With the exception of Pope John Paul I, no pope since the Second Vatican Council is less known and less appreciated than Blessed Paul VI. Recall that, for anyone under 40, they have only known Saint John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis. Giovanni Battista Montini, elected as the Holy Father in 1963 served faithfully until his death in 1978.
Pope Paul is described by a biographer, Peter Hebblethwaithe, as “the first Modern Pope.” He changed the way the world views the papacy. He was the first pope to travel (as the Holy Father) to six continents. He was the first pope to visit the United States as the Holy Father (Pius XII had extensively visited the U.S. in the 1930s when he was a cardinal.) In 1965, Pope Paul was the first Pontiff to address the United Nations. His words: “No more war, never again war. Peace, it is peace that must guide the destinies of people and of all mankind,” continue to echo through history. Paul survived an assassination attempt in the Philippines in 1970.
He was not the Holy Father who initiated the Second Vatican Council, but it was he who saw it to its conclusion and it was he who had to shepherd the Church after the Council, in the turbulent times of the 1960s and 1970s. For many, Pope Paul was seen as indecisive, viewed by some as a “liberal” who changed the Mass and downplayed papal attire and ceremonies and by others who prevented the Church from going even farther in its reforms.
Pope Paul was the steady hand that the Church needed in that time in her history. Open and attentive to the “signs of the times,” as his predecessor, St. John XXIII, urged, he also knew that not everything is negotiable and there are some timeless essentials that the Church must hold. His stance upholding natural law in 1968 with his encyclical, “Humanae Vitae,” has been proven true.
Pope Paul was prescient in his 1967 encyclical, Populorum Progressio, in which he stated that the economy of the world should attempt to benefit all mankind. His writings offer a rich, theological treasure for all Christians and for all the people of the world.
Saint John Paul II declared Paul VI a Servant of God in 1993, and Benedict XVI recognized him as Venerable in 2012. Pope Francis approved a miracle attributed to Paul VI in 2014 and declared him blessed. It is very likely that Blessed Paul VI will be canonized a saint later this year.