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Pope Paul VI Biography

by Catherine Frakas 12 May 2009

Pope Paul VI
1963 -1978

Giovanni Battista Enrico Antonio Maria Montini born 1897

Giovanni Battista Enrico Antonio Maria Montini was born on September 26, 1897 at Concesio (Lombardy) of a wealthy family of the upper class. His father was a non-practicing lawyer turned editor and a courageous promoter of social action. Giovanni was a frail but intelligent child who received his early education from the Jesuits near his home in Brescia. Even after entering the seminary (1916) he was allowed to live at home because of his health. After his ordination in 1920 he was sent to Rome to study at the Gregorian University and the University of Rome, but in 1922 he transferred to the Accademia dei Nobili Ecclesiastici to study diplomacy continuing his canon law studies at the Gregorian. In 1923 he was sent to Warsaw as attache of the nunciature but was recalled to Rome (1924), because of the effect of the severe Polish winters on his health, and assigned to the office of the Secretariat of State where he remained for the next thirty years. Besides teaching at the Accademia dei Nobili Ecclesiastici he was named chaplain to the Federation of Italian Catholic University Students (FUCI), an assignment that was to have a decisive effect on his relations with the founders of the post-war Christian Democratic Party.

In 1937 he was named substitute for ordinary affairs under Cardinal Pacelli, the secretary of state, and he accompanied him to Budapest (1938) for the International Eucharistic Congress. On Pacelli's election as Pius XII in 1939, Montini was reconfirmed in his position under the new secretary of state, Cardinal Luigi Maglione. When the latter died in 1944, Montini continued to discharge his office directly under the pope. During World War II he was responsible for organizing the extensive relief work and the care of political refugees.

In the secret consistory of 1952 Pope Pius XII announced that he had intended to raise Montini and Domenico Tardini to the Sacred College but that they had both asked to be dispensed from accepting. Instead he conferred on both of them the title of prosecretary of state. The following year Montini was appointed Archbishop of Milan but still without the title cf cardinal. He took possession of his new See on January 5, 1955 and soon made himself known as the "archbishop of the workers". He revitalized the entire diocese, preached the social message of the Gospel, worked to win back the laboring class, promoted Catholic education at every level, and supported the Catholic press. His impact upon the city at this time was so great that it attracted world-wide attention. At the conclave of 1958 his name was frequently mentioned, and at Pope John's first consistory in December of that year he was one of 23 prelates raised to the cardinalate with his name leading the list. His response to the call for a Council was immediate and even before it met he was identified as a strong advocate of the principle of collegiality. He was appointed to the Central Preparatory Commission for Vatican II and also to the Technical-Organizational Commission.

On the death of Pope John XXIII, Montini was elected June 21, 1963 to succeed him. In his first message to the world, he committed himself to a continuation of the work begun by John XXIII. Throughout his pontificate the tension between papal primacy and the collegiality of the episcopacy was a source of conflict. On September 14, 1965 he announced the establishment of the Synod of Bishops called for by the Council fathers, but some issues that seemed suitable for discussion by the synod were reserved to himself. Celibacy, removed from the debate of the fourth session of the Council, was made the subject of an encyclical, June 24, 1967; the regulation of birth was treated in Humanae Vitae July 24, 1968, his last encyclical. The controversies over these two pronouncements tended to overshadow the last years of his pontificate.

Pope Paul had an unaccountably poor press and his public image suffered by comparison with his outgoing and jovial predecessor. Those who knew him best, however, describe him as a brilliant man, deeply spiritual, humble, reserved and gentle, a man of "infinite courtesy". He was one of the most traveled popes in history and the first to visit five continents. His remarkable corpus of thought must be searched out in his many addresses and letters as well as in his major pronouncements. His successful conclusion of Vatican II has left its mark on the history of the Church, but history will also record his rigorous reform of the Roman Curia, his well-received address to the UN in 1965, his encyclical Populorum Progressio (1967), his second great social letter Octogesima Adveniens (1971)–the first to show an awareness of many problems that have only recently been brought to light–and his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, his last major pronouncement which also touched on the central question of the just conception of liberation and salvation.

Pope Paul Vl, the pilgrim pope, died on August 6, 1978, the feast of the Transfiguration. He asked that his funeral be simple with no catafalque and no monument over his grave.

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