Even in Rome, the environment for university students was secular. Their chaplain, Don Battista, plainly saw that they were spiritually illiterate and doubted the existence of God. To revive people’s faith, Don Battista organized weekend retreats.
He took the first group of students on a long streetcar ride to the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. Standing under the vast ceilings and walking through the gardens with them, Don Battista preached. Many years later, his students still recalled the power of his words.
“As he expounded on the words of Saint Paul with spellbinding, passionate acuteness and fervor, the words came alive and the presence of Christ within the Church a reality,” one student said. “His preaching was . . . reduced to the essentials, filled with a poetic and prophetic quality.”
Drawing on his Jesuit schooling, the young priest taught his students to pray the Lord’s Prayer slowly and to meditate on gospel passages. Under his direction, the students’ faith blossomed, even when state police began to threaten their meetings.
Years later, the priest became Pope Paul VI: the man whose name is stamped across the sixteen documents of Vatican II and the man who wrote Humanae Vitae and the landmark exhortation On Evangelization in the Modern World—the man, in other words, whose deep faith and prayerful courage set the Catholic Church on a new course for the modern age. This is the man who is being canonized in Rome this month.
A Sharp Mind Honing Others. He was born Giovanni Battista Montini in 1897. He was always clear thinking and intense, even to the point of drafting sermons for his parish priest at age sixteen. He entered the seminary in 1916, but ill health meant that he did much of his coursework at home with a tutor, away from classmates.
Fortunately, his home was a lively place to be. His father, Giorgio, a Catholic lawyer, edited a prominent Catholic newspaper and stirred political discussion among his friends and colleagues. It was a hard time to be a Catholic citizen of Italy. For decades, hostility between the Church and the fascist government meant that Catholics were barred from voting and participating in political activity.
This hostile environment shaped Montini. After his ordination to the priesthood, he lived in Rome and continued to think and write about public policy issues. By his twenty-fifth birthday, he had been recruited as one of the youngest diplomats to represent the Vatican’s state department. Later on, when Pope Pius XI worked out a deal for Vatican independence with Italy, he praised the young Monsignor Montini (a junior staff member) for his understanding of the issue.
In 1923, Pius XI asked Montini to become the chaplain for Catholic college students in Rome. Montini loved ministering to the students and became a regular speaker at their conferences and retreats. In one address, he urged the students to pay close attention to the liturgy when they were at Mass. “It is not enough to follow the ceremonies with physical eyes; one needs to plumb them with the deepest spiritual sense, or it is a waste of time,” he told them.
A Nation in War. Although he worked closely with the pope, Montini often felt like he had a monotonous desk job. He tried to treat it as his mission field though. On retreat in 1930, he asked God to take away his spiritual pride and help him focus on individual people. “One should study the real needs of people . . . and try to meet them,” he wrote in his journal.
When World War II began in 1939, Montini’s concern for people became more potent—and he was positioned to do something about it. His boss, the secretary of state, had just become Pope Pius XII, and Montini became his chief of staff. A plethora of “real needs” battered the Vatican, and Monsignor Montini often met them head-on.
He accelerated the Vatican’s war-relief efforts, asking the pope if he could convert one of the papal residences into an asylum for 15,000 fugitives of the Nazi regime. He even directed a filmmaker whose cast included many Jews and political refugees to extend his filming at the Vatican for months in order to make time for the allies to arrive.
He wrote to his parents that he felt the burden of his work. “More than ever one lives in the hope of divine mercy,” he said. “The conditions of the world intensify in everyone the sense of suffering and bewilderment.”
During some of Italy’s most troubling years, Monsignor Montini worked hard behind the scenes to bring about as much good as he could. It was often thankless isolated work, but he sustained himself through prayer and interior recollection.
In 1954, the archbishop of Milan died, leaving an opening for someone to lead the world’s largest diocese at that time. Pius XII chose Montini to replace him. Thus, he took on the difficult task of rebuilding Milan, whose churches and people had been bombed in the war. He was consecrated archbishop before year’s end. Montini felt overwhelmed and unprepared for the assignment, so different from his work at the Secretariat of State. He wrote to a priest friend that he saw “a host of difficulties” that made him fearful. As he started his assignment, he redoubled his commitment to rely on God’s help.
Kindling Faith in Milan. Milan was the great industrial city of northern Italy. Its war-weary Catholics felt somewhat neglected by the Church. Right away, Montini scheduled personal visits with ordinary people wherever they were working. He shook hands with factory workers and met their eyes—even hostile ones—with his firm gaze. Soon, Milan dubbed him “the worker’s archbishop.”
Next, he gathered Milan’s clergy together for a retreat: his old strategy with the students. “I send you into the world,” he told them. “You must share its hopes and sorrows, not its baseness and its vulgarity. You must live spiritually.”
As he visited people all over the city, Montini realized that what they needed was a true taste of the gospel message. He wanted the people to feel at home in the Church so that God could renew them there. So in 1957, he announced a surprise initiative: the “Mission to Milan.”
For three weeks, under Montini’s guidance, thousands of priests stood on street corners and in community halls, preaching a simple gospel. Even in Communist neighborhoods, invitations were issued for men, women, and children to return to the Church. Montini felt that the people needed to see the Church as their mother in order to know God as their Father.
“Let us think of every church as God’s house where neighbors and friends come to visit, to enjoy themselves, to feel welcome,” he told them. Over the next several years, Montini built more than forty new churches. He took great trouble to visit nearly every one of the nine hundred parishes in the archdiocese. And wherever he went, he wrote fresh sermons that flowed out of his personal prayer and reading.
Caught in the Middle. Montini’s time in Milan was short-lived. His old friend and state department colleague, Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, had become Pope John XXIII in 1959, and one of his first actions was to make Montini a cardinal. The pope also announced his own ambitious initiative: a council of the world’s bishops to discuss how the Holy Spirit might breathe new life into the Catholic Church.
After only one year of the four-year council, John XXIII died, and Montini was elected to succeed him. He took the name Paul VI, after the “apostle to the Gentiles” whose biblical letters he treasured.
Although some bishops urged Paul VI to end the council, he vowed to press forward. Opening the next session, he listed three objectives: reform of the Church, Christian unity, and the “dialogue of the Church with the contemporary world.” Paul VI set the tone for this himself in the same speech by publicly apologizing to the Protestant observers, seated in a place of honor, for any role that the Catholic Church had played in their separation.
As the work of the council proceeded and over the next several years, Paul VI was criticized widely. Traditionalists lashed out against his liturgical reforms, while progressives scoffed at his firm argument against contraception, which he explained in the encyclical Humanae Vitae. But Montini remained steadfast. The criticisms and personal attacks were his cross to bear. His confessor, Fr. Paulo Dezza, testified that these later years (if not the previous ones) truly made him a saint.
“His sufferings brought him deep inner pain, but . . . I was edified by his attitude toward those who caused so much suffering. No anger, but evangelical pardon and love,” he said. When one cardinal denounced him publicly, Paul VI said, “Tell him of all my affliction, but also of all my affection.”
“I Have Kept the Faith.” On his deathbed in 1978, Montini’s thoughts rested on the apostle Paul’s final message to Timothy: “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). These became the pope’s last words.
By 1978, the world had changed dramatically. Italy had morphed from a fascist dictatorship into a democratic republic. World War II had come and gone, only to be replaced by the Cold War. Political assassinations set off riots in the streets, while the sexual revolution upended centuries of traditional morality. And through it all, Paul VI labored to bring the good news of the gospel to a people whose world was rapidly changing.
Kathryn Elliott is features editor for The Word Among Us.