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Paul VI: The First Modern Pope.

Vatican watchers follow a kind of saintly sweepstakes. The process for sainthood has been instituted for Pius XII, John XXIII and, recently, for Paul VI. The cause of John XXIII was assigned to the Franciscans and that of Pius XII to the Jesuits by Paul VI. Now, John Paul II has recently assigned Paul VI's cause to the Jesuits.

Vatican observers, like their White House cousins, tend to be an uncommon and hardy breed. By their sources you shall know them. And there is the problem. Who are the sources, how reliable are they, do they have an ax to grind or whose ox are they goring?

Try to recall the aftermath of the death of John Paul I in 1978, the incredible stories of poison, murder and intrigue spilling out of Rome. Inexperienced reporters were completely out of their depth and at the mercy of "impeccable" sources. Cynics maintain, for example, that anything denied twice in L'Osservatore Romano is invariably true. It tends to report not so much the way things are, but the way they should be.

NCR readers are familiar with Peter Hebblethwaite's frank and critical style, his brand of humor, his ability to raise clerical hackles, and his propensity to go out on a limb (at times sawed off).

He has developed into a veteran Vatican journalist, helped by his sense of continuity (he started in 1965) and by his personal knowledge of the key players. He knows several languages, including French, Italian and Latin, has traveled extensively (including Eastern Europe), has a strong theological and ecumenical background, and asks both penetrating and outrageous questions.

He has been known to own up to flubs, but will never receive an award from the Vatican Press Office. One has no problem identifying his good guys and bad guys and what his favored philosophical and theological positions are.

Hebblethwaite's books are another matter. In the wake of The Year of Three Popes and especially John XXIII: Shepherd of the Modern World, this present work on Paul VI situates him in the ranks of serious papal biographers. He goes about his work as a journalist rather than an historian.

"History will be kind to Paul VI" was a frequent refrain in Rome by serious students of his life. Hebblethwaite has been kind and fair. He has situated Paul in his own skin and in his historical context, and the result is an honest and fascinating portrait.

To place the life of Giovanni Battista Montini in its historical context is a fearsome prospect because it covers three-fourths of the 20th century. The author does a remarkable job.

On a pilgrimage from Brescia to Rome, Giorgio Montini met Giuditta Alghisi on the steps of St. Peter's basilica. Of this marriage, awfully close to made-in-heaven, Giovanni Battista was born Sept. 26, 1897, in Concesio just outside Brescia. He had an older brother, Lodovico, who became a senator and remained active in the political arena until his death in 1990, and a younger brother, Francesco, who was a medical doctor.

Battista, as he was called, was lively but rather frail. The Montini home was open and welcoming. There were lots of guests, including clerics, lawyers, politicians and writers. Giorgio Montini was editor of the local Catholic newspaper.

Battista was very devoted to his mother. In later life he noted gratefully that his father's example was one of courage, his whole life one of witness, while his mother gave him a sense of recollection and prayer.

When World War I broke out in 1914, Battista failed the medical exam. In 1916 he decided on the priesthood and was allowed to live and study at home. He was ordained in 1920. It was a major social event in Brescia.

The 22-year-old Don Battista went to Rome to study literature and history at the Sapienza University. His brother Lodovico was in Rome doing a thesis on trade unions, and his father's parliamentary duties had him commuting between Brescia and Rome. It was inevitable that Battista would be caught up in the rough-and-tumble of politics.

There was a dramatic change in store. He was told to enter the Academy for Noble Ecclesiastics, the school for Vatican diplomats. Benedict XV died and was succeeded by Pius XI. Benito Mussolini was named prime minister. Then came word that Battista was to enter the Secretariat of State. His first, and only, diplomatic posting was to Poland in 1923.

On his return to Rome, he was soon made a domestic prelate and assigned to a junior position dealing with foreign governments. A distinguished canonist, Alfre-do Ottaviani, also entered the Secretariat. Along with Giuseppe Pizzardo, Vatican undersecretary of state (a man deep in Hebblethwaite's doghouse), Ottaviani would play a large part in Montini's future life. Montini's pastoral work with the students also brought him into contact with Msgr. Angelo Roncalli, who became a lifelong friend and later became Pope John XXIII. At the age of 28, Montini was leader of the intellectual opposition to the Fascists.

Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, became secretary of state in 1930. About this time, all Catholic youth movements in Italy were dissolved and their property sequestered. Pius XI reacted with a vigorous encyclical Non Abbiamo Bisogno (We Do Not Need This). Montini carried it to the nuncio in Munich, where it was picked up by Msgr. Francis J. Spellman, one of the few Americans in the Secretariat of State, who took it to Paris.

