A papacy conceived not as power, but as service


After John XXIII’s death, the transition from the Johannine council to the Pauline one was relatively smooth. The former Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli had been close to Giovanni Battista Montini for many years. When the former held his initial consistory as pope, Montini was the first prelate to be named cardinal. (According to the pseudonymous Vatican historian Xavier Rynne, Montini had been effectively blocked from receiving the red hat under his longtime mentor Pius XII by a rival in the Vatican Secretariat of State). 

Montini had had a highly successful ecclesiastical career, serving as a diplomat, youth minister, and eventually archbishop of Milan. In fact, it was rumored that at the conclave that elected John XXIII, a number of the cardinal electors had scratched out the pre-inscribed word “Cardinal” on the ballots and written the name of Montini in the blank space following. During the reign of John, Montini no longer had this problem and so had long been considered the favorite to succeed the ailing pontiff; the choice of Montini as the leader to bring the council to completion was a near fait accompli.  He followed his predecessor’s predilection for defying expectation, choosing the papal name of Paul, one with a storied history, but a moniker unused for many generations.

Paul VI truly embodied his patron namesake’s mission ad gentes, widening the circle of Catholic focus beyond the strict boundaries of neo-scholastic self-identification which had increasingly defined the decades between the First and Second Vatican Councils. His period of leadership came to demonstrate affection for the various branches of Christian ancestry, especially those of Orthodox and Protestant descent.  He saw the importance of spiritually, and physically, following the ancient footsteps of Paul among the people of the Near East. As Roncalli had always done, Pope Montini envisioned the work of the bishops and theologians at Vatican II as benefitting the entire human family.

He made clear very early in his pontificate that he had come not to abolish the work of John’s council, but to fulfill it. His speech to the Roman Curia in 1963 elucidated this position, ascribing to his predecessor the biblical description of “one who had come from God and was named John” (Jn1:6). His high personal esteem for Roncalli the man carried over to John’s call for institutional metanoia through the work of the council Fathers. It was under Paul VI that the council was to bring to fruition the church’s opening of her arms to the modern world, a movement prefigured hundreds of years earlier in Bernini’s architectural composition of the familiar welcoming colonnades of St. Peter’s Square reaching out toward the secular streets of Rome and beyond.

Paul has more than once been painted as a tragic Hamlet-like character, weighed down by a tendency toward indecision and grieved by his choices, mistakes and perceived betrayers. His informal comment that “the smoke of Satan has entered the sanctuary of the church” has been read in innumerous conspiratorial and condemnatory lights. And while this is not the forum to enter into the intricacies and delicate conversations surrounding his encyclical Humanae Vitae, to deny that that particular document has been contested, defended and endlessly commented upon would be to ignore the theological elephant in the room. No one can seriously refute that the authorship of the encyclical was a key moment in the history of Catholicism.

More lasting than the controversies is the legacy of Paul’s pastoral concern for his flock. An often overlooked, but nonetheless important, writing of his is Evangelii Nuntiandi, in which he examines the spread of the Gospel in a novel perspective which has culminated years later in the movement we currently call the New Evangelization. In texts such as these, we see the pope’s concern to tirelessly carry out the mandate to strengthen his brethren, located in every corner of the world and representing every ideological perspective. As Eamon Duffy points out, Paul’s papacy was conceived not as power, but as service. However, this ministry carried with it a crushing burden. Paul claimed, “The post is unique.  It brings great solitude. I was solitary before, but now my solitariness becomes complete and awesome … my duty is to plan, decide, assume every responsibility for guiding others, even when it seems illogical and perhaps absurd. And to suffer alone. Me and God. The colloquy must be full and endless.” Paul saw his vocation as inextricably bound up with suffering, turning often to such images of redemptive tragedy as those present in the book of Isaiah.

Although wearied late in life, Paul continued to display the supernatural peace and pastoral devotion which allowed him years earlier to sell his coronation tiara and give the proceeds to the poor, an affectionate passion for selflessness which remained his defining characteristic. He felt himself committed to God’s service and justified in his eyes. One must be careful not to pigeonhole Paul into fixed and predetermined categories. Close to death, he himself asked, “Am I Hamlet or Don Quixote? On the left? On the right? I don’t feel I have been properly understood. My feelings are a superabundance of joy; I am full of consolation, overcome with it, through every tribulation.”

Perhaps those of us in the church today should emulate his confidence and trust in Providence despite the winding and rocky courses of our personal and collective history.

Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.