FRIDAY, JUNE 21: Fifty years ago today, in 1963, the world saw the election of a groundbreaking new pope: Paul VI. Though he was no stranger to the Vatican, having served its Secretariat of State for 32 years prior to his election, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini—who took the name Paul VI—broke Church history on several levels. The formerly frail child took the Catholic Church by storm, becoming the first pope to travel to six continents during his reign and changing the 400-year-old format of Mass. Last year, Pope Benedict XVI declared Paul VI to have been of heroic virtue, thus earning him the title “Venerable.”
FROM A FRAIL BABY TO
A STRONG PONTIFF
A wealthy family welcomed Giovanni Battista Montini in 1897, and despite the baby’s frailness, the young child would go on to receive extensive education from the Jesuits and the seminary. (The Vatican has a full biography.) First ordained a priest in 1920, Montini advanced to Gregorian University and the University of Rome, finally placing an emphasis on studying canon law.
When World War II emerged, current events and danger to the pontiff took first priority, and Montini stepped up to organize several relief projects. Having won the affections of the bishop of Rome, Montini was appointed Archbishop of Milan, revitalized the diocese, won over the laboring class, promoted Catholic education and attracted international press for his efforts. (Wikipedia has details.) Upon the death of Pope John XXIII, Montini was elected the new pope on June 21, 1963. Montini chose the name “Paul” to indicate a renewed mission to spread the Word of Christ.
A POPE OF FIRSTS AND
THE SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL
From the moment he was crowned, Pope Paul VI sought to make an impression. He delivered the allocution in nine languages, demonstrating his plan to reach out to new communities and peoples; he sold the papal tiara and distributed profits to the poor in several regions of the world; and while Vatican II had automatically closed with the death of John XXIII, the pope educated in canon law promised to re-convoke it. Throughout his reign, Pope Paul VI would keep his promise of reaching out internationally, beginning with his first papal visit being to the United Nations headquarters in New York. Pope Paul VI became the first pope to visit six continents and the first to set foot in the Holy Land since St. Peter left nearly 2,000 years earlier and went to Rome. The reopening of the Second Vatican Council in 1963 saw four priorities outlined: a better understanding of the Catholic Church, Church reforms, advancing the unity of Christianity and dialogue with the world. Vatican II successfully closed in 1965, and Pope Paul VI implemented its mandates until his death in 1978.