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Popes have come a long way since Peter.

Peter Hebblethwaite's masterful biography of Pope Paul VI, arriving less than half a decade after his perspicacious John XXIII, serves to confirm his reputation as the world's leading Vaticanologist.

In a style at once vigorous and allusive, fraught with theological insight and political acumen, Hebblethwaite traces Montini's sinuous personality to the ideal partnership of Giorgio and Giudetta, his parents, who met on the steps of St. Peter's in 1883.

Born in 1897, a fragile but precocious child, Giovanni Batista proved too sickly for military service and lived at home while pursuing his seminary studies. He discovered a talent for writing and a penchant for French literature and theology. On being ordained in 1920 he registered at Rome's Sapienza University in literature and the arts. But he was quickly snatched up and sent to the Vatican's school for diplomats.

After a short stint in the Warsaw nunciature -- where he bought a small clock that was to ring mysteriously 50 years later at the moment of his death -- he returned to the Vatican.

During World War II, he provided for diplomats, including FDR's Myron Taylor, practically incarcerated in the Vatican; traced missing persons with the aid of the Red Cross; and encouraged Pius XII to listen to Rome's rabbis advising him against public condemnations lest they incite worse persecutions of the Jews.

In the Italian political skirmishing of the postwar years, Montini favored the veteran statesman, Alcide de Gasperi, over the curial favorite, Luigi Gedda, to lead the Christian Democratic Party.

Pius XII fell ill in late 1954, and Montini's opponents in the Vatican had him appointed archbishop of Milan, but without the cardinal's hat. Providentially, this kept him out of the 1958 conclave, thus opening the way for the election of Angelo Roncalli -- his friend -- as John XXIII, who immediately made Montini a cardinal.

Apparently on John's advice, he did not speak at the council until the last week, giving support to the Belgian Cardinal Leon Suenens, John's principal adviser.

As pope, Paul continued the council, accepting Suenens' suggestion that the assembly debate the nature of the church ad extra in its dealing with the outside world. He also appointed four cardinal moderators (Lercaro of Bologna; Agagianian, the Armenian patriarch; Doepfner of Munich; and Suenens) to conduct the debate while Archbishop Pericle Felici, endowed with a stentorian voice, a perfect command of Latin and a mordant wit, kept order in the assembly.

A canonist of the old school, Felici favored the conservative bloc in tandem with Cardinals Ottaviani, Browne, Pizzardo and Larraona, running to the pope each time he was bested on the conciliar floor. He thus earned Pope John's epithet "that unspeakable Felici."

Defeated in his opposition to updating the church's teaching on the nature of

the church, the source of divine revelation, the collegiality of the bishops with and under the pope, the decrees on religious liberty, the Jews and the church's involvement with the modern world (Gaudium et Spes), Ottaviani persuaded the pope to withdraw birth control from debate, to the consternation of the majority of the bishops, and provoked Suenens' warning: "Let us not have another Galileo case!"

He admitted lay leaders as observers to the council, eventually including women, and was the first pope ever to appoint women as officials on curial commissions. He welcomed the president of Israel, Golda Meir, to a private audience and had a tete-a-tete meeting with Betty Friedan, praising her indefatigable zeal for women's rights.

Persuading Pope John's Ostopolitik, he dealt with despotic communist leaders such as Josip Tito of Yugoslavia and Soviet diplomat Andrey Gromyko.

Attending the meeting of Latin American prelates in Colombia, he outlined the church's social doctrine in his famous encyclical Populorum Progressio, only to sacrifice his reputation as a liberal pontiff by the publication of his antibirth-control encyclical, Humanae Vitae, in 1968.

In the 15 years of his pontificate, Paul experienced the successes and failures of the church's modern outreach. Overzealous to his papal supremacy, while instituting the Roman Synod of Bishops, a bi- or triannual assembly of representatives of national or regional conferences of bishops, he allowed the curia to define the synod's authority as consultative rather than deliberative, thus keeping control of its results.

Hebblethwaite does not hesitate to point out many features of Pope Paul's policies that do not seem to be appreciated by the present pontiff, John Paul II.

Hebblethwaite's designation of Paul as the first modern pope is justified by this masterpiece of the biographer's art.
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Title Annotation:Pope Paul VI
Author:O'Keefe, Vincent; Murphy, F.X.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jun 4, 1993
Previous Article:Church and state circle warily as faith flourishes.
Next Article:Paul VI: The First Modern Pope.

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