Pope Francis beatified Pope Paul VI on Sunday at the end of a remarkable meeting of Catholic bishops discussing family life, marriage, divorce, sex, and gay unions. Paul VI oversaw the Second Vatican Council, the 1962-65 worldwide Church meetings which brought the Catholic Church into modern times. The parallels between Francis and Paul, and the divisive issues both men confronted, are significant. Here are 5 Things to Know about Paul VI.
Paul VI was born Giovanni Battista Montini near Brescia in northern Italy on Sept. 26, 1897. After joining the Vatican’s secretariat of state in 1922, he became one of Pope Pius XII’s closest collaborators, instrumental in the Vatican’s efforts to save Roman Jews from Nazi persecution during World War II. In 1954, he became archbishop of Milan. During the conclave of June 1963, Montini was elected to succeed the popular John XXIII and took the name Paul, seen as an indication that his papacy would be missionary and outward-looking. He was the first pope to travel outside Italy, making nine trips, including to the Middle East, the United States, India, and the Philippines, where in 1970 he survived an assassination attempt. He died unexpectedly while at the papal summer residence near Rome on Aug. 6, 1978.
Similarities to Pope Francis
Shortly after his installation, Paul sold the tiara with which he was crowned and donated the proceeds to the poor. Also quietly but systematically, he trimmed down the pomp and circumstance of the papacy, doing away with the noble guards at the Vatican, although he retained the throne that popes were carried around on. Francis has followed in his footsteps, living in the Vatican hotel rather than the papal apartments, wearing simple vestments and restricting the honorary titles of “monsignor” for prelates. During Sunday’s Mass, Francis wore a simple chausible given to Paul VI for his 80th birthday, and he used Paul’s simple silver staff. Both men suffered from health problems: Paul VI’s health was so frail he lived at home during his seminary years; Francis lost most of one lung to an infection when he was a young man.
Vatican II, the 1962-65 worldwide Church meetings, opened the way for Mass to be said in local languages instead of in Latin. It also encouraged more involvement of the laity in the life of the Church and revolutionized its relations with other Christian communities and Jews. “Nostra Aetate” was the transformative council document that repudiated centuries of Christian teaching that Jews bore collective guilt for Christ’s death. Paul also inaugurated the synod system of consultation of the early Church that Vatican II called for. Francis has reinvigorated the synod system to make it a truly freeing debate. The ideological divisions that split the council fathers during Vatican II were very much on view during Francis’ first synod that just ended.
Paul disappointed many Catholics who were hoping for liberalization of Church teaching on sexuality as a result of Vatican II. Paul reserved the issue to himself and commissioned experts to report back, and the majority favored an opening in the Church’s position on artificial birth control. But after much personal anguish and prayer, Paul enshrined the Church’s opposition to artificial contraception in the 1968 encyclical “Humanae Vitae” (“Of Human Life”), which remains its teaching to this day. In his final testament, he dedicated his pontificate to the “protection of the faith and the defense of human life.”
One of the greatest pains of Paul’s life was the kidnapping and killing of his life-long friend and former Italian premier, Aldo Moro, in the spring of 1978 by the Red Brigades terrorist group. Paul penned a heart-felt letter to the kidnappers, “on my knees” begging them to release his friend “without condition.” His bullet-ridden body was eventually found in the back of a car in downtown Rome. The Moro family, upset at the plea for an unconditional release, refused to attend the state funeral in Rome’s St. John Lateran Basilica, which Paul presided over.