In the 40 years since his death in August 1978, Pope St. Paul VI has been viewed in various lights: as a prophet in regard to the predictions he made concerning the consequences of widespread contraceptive use in Humanae Vitae; as a messenger in continuing and promulgating the work of the Second Vatican Council and upholding the Tradition of the Church; as a pilgrim in making apostolic visits around the world; and as a peacemaker in beginning the work towards reconciliation with the Orthodox church and other Christian communities.

Set to be declared a saint by Pope Francis later this year, Paul VI’s legacy has positively impacted the Church, but among his contemporaries, his significance was far less certain.

Yet, he suffered in the public eye by comparison with his charismatic predecessor. If Pope St. John XXIII’s image was summed up in a word, it might be “charming.” But the word for Paul would be “dutiful.” Although doing one’s duty has much to recommend it, it’s no match for charm in the popularity race.

Also dogging Paul was a certain hesitancy when it came to making hard decisions, which caused some people to liken him to Hamlet, Shakespeare’s indecisive prince of Denmark. Pope John seemed to make decisions without worrying too much. In Paul’s case, it was harder, perhaps reflecting internal tension between his own progressive and conservative leanings.

Pope in training

Giovanni Battista Montini was born Sept. 26, 1897, in Concesio, a town near the northern city of Brescia.

The shy, bookish young man entered the seminary in 1916 and was ordained in 1920. He then studied in Rome at the Gregorian University, La Sapienza University and, by invitation, the Accademia dei Nobili Ecclesiastici — the training school for Vatican diplomats.

In 1922, he joined the staff of the Secretariat of State, working there with other young priests, including Alfredo Ottaviani, future prefect of the Holy Office, and Francis Spellman of Boston, a future archbishop of New York. After serving briefly at the nunciature in Warsaw, he returned to the secretariat while also teaching diplomatic history at the Accademia.

In 1937, he was named substitute (assistant) secretary of state under Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli. After the cardinal became Pope Pius XII, he continued in that position, and for the next decade and a half he functioned as a top official of the Secretariat of State while also in effect serving as private secretary to Pope Pius, whom he deeply admired.

During World War II, he established a Vatican office to assist prisoners of war and refugees — in time, it fielded nearly 10 million requests for help — and also coordinated efforts to shelter Jews and refugees in parishes, convents and church schools. Some 15,000 lived at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo alone.

In November 1954, the pope named him archbishop of the giant Archdiocese of Milan. In December 1958, Pope John XXIII elevated him to the College of Cardinals.

Hearing of Pope John’s plan to convene an ecumenical council, he was by no means enthusiastic.

“This holy old boy doesn’t realize what a hornet’s nest he’s stirring up,” he is said to have remarked privately.

But he was a major figure at Vatican II’s first session, drawing up a plan that helped rescue the council from confusion and provide it with a sense of direction.

Pope for the world

On June 21, 1963, at the conclave following Pope John’s death, Cardinal Montini was elected to succeed him — apparently on the fifth ballot. Almost his first action as pope was to declare that the ecumenical council would continue.

His credentials for the papacy were peerless. As a close collaborator of Pius XII, he had unsurpassed knowledge of the structures and personalities of the Church. His years in Milan had given him hands-on experience governing one of the world’s premier sees. Now he seemed poised for a pontificate of historic significance.

And it really did have its high points, especially in his travels — a historic meeting in Jerusalem in January 1964 with Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I, followed by further steps to heal the centuries-old divisions between Catholicism and the Orthodox Churches; and his dramatic October 1965 visit to the United Nations where he electrified the world with a moving address in which he cried out “Never again war.” He was the first pope to travel outside of Italy in over 100 years, visiting 20 countries and setting the stage for the world travels of Popes St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis.

Another highlight was the triumphant close of the ecumenical council in December 1965, after he had guided it through the final three of its sometimes turbulent four sessions to a conclusion holding out bright hopes for the future.

The year 1967 brought a major social encyclical, Populorum Progressio (“On the Development of Peoples”), strongly aligning the Church with Third World concerns. The encyclical pointed to a threefold duty of wealthy nations, summed up as mutual solidarity (“the aid that the richer countries must give to developing nations”), social justice (“the rectification of trade relations between strong and weak nations”) and universal charity (“the effort to build a more humane world community, where all can give and receive and where the progress of some is not bought at the expense of others”) (No. 44).

Almost from the start, however, Pope Paul seemed to sense of something darker ahead. “The post is unique,” he wrote privately of the papacy soon after his election. “I was solitary before, but now my solitariness becomes complete and awesome. … [M]y duty is to plan, decide, assume every responsibility for guiding others. … And to suffer alone.”

Light in the darkness

When he came to office, a commission — originally established by Pope John to study the population question — had been discussing the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception for several years. Would the Church accept the pill or allow other methods of contraception?

Encouraged by people eager for change, speculation mounted while Pope Paul studied the arguments and prayed. Then, on July 25, 1968, the encyclical Humanae Vitae appeared, repeating the condemnation of all forms of contraception that had long been part of the Church’s teaching and declaring, “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” In reaching this conclusion, Paul VI challenged a dogma of the mid-century sexual revolution. Widespread dissent by theologians and others greeted Humanae Vitae.

Meanwhile, there were other signs that all was not well in the Church. Priests and nuns were already leaving the priesthood and religious life by the thousands. New vocations dropped precipitously. Conflict and dissent spread from contraception to fundamental tenets of faith. Changes in the liturgy beyond