By Renzo Allegri
Paul VI will be beatified by Pope Francis on Sunday at 10:30 am in Saint Peter’s Square, during the closing Mass of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family.
Born in Brescia on September 26, 1897, Giovanni Battista Enrico Antonio Maria Montini belonged to a bourgeois family. His father, Giorgio Montini, was a lawyer and, for several years, director of the Catholic newspaper “Il Cittadino di Brescia” [“The Citizen of Brescia”]. During three legislatures, he was a deputy in the Italian Parliament in Don Sturzo’s party. Giovanni Battista had two brothers: Ludovico, a lawyer and politician, and Francesco, a doctor.
Montini was elected Pope on June 21, 1963, succeeding John XXIII. He was on Peter’s throne until August 6, 1978, when he died in Castel Gandolfo at age 80.
He is one of history’s great Popes – not very popular among the greater public, because he is little known. By nature he was humble and reserved, and to many he seemed “cold and calculating,” “a detached intellectual.” However, those who had the good fortune to see him up close and to know him, thought otherwise of him. He was a very affable man, sensitive and extremely cultured, generous, and ready to do things with total discretion and as a gift. He was a man of very great affection, a cultivator of friendship.
“A life of friendship is a second life,” he said. Jean Guitton, the famous French academic, who was his friend, described him as “an aristocrat of the spirit, a real artist.”
Historians agree in stating that his importance in the world is due to his learning, his very valuable documents, including social ones, and to his being the helmsman of Vatican II, which made him gigantic. They have described him as a “Pope of the Church,” a “Pope of humanity,” a “Pope of Peace.” He was the Pope who inaugurated the “itinerant ministry,” exalted later by Karol Wojtyla. Paul VI undertook nine pilgrimages outside of Italy, outstanding among which was his trip to the Holy Land in 1964. No Pontiff, other than Saint Peter, had ever been in the land of Jesus’ birth.
Because he was humble and reserved, he never had great mass popularity, which affects people who look for worldwide visibility, as generally happens with Popes. From a human point of view, little is known of the private person of Giovanni Battista Montini. As a journalist, over the years I have become interested in him, interviewing those who knew him and were close to him, and discovering increasingly unknown details that fascinated me.
In 1968, I learned that Paul VI’s elementary school teacher was still alive. The one who taught him how to write, to read, and who opened to him the world of learning. I found out where he was and went to see him.
His name was Ezechiele Malizia. He lived in Camignone, in the province of Brescia. It was the month of September, and Mr. Malizia had just celebrated his 89thbirthday, but he looked like 70. He had a lucid mind, a wonderful smile and his pipe lit and always in his mouth. When he spoke he enunciated all words clearly, always seeking the most appropriate wording. He recalled meticulously the events he witnessed during his long life and recounted them in great detail. He walked unhampered, without being tired, and when he lit his pipe or put a glass of wine to his lips, his hand was as steady as that of a youth.
“I was 24 years old when Giambattista Montini’s mother took me to her son who was to start his first year of elementary school,” Ezechiele Malizia told me. He was a teacher in the Arici School in Brescia. He knew the Montini family because he had also had as a pupil Giovanni Battista’s eldest brother, Ludovico. “The future Pope was with me for his first and second year of elementary school.”
The questions I asked him in the course of our long conversion were the logical ones for that circumstance. I asked him how Giambattista behaved in school, if he was good, intelligent, disciplined and if, perhaps, one could intuit at that time that he would have an ecclesiastical career.
Ezechiele Malizia surprised me stating categorically: “Oh no, I would never have thought that he would become a priest and later Pope. Sixty-five years exactly have passed since I saw him for the first time. And, after so much time, it’s not easy to remember everything. However, I have never forgotten little Giambattista. And do you know why? Because he was outstanding among all — and not for being a quiet boy. He was a mischievous little one, very thin, skeletal; he seemed restless. He was very vivacious, of a vivacity that was almost worrying. His mother confided this to me when she brought him to the school. She was afraid no one would be able to stop him. I must say that it was hard for me too, so much so that, to keep him quiet and to have him pay attention in class, I felt obliged to have him sit in the front row, in front of the blackboard: so he was continually under control. “
“At that time, children started classes at nine o’clock in the morning and left at midday; they would return at 2:00 pm and go home at 4:00 pm. There was no pause during the classes. I was the first to transgress this regulation and to take my pupils, after one hour and a half of class, to the school’s patio so that by playing, they could get rid of their tension and then pay more attention. I also played with them. Giambattista was one of the most unruly. I let him run like a spinning top, to get rid of his energy, and then he paid attention in the classroom.”
“I would say that the results were excellent, at least that’s how they were judged by Giambattista’s mother who later, to thank me, invited me for one week to her villa in Verola Vecchina. I think that Giambattista also realized that the method I used was right for him.”
“I never saw Giambattista again after elementary school, but he didn’t forget me. When he was elected Pope, I went to see him and he, recalling his time in elementary school, said to me: ‘Dear teacher, do you remember when you pulled my ears because I was always distracted?’”
“I was overwhelmed and embarrassed. I didn’t think the Pope would remember me. However, he was very affable. He continued talking and remembering and, I was so affected that I thought I was asleep and dreaming. I stayed with the Pope for more than half an hour. And, at a certain moment he put a necklace on the neck with a coat-of-arms and he said some things to me. I didn’t understand anything. When I left, the Monsignors who had accompanied me called me ‘Commander.’ I found out what it was all about and learned that, in giving me that necklace, the Pope had appointed me Knight ‘Commander of Saint Sylvester.’”
“I couldn’t believe it. “I, Commander! — the summit for me, who am the son of a peasant. Until he was 20, my father worked for the Duco Counts. Then he left, to fight with the army of Victor Emmanuel II. He took part in the campaigns of 1859, 1860, and 1861. He began as a simple soldier and returned home with the grade of captain. During the War, in 1915 I wanted to imitate my father. I was an only son and therefore exempt from military service, but I joined as a volunteer. I also returned home with the grade of captain. They are glories of the family to which I have always been very united; however, the honor that the Pope gave me, recalling the days of his childhood when he came to school and I “pulled his ears,” so that he would pay attention and not make a mistake when writing the letters of the alphabet, is the honorific title of which I am proudest.”