A new pope tries to get bishops rowing in unison

March 4, 2013

In September 1962, shortly before the opening of the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII learned that he had inoperable cancer. Throughout the first session of the council, he knew that his life was drawing to a close.

The pope told one cardinal, "The council is like a big ship. I got it out to sea, but someone else will have to manoeuvre it into port."

Manoeuvring that big ship into port was not going to be an easy task. It was headed in a general direction, but the crew were squabbling and no one had much of an idea what the final destination looked like.

On June 3, 1963, the much-beloved Blessed John XXIII died. It took only 18 days to elect his successor, Giovanni Battista Montini, Pope Paul VI.

If there was anyone capable of steering this ship into port, it was Montini. He had spent 30 years working in the Vatican's Secretariat of State, including 17 years as undersecretary for internal Church affairs.

More than anyone, Montini was the man on whom Pope Pius XII leaned through much of his pontificate. He was a Church insider like no other.

Under Pius, Montini became a highly-skilled diplomat, able to negotiate solutions to vexing problems. In the course of it, however, he made enemies in high places and became known as a liberal in an extremely conservative Curia.

The pope offered to make Montini a cardinal, an offer he rejected. Many believe that if Montini had been present in the 1958 conclave, he would have been elected pope at that time.

Pope Paul VI was the pope for most of the Second Vatican Council and then oversaw implementation of council teachings until his death in 1978.


Pope Paul VI was the pope for most of the Second Vatican Council and then oversaw implementation of council teachings until his death in 1978.

If that had happened, it is unlikely Vatican II would have been held. Montini was not one to call an ecumenical council without there being a crisis to which a council must attend.

In 1954, Pope Pius unexpectedly appointed Montini archbishop of Milan. Although this was a highly prestigious post, it is widely believed that Montini received the appointment because his enemies got the ear of the pope and manoeuvred him out of Rome.

Virtually the first act of John XXIII upon becoming pope was to award Montini a red hat. There seems little doubt that, to the extent that a pope can choose his successor, Pope John tapped Montini to be his.

The pope gave Montini, alone among all the council fathers, an apartment in the Vatican during the first session of Vatican II so that he would be available to him for unpublicized conferences.

Then, Pope John, it is maintained, advised his friend not to make any controversial statements at the council so as not to undermine his chances of being elected pope. Indeed, Montini only spoke twice on the council floor during the first session.

Italian opposition

Despite John XXIII's favour, Montini was not elected until the sixth ballot. Even then, when his election was assured, 22 to 25 cardinals – mostly Italians in the Curia, it is believed – refused to vote for him.

Pope Paul faced a mighty task. The Curia had been out-gunned and humiliated at the first session of Vatican II. He needed to get the council fathers and the Curia rowing in the same direction.

The new pope's skills were as a diplomat much more than as a theologian. So, over the last three years of the council, he worked at diplomatic solutions to find a middle ground.

At key points, he used his papal authority to re-word or add to documents approved on the council floor in an effort to appease the Curia. His efforts seemed to please no one. They alienated the majority of the council fathers and failed to convince the minority that Church tradition was being upheld.


Pope Paul endeavoured to do what the pope should do – ensure the visible unity of the Church. In that, it can be said that he largely succeeded, except for the still-festering deadlock with the followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.

However, the Vatican II documents bear the imprint of compromises between the majority and the minority. While that may have assured a temporary peace, lasting Church teaching must reflect the revealed Word of God, not human compromises.


It must be said that, in the 1960s, the Church's theology on some questions dealt with at the council was not mature enough for a full "answer" to emerge. Along with the compromises, however, the documents contained fruitful insights, insights whose implications Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have begun to draw out.

Pope Paul had many other accomplishments. He continued the council and broke the ice in ecumenism. He was a pioneer in global travel and, in the face of strong opposition, he upheld the Church's teaching on artificial contraception.

Although he was sometimes disparaged as a dithering "Hamlet," the label is unfair. He was not afraid to take a stand when he needed to do so.


Pope Paul came right after a pope who was deeply loved and whom many thought of as an innovator. Once he said, "Pope John was much more conservative than me, much more traditional." He wasn't boasting, just stating a fact. Nevertheless, he could not hope to fulfill the expectations created during Pope John's brief pontificate.

Pope Paul was the right man to lead the Church through rocky shoals. But the port has not yet been reached. That will only happen in God's good time.

(Information for this article came from Paul VI: The First Modern Pope by Peter Hebblethwaite and Pope Paul VI: A Biography by Alden Hatch.)