years of agonizing contention between the Church’s bishops and the Vatican bureaucracy. It was Paul’s painful, Hamlet-like indecision during the aftermath of Vatican II, in dealing with the old guard in the Roman Curia, that resulted in the disillusion, resignations, and rebellion among clergy and nuns who had expected speedy implementation of the council’s liberal decrees. His indecision also caused widespread disaffection and discontent among the Catholic laity, and almost brought down his papacy in the late 1960s. Hebblethwaite has succeeded in penetrating the enigma of this highly sensitive, sophisticated, and worldly Italian churchman who almost brought about the updating of the Church projected by his beloved predecessor, and then failed to do so.
Montini came from a family that was active in the pre–World War I social, religious, and political life of northern Italy. His parents met for the first time on a pilgrimage to Rome, prophetically on the steps of St. Peter’s. His father, Giorgio Montini, at thirty-three was an established banker and publisher of the daily Il Cittadino di Brescia; his mother, Giuditta Alghisi, at nineteen was an orphan, a well-to-do socialite and a moderate feminist. Her guardian, Giuseppe Bonardi, the mayor of Brescia, a rabid, anti-Catholic socialist and an old Garibaldian, had opposed their marriage. Of their three sons Ludovico became a senator, Giovanni a medical doctor, and Battista the Pope. Too delicate in health for seminary life or for service in the military, young Battista lived at his parents’ house with his grandmother and aunt while pursuing his ecclesiastical studies. In 1920, at twenty-three, he was ordained a priest by the local bishop, who was a family friend.
Intent on pursuing studies in literature and the arts, he enrolled in the Sapienza (University of Rome), where he was spotted by Monsignor Giuseppe Pizzardo of the Vatican Secretariat of State who encouraged him to register in the papal Collegio di Nobili to be trained as a diplomat. He developed a talent for writing and a deep interest in French literature and theology. As a junior cleric at the Vatican, he became chaplain of the Federation of Italian University Students (FUCI), the only lay Catholic organization that engaged in serious intellectual opposition to Mussolini’s fascist regime, which was also opposed by the…
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