In March 1933, Montini was relieved of his post as national chaplain of the Catholic student movement. He became a reluctant full-time bureaucrat working at drafting documents for Pacelli, but laboring immediately under Ottaviani and Pizzardo.

Some personal notes, published only in 1985, give a rare insight into Montini's spirituality: "Authority in the church is a service, not an honor. ... When one has an office one should carry it out with firmness and courage ... one should not confine one's actions merely to what is possible but should try, dare and risk doing as much good as possible. ... One should feel the sufferings of others."

Pius XI died in February 1939, to be succeeded by Pacelli. Vatican policy at first was intent on preventing war, and then on preventing Italy from joining the German side. Hebblethwaite's account of these World War II days is detailed and fascinating. One of Montini's main tasks was liaison with diplomats accredited to the Vatican, who considered him the most important person after Pius XII.

Montini played a crucial role in preparing the future government of Italy. With his brother Lodovico living with him in the Vatican, he was the bridge between two generations of Christian Democrats, the younger generation of which, such as Giulio Andreotti and Aldo Moro, were formed by Montini in the student movement.

In 1948, the idea of an ecumenical council was in the air, a project of Cardinal Ernest Ruffini of Palermo and of Ottaviani which they proposed to Pius XII. After preliminary discussions, the idea was shelved.

There was however a holy year in 1950, masterminded by Montini. There were canonizations and the definition of a new dogma, the Assumption. There was the encyclical Humani Generis, which wreaked havoc on the so-called "new theology" developed by French Dominicans and Jesuits. It was followed by disciplinary measures removing professors from their posts.

Montini's own position was soon to be jolted. Pius XII called a consistory to name new cardinals in 1953. A list of 24 did not include Montini. Hebblethwaite indicates he was included, but begged off vigorously. In 1954, he was appointed archbishop of Milan.

It was not all smooth sailing. Hebblethwaite relates a meeting of Cardinal Bernard Griffin, archbishop of Westminster, in Rome in 1954 with his old friend Cardinal Pizzardo. Pizzardo assured him that the church was in grave danger, about to fall into the hands of "one extremely powerful man, who had very strong views on certain matters." The man was Montini.

Pizzardo could have found an ally in Ottaviani. In 1953, an imposing new North American college was dedicated on the Gianiculum hill. It was a splendid ceremony (I was a student in Rome at the time and was present), and Cardinal Samuel Stritch's remarks on American values upset Ottaviani because they could be taken to go beyond the official position of the church on freedom of religious propaganda and church-state relations.

Hebblethwaite quotes Jesuit historian Gerald P. Fogarty: "The pope's utterances seemed to reflect whoever got his ear, men like Ottaviani or men like Montini. For the next few weeks, it appears as if the pope listened more to Montini."

In January 1955, the new archbishop, successor of St. Ambrose and St. Charles Borromeo, moved to Milan and immersed himself in the pastoral care of his flock. It was also in Milan that the first contacts were made with figures in the financial world like Michele Sindona from whom much would later be heard in the Banco Ambrosiano scandal.

In 1958 Pius XII died and Angelo Roncalli was elected Pope John XXIII. There had been talk of Montini as a possible candidate, but not at the conclave. On Jan. 25, 1959, came the real shocker: Papa Roncalli called an ecumenical council.

Cardinal Montini was appointed to the Central Preparatory Commission. The council began Oct. 11, 1962.

We are now on more familiar ground than the earlier life of Montini. Hebblethwaite deftly lines up the main characters and the big themes. His whole narration of the council recalls the exciting days when Xavier Rynne burst on the ecclesial scene with "Letters from Vatican City," published in the New Yorker. The breezy and informative style threw a sharp light on the intrigues, groupings and machinations behind the scenes. What some considered an obsessive secrecy was pierced. One of Rynne's better pasquinades said it all: "Why the conciliar secrecy? Because secrets travel faster." There were screams of delight and rage.

The first session ended Dec. 8, 1962. On June 3, 1963, Pope John died. The conclave elected Montini June 21. He took the name of Paul VI and began the second session Sept. 29. The third session began Sept. 14, 1964, and ended Nov. 21. The final session began Sept. 14, 1965, and concluded Dec. 8.

John XXIII had said: "The council is like a big ship. I got it out to sea, but someone else will have to maneuver it into port." This was the great accomplishment of Paul VI. Hebblethwaite narrates in detail and with verve the heroic efforts Paul made to bring the decrees home to port, his humble, constant and laborious attempt to find what the Holy Spirit wanted for the church.

Paul succeeded in maintaining a sensitive and difficult balance between those for the renewal called for by John XXIII and the opposing forces, especially in the curia.

We have become so accustomed to the many apostolic journeys of John Paul II that we forget it was Paul VI who started these travels during the council. Most of them were firsts in the history of the papacy. His first trip was to Jerusalem in early 1964.

In December 1964 there was a pilgrimage to India where the pope was all but swallowed up by the huge crowds. Paul was given a greater reception than any previous visitor to India because he was seen as a holy man in a country that loves holy men. He also showed dignity, charm and an unerring sense of priorities. He visited the orphanages rather than the palaces.

In 1965 it was an incredible one-day trip to New York and the United Nations, with the phrase heard round the world: "No more war! Never again war!"

Paul did a major internationalizing of the curia. He changed the name of the Holy Office to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and replaced Ottaviani, a move shifting the center of gravity from the Holy Office to the Secretariat of State (it seems John Paul II is reversing this).

Paul VI also changed the College of Cardinals by appointing many members from Africa and Asia and by ordaining that cardinals older than 80 could not vote in a papal election. This latter move stirred fierce and public opposition.

In July 1968 Rome was awash with rumors about an imminent statement on birth control. The Vatican press office called them absolutely false. On July 29 the encyclical Humanae Vitae appeared.

He had withdrawn birth control (as well as celibacy) from the agenda of the council and referred it to the special commission originally named by John XXIII and then enlarged by Paul on "population, family and birth" (then-Archbishop Karol Wojtyla was a member, but apparently missed the key debates and decisive votes). Its report (leaked to the press via NCR and the London Tablet in 1967) favored a change in the official teaching.

Paul VI waited before reaffirming the official teaching. He expected some opposition from the secular media but was not prepared for the widespread opposition that greeted the encyclical from many priests and theologians. Paul did not find the support from individual bishops and even from conferences he expected.

This is the 25th anniversary of the encyclical, and there is still widespread disregard of its teaching. Some were so badly affected by the encyclical that they could not give the rest of Paul's pontificate a fair hearing. Hebblethwaite is quite nuanced and more understanding of Paul VI in his treatment of the encyclical and indicates the importance of the 1974 Synod of bishops.

There had been a discussion about its theme, with some opting for discussion of marriage. Paul chose evangelization: "If he had opted for Christian marriage, his whole pontificate would have gone down in history as the birth-control pontificate. Evangelization gave him a chance to look up and break out of this narrow mold."

Another document that marked his pontificate was Evangelii Nuntiandi (On Evangelization in the Modern World) in 1975.

Paul's death at Castelgandolfo on Aug. 6, 1978, is movingly told. "I was living at Jesuit headquarters at the time, and when the news was flashed on TV, I immediately phoned Jesuit Superior General Pedro Arrupe. He asked me to drive him to Castelgandolfo. We were one of the first to arrive and were admitted to the papal palace but could not see Pope Paul because the formalities had not yet been completed. Arrupe said he simply wanted to be there because Paul VI meant so much to him and all Jesuits."

Hebblethwaite deals with an amazing number of personalities throughout the book, many well known and others deserving to be better known. Readers may regret the omission of some figures or the way some others are characterized, but on the whole Hebblelthwaite does an impressive job handling such a "cast of thousands."

The Jesuits -- and Arrupe in particular -- are mentioned in different parts of the book. Arrupe remained a devoted friend of Hebblethwaite until his death in 1991. As in his many articles, the author is more than fair to the Society of Jesus. One important point should be noted. Hebblethwaite writes (p. 631): "After a long process involving prayer and scholarship, sociology and discernment, the 32nd Congregation (of the Society of Jesus) voted to abolish grades by 228 votes to 8." This is not factual.

The congregation never voted to abolish the grades. There was a vote taken but it was a straw vote to help the commission working on this question of the vows.

Neither Opus Dei nor Communion and Liberation will be happy with the treatment they receive from Hebblethwaite. They will speak in their own defense. I would simply note that Hebblethwaite was one of the first to write about Communion and Liberation, still relatively unknown in the United States.

Frequently the last thing written is the introduction. It would be good to reread Hebblethwaite's because it is a lot clearer after reading his work. He explains why Paul is the first modern pope. Many statements are debatable: "Paul ... knew that a pope, any pope, has about five creative years after which he tends to mark time. ... Montini, the first modern pope, tried to be the second Christian pope after Pope John."

The book covers a breathtaking sweep. Historians will hesitate over certain interpretations and views. Journalists will read it avidly and some will feel a touch of envy. It is fascinating and informative, sensitive and provocative, well-documented and apodictic, and very readable.
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Author:O'Keefe, Vincent; Murphy, F.X.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 4, 1993
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