Paul VI and His Legacy

Interview With Papal Biographer Andrea Tornielli

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ROME, SEPT. 17, 2003 ( A biography of Paul VI, published 25 years after his death, indicates that the contribution he made as Pope is still not understood.

“Paolo VI: Il Timoniere del Concilio” (Paul VI — Helmsman of the Council), written by journalist Andrea Tornielli, Vatican correspondent of the newspaper Il Giornale, and published in Italy by Piemme, contradicts the widely held view of a weak Giovanni Battista Montini who was unable to make decisions.

The volume not only highlights the influence of documents such as the encyclicals “Mysterium Fidei” and “Humanae Vitae,” and the “Creed of the People of God.” It also reveals little-known anecdotes and historical facts which reflect Paul VI’s temperament.

In the book’s preface, Monsignor Luigi Giussani, founder of Communion and Liberation, writes that Paul VI “felt the active presence of the Evil One in combat with the historical reality of the Church, which at times and in some places seems to crush her.”

“However,” he continues, “it was precisely this perception which renewed in him the absolute certainty of the action of the Lord, who acts even more intensely in the ‘little flock’ that is faithful to him: the Christian community, born from the energy of the Spirit of the resurrected Christ, and united around Peter and the successors of the apostles.”

To better understand the contribution of this book, ZENIT interviewed Tornielli.

Q: At times it seems that Paul VI has been forgotten. Why?

Tornielli: His figure has been crushed between that of his great predecessor, John XXIII, and that of his great successor, John Paul II, elected after the meteoric pontificate of Pope Albino Luciani, John Paul I. Pope Montini lived through a most difficult period in the life of the Church, of the post-council, and he suffered much for the Church itself.

Q: Paul VI is often depicted as indecisive, as victim of a kind of Hamlet complex. Was this so?

Tornielli: In his personal notes, the following thought was found written in his own hand in 1975: “My state of mind? Hamlet? Don Quixote? Left? Right? I don’t feel I have been identified. I am overwhelmed by two prevailing sentiments: ‘Superabundo gaudio.’ I am full of consolation, penetrated with joy.”

He was a Pope who knew how to steer the Church in tragic times, and knew how to suffer, “penetrated with joy.”

Q: He is remembered, rather, as the Pope of dialogue with the modern world.

Tornielli: I think it is right to remember him so, so long as one understands, in his writings, what he understood as dialogue. In his programmatic encyclical “Ecclesiam Suam,” it can be seen that for Paul VI dialogue was nothing other than the ceaseless desire to communicate the Gospel to the modern world.

Q: What is the legacy that Paul VI left the Church and the world?

Tornielli: I think the great legacy of Paul VI has been fully taken up by John Paul II.

Let us recall that Paul VI began the trips across the world; he undertook nine, visiting all the continents. Paul VI initiated ecumenism, an ecumenism of charity, as he called it, an ecumenism made up of gestures and meetings, and not so much of addresses and doctrinal proclamations.

I think that these two elements, together with his yearning to proclaim the Gospel — I repeat, this is how he understood dialogue — are the legacy that John Paul II has taken up and developed, in faithfulness to the indications of Vatican Council II.

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