On the morning of 28 June 1963, Pasquale Macchi is urgently called into the conclave: the Archbishop of Milan, Giovanni Battista Montini, whom he serves as personal secretary, had just been elected Pope.
«I ran into him on my way to the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica, from where he had given the Urbi et Orbi Benediction. I prostrated myself before him, and all of a sudden he said sweetly: ‘Did you see what happened to me?’ and then said ‘My first benediction is for your mother».
This gesture says much about his delicacy and profound sensitivity, I will never forget it.”
A few minutes after his election, in the turmoil of sentiment and emotions that were certainly wreaking havoc with his heart, this episode shows all Paul VI’s humanity, and his great attention to individuals.
Faithful colleague of Pius XI and especially Pius XII, who made him Substitute Secretary of State and then Pro-Secretary of State, Montini was nominated archbishop of Milan at the end of 1954, after the death of Cardinal Alfredo Ildefonso Schuster.
In his first speech as Successor of Saint Ambrose, he had called for the reconciliation «of Italian Catholic tradition with modern culture», and this will be one of the keys to understanding his pontificate. Rather timid and reserved in character, Paul V was capable of completely controlling his emotions, and especially of suffering in silence for the Church.
«Perhaps God called me and keeps me in his service», he would write on the last day of the Council, “not so much because I had a certain attitude toward him, or because through me he governs and saves the Church from its present difficulties, but because I suffer for the Church, and it is clear that it is He, not others, who guides it and saves it».
This is how he described his state of mind: «My position is unique. It’s worth mentioning that I keep myself in extreme solitude. Already great before, now it is complete and huge. It makes me dizzy. Like a statue on a spire, or rather a living person, which I am… Even Jesus was alone on the cross… I can’t be afraid, I can’t seek out exterior support that would exonerate me from my duty. And to suffer alone…. Me and God».
Only after his death, his secretary Macchi will reveal that the Pope often wore a hair shirt and a belt rough with knots that dug into his skin, to mortify the flesh. He had a difficult heritage to cope with – being the successor of “Good Pope” John XXIII - but he feared any form of sensationalism or attention on himself. Monsignor Macchi published an account of the first days after the election, revealing this characteristic and the fact that Paul VI had even wanted to abandon the custom of appearing at the Sunday Angelus.
«There was the Angelus at the window. I didn’t want to appear on the third floor, where Pope Pius and John had appeared. I would have perhaps dropped this unique dialogue with St. Peter’s Square, but it was full of people, faithful elderly folk, who waited - an immense and moving spectacle. But what is this need to see a Man? We have become a spectacle!’ It is a sign, a symbol. ‘No, not for us, Lord!».
Raised in the school of Pius XII, to whom he always showed reverence, not hesitating to defend him publicly before the president of the State of Israel from accusations of “silence” during the historic trip to the Holy Land, Montini had a measured and elegant style. He was elected Pope for being a man of mediation, able to bring to the completion the venture of the Council initiated by John XXIII. He was able to guide the session of the bishops, successfully obtaining near-unanimity on all documents. He was able to curb both conservative and overly innovative tendencies.
Because of this, today the figure of this great Pope, who courageously made choices against the tide, open to culture and the modern world but not at all inclined to drop in any way the essentials of the Christian faith, finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place - criticized by traditionalists, but also by progressives. His punctual and personal participation in the work of the Council shows how he could go against the opinions and preferences of the friends who had elected him. The promulgation of the encyclical Humanae vitae (1968), the last he wrote, signaled the moment of Pope Montini’s greatest isolation, ferociously attacked and criticized even within the Church for not liberalizing contraception declared lawful: «I have never felt the weight of my office as in this situation. I have studied, read, and discussed as much as possible; and I have also prayed very much...».
A great promoter of ecumenicalism, he was the author and promoter of an important reform and modernization of the Roman Curia, making it ever more international. His 1975 gesture of kissing the feet of Metropolitan Melitone of Chalcedon, sent by the Patriarch of Constantinople, at the end of a celebration in the Sistine Chapel, is still memorable.
This act overturned the ancient ritual of adoration that prescribes a kiss at the feet of the Pope. But within a framework that never deviates from the dogmatic pronouncements of Vatican infallibility, he said that the Church of the Second Vatican Council loves Church of the Second Vatican Council loves “with ecumenical heart, that is, with wide-openness, humility, and affection, all Christian brothers still outside perfect communion with our Church, one, holy, catholic, apostolic..».
And in a discourse of October 1974 to the Secretary of the Synod, he would claim «the full, supreme, universal power of the Roman Pontiff, power that cannot be reduced in special circumstances.
«This does not impede him from sincerely declaring to “separated brethren” that «if some fault were imputable to us for such separation, we humbly ask pardon from God and we ask pardon also from brethren who felt offended by us».
At the forefront in social issues, Paul VI brings the Church (as “expert in humanity”), through the Holy See, into the international forum of nations as a full subject.
He issued heartfelt calls for world peace, like the memorable speech at the UN General Assembly: «Men, try to be worthy of the divine gift of peace. Men, we are men! Men, be good, be wise, be open to the considerations of the good of the entire world. Men, be magnanimous! Men, see your status and your interests, not as being against but instead as being united with the status and interests of others. Men, do not think of projects of death and destruction, of revolution and oppression; think of projects of mutual discussion and close collaboration».
From 1968 on, Pope Montini would celebrate a Day of Peace every year on 1 January by publishing a special message on that day each year.
Faithful to the name he chose, that of the Apostle of the Gentiles, the Pope begins trips abroad that will become one of the characteristics of his successor, John Paul II.
He visits the Holy Land (Jordan and Israel), Libya and India, the United States, Portugal, Turkey, Colombia, Switzerland, Uganda and - in the last long trip of 1970 – Iran, Pakistan, the Philippines, the Samoan Islands, Australia, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Sri Lanka. During this trip, in Manila, he is the victim of an attack by a deranged man, who stabs him with a kris, a wavy bladed dagger that penetrates the Pontiff’s abdomen.
The wound appears serious, but Paul VI doesn’t want to make it known, and decides to continue the trip - another example of his silent suffering for the good of the Church.
A Pope of great symbolic gestures, he would lay down the precious tiara, the cone-shaped papal headdress surmounted by three crowns that was a gift of the faithful in Milan, and would sell it in order to distribute the proceeds to the poor.
He was the Pope that, more than all others of the 20th century, had a passion for art, evidenced by the collections of modern art he donated to the Vatican Museum.
The great self-discipline that appears in Montini’s character is seen even in the work hours he kept; the day begins with a strict waking time of 6 in the morning and ends at 1:30 or even 2 the next morning, after the recitation of the Midnight Office and a last hour of work on papers.
These habits allow for a huge amount of work – he prepared and handwrote all the speeches to the Wednesday audiences and all the Angeluses – but also leaves enough space for prayer and contemplation.
«A schedule so tight and demanding» wrote Monsignor Macchi, «reveals how totally he gave of himself in service to the Church».
In that very year, in the middle of the post-Council uproar that shakes the Catholic Church, Paul VI feels the necessity to set out in the Credo of the People of God the mandatory contents of the Catholic faith.