I have no doubt that Giovanni Battista Enrico Antonio Maria Montini currenly enjoys the beatific vision for the very simple reason that I have obtained a humble but undeniable miracle by his intercession. Two weeks before our son, John, was born, my wife came down with a serious parasitic infection. After a day of perilously high fever and vomiting, new tests came back negative. While some of her symptoms persisted for a few hours more, the organism intent on killing our son had simply vanished. Among the effects my wife brought to the hospital was a second-class relic of the man we now call St Paul VI, whose intercession I begged. I am convinced that he saved John’s life, and perhaps hers as well.
Whether a man is in heaven is, of course, a very different question from whether he should be canonised. When the Church raises one of her sons or daughters to the altar, she is declarising that this individual lived a life of heroic virtue. Was Paul VI’s papacy a heroic one? In a way, I think the answer is yes. But his heroism was essentially tragic.
The tragedy of Montini is that of a cunning diplomatist who nevertheless had an interior spiritual life of immense richness. The ultimate curial insider, he thought himself capable of facing any crisis, personal or theological. On the question of birth control he was indeed able to outfox the Church’s internal foes, whose arguments he rejected in Humanae Vitae. Issued at a time when polite opinion was uniformly against him, when even a great theologian like Charles De Koninck was capable of contorting his mind into pseudo-Thomistic knots in order to justify something that millions of unlettered nonnas in the pews knew was abhorrent, this document alone is enough to qualify any man as a hero.
Of almost equal value was his Credo of the People of God, promulgated 50 years ago. Here with the help of one collaborator – Jacques Maritain – Paul did in roughly an afternoon what the world’s bishops could not manage despite three years and infinite resources: present the whole of the apostolic faith, ancient and undefiled, in a new language that spoke to the anxieties of the post-war world. It is a document that will demand study centuries after Lumen Gentium is a boring footnote only of interest to students of an unedifying pastoral council. This, too, was heroic.
On the question of mandatory Friday abstinence, we see that Paul could be naïve. It would never have occurred to him that a technical permission to depart from a rule would be instantly transformed into a norm in many parts of the world. He could understand the argument for occasional laxity without ever thinking of abusing it himself. His great fault was failing to see that there are not so many Montinis in the world.
On the liturgy, his record does him at least some credit. There are good reasons to suppose that his motives for allowing a committee to study the Mass were a mixture of genuine interest in reform – allowing Low Mass to be said in the vernacular, reversing the deformations of Holy Week carried out under Pope Pius XII – and cynical – i.e., giving what Evelyn Waugh called “the strange alliance of modernists and archaeologists” something to do. His own response to the new missal in practice was uniformly one of horror. His personal style in papal Masses remained austere and dignified. He was a proponent of what we now call “the reform of the reform” long before there was such a thing. The following exchange with Archbishop Lefebvre seems typical of the last years of his papacy:
“I do not know, Holy Father, if you know that there are 23 official Eucharistic Prayers in France.”
“Many more, Monseigneur, many more!”
I for one find it much easier to sympathise with the Arnoldian gloom of Paul looking on quietly at the ruin of the Church than with the glad-handing U2 world-tour optimism of St John Paul II. The former recognised that the smoke of Satan had entered the Church. His response was dread and a kind of inertia. His successor believed that a cult of personality and a few cursory dismissals of liberal theologians would exorcise the demons. Responding to the sort of liturgical praxis that would become typical of World Youth Day and other Wojtyłan extravaganzas, Paul sounded like a subscriber to an SSPX newsletter: “The faithful, in these cases, are behaving like infidels!”
Why did Paul not do more? This is a mystery to which there is at present no satisfactory answer. It seems to me most likely that after years of being too clever by half he understood that he would not, on earth anyway, be among the agents of Israel’s deliverance. St John XXIII said that there was something of Hamlet about Montini. I am not so sure. Fittingly for the first truly modern pontiff, Paul as man and pope strikes me as more than a bit Prufrockian. It is hard not to think of him in connection with those famous lines from Eliot: “Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, / Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?” For all his tears, fasting and prayers, Prufrock tells us,
I am no prophet – and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.
Paule, ora pro nobis.
Matthew Walther is national correspondent of The Week
This article first appeared in the October 19 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here