Archbishop Rino Fisichella’s slim book I Met Paul VI (Gracewing) is not a personal memoir. Rather, it collects stories from those who knew Blessed Paul personally. Fisichella was the reporting judge in the Cause for Paul’s beatification, which took place in 2014. There are interesting glimpses of Paul’s personality from this book, but you have to search for them, which is made harder by the lack of an index. Footnotes and a bibliography would also have been helpful.
Nevertheless, the Archbishop writes with piety, affection and circumspection, anxious to show that that Paul VI was a holy man. Aware of the frequent criticisms of his subject, he occasionally sounds defensive, remarking at one point that Paul was not “a Hamlet figure, incapable of decision”.
Despite these caveats, I did glean certain things from the book: that Paul was baptised on the same day – 30th September 1897 – as St Therese of Lisieux died; that the chasuble in which he celebrated his first Mass was woven from his mother’s wedding dress; that he was a temperamentally shy man of delicate health who did not seek out company. On being selected to join the prestigious papal academy for future Church diplomats, the young Father Montini wrote home: “There is room … for the possibility to have some solitude. That consoles me a bit, because solitude allows one to build up the energy to be in company with others.”
Another telling remark, after his election as Pope Paul VI in 1963, is his comment that “I feel like a statue on a pedestal, the only differing [sic] being the statue is alive.” There is a brief mention by Mgr Magee, one of his private secretaries, that the Pope often wore chains underneath his clothing “to remind him that Christ had carried the Cross to redeem the world.” Another anecdote concerning his dying hours at Castel Gandolfo in 1978, tells us that the Holy Father’s alarm clock, which had been a gift from his mother when, as a young papal diplomat, he had been assigned to Warsaw, suddenly started to ring out at 9.40 pm, the actual moment of Paul’s death, even though it had not been wound up that day. It had woken him at 6.00 daily. Now, uncannily “it welcomed him that evening into … eternal life.”
I single out these points as they bring Blessed Paul VI alive. Of his great courage, in the face of the enormous and vociferous dissent from his encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968, there can be no doubt, though the book doesn’t discuss this. That only he could have steered the Church through the turbulent waters of the Second Vatican Council after the death of John XXIII is also true. Although seen as “sad, anxious, indecisive” during the later years of his pontificate, Mgr Magee affirms that, on the contrary, Paul was “always profoundly serene” – indicative of a deep prayer-life.
I think history will judge Paul VI more kindly than his contemporaries. Archbishop Fisichella’s book has reminded me to pray to him and for a second miracle to aid his canonisation.