Msgr. Pedro Lopez-Gallo

Pope Paul VI picked up where John XXIII left off

Voices May 14, 2018

Pope Paul VI at the Second Vatican Council. (Wikipedia photo by Lothar Wolleh)

The canonization of Giovanni Battista Montini, who was pope under the name of Paul VI, will be announced very soon by Pope Francis. In the meantime, I want to recall the words of Cardinal Eugene Tisserant who, being the dean of the college of cardinals at the death of Pope John XXIII, convoked the conclave of 1963.

The conclave (“cum clave,” a Latin word meaning “closed with a key”) is the apartment where the cardinals are sequestered during the entire process of electing a new pope. The custom of keeping the cardinals enclosed was first adopted in 1271 to hasten a papal election which had not ended after nearly three years. Gregory X was eventually elected, and the practice has been followed ever since to ensure that cardinals avoid delays in choosing a pope.

Sixty years ago, in the conclave of 1958, I was scandalized to see the spartan and austere cells for the cardinals (the princes of the Church!) which had a very small bed, a lamp, and a commode. No bathrooms! We, their secretaries, functioned more as their housekeepers. No wonder then, that after the two conclaves of 1978, Pope John Paul II ordered the building of Casa Santa Martha, a hotel with 4-star facilities, where the current Pope resides. Great changes have taken place over the past 20 centuries in the way the popes were elected, starting with the first pope chosen by Jesus Christ himself.

On June 21, 1963, at 11:22 a.m. Cardinal Montini was elected pope. Cardinal Eugene Tisserant wrote about the new Pope Paul VI: “No other Sovereign Pontiff was ever better prepared for this sublime office, whose responsibilities have been constantly on the increase especially in the last half-century, because of the growth in world population and the multiplication of new sovereign states. The Council and the Ecumenical Movement are no less close to his heart than they were to that of Pope John XXIII” (Paul VI, by J. L. Gonzalez, Introduction by Cardinal Tisserant, p.16). 

On Sept. 29, 1963, the new Pope opened the second session of the Second Vatican Council, and the following year he made an unprecedented journey to the Holy Land, with Cardinal Tisserant accompanying him. The Pope’s intention was to go on pilgrimage to the holy places which had beheld the birth, death, and resurrection of the Divine Saviour, to pray for the council and for the unity of the Church. 

From the very first day of his pontificate, Paul VI dissipated all misgivings concerning the continuation of the interrupted council due to the death of John XXIII. When it was announced that he had been elected pope, anyone who knew the Cardinal of Milan and his enthusiasm for everything connected with the Council, was certain that Vatican II would soon follow its normal course or even be speeded up, as he proclaimed on the morning after his election: “The pre-eminent part of our pontificate will be devoted to the continuation of the Second Vatican Council.”

The last week of September saw numerous groups of conciliar fathers arriving in Rome by every means of transportation afforded by the jet age for the nearly 3,000 prelates from every corner of the world. The Pope decided not to repeat the very solemn ceremony which had inaugurated the first session with John XXIII. The fathers went directly to their places, and the celebration was more of a family feast. Some began to applaud, giving public expression to their emotion and their devotion to the new pontiff.

The Pope presented the main directives set before this imposing assembly: “Greetings to you, most beloved brothers in Christ, whom we have summoned from all over the world, from wherever the Holy Catholic Church has set up its hierarchy. Greetings to you, who have accepted our invitation and hastened here to hold with us the second session of this ecumenical council.”

Paul VI proclaimed three simple and important points to consider: “Christ our beginning, Christ our life and our guide, Christ our hope and our end.” Thus, Christ is the hinge holding all things together and the foundation which can never be replaced by any other.

In November 1963, the Pope enlarged the conciliar commissions to make them more representative, and admitted some women, both religious and lay, as auditors. He also announced that he was establishing a permanent synod of bishops which would have deliberative as well as consultative power, at the Pope’s discretion.

Some of the fathers wanted the council to discuss clerical celibacy, but the Pope did not agree and explained: “It is not opportune to debate publicly this topic. Our intention is not only to preserve this ancient law, but to strengthen its observance.”

The last 10 years of his pontificate (1968-1978) were difficult for Paul VI. He grew more withdrawn and troubled by the negative reaction to Humanae Vitae, the massive departure from priestly and religious life, the lack of vocations, the Lefebvre schism, international terrorism, and the danger of having a communist regime in Italy in the Red Brigades. 

He died of a heart attack on Aug. 6, 1978, at Castel Gandolfo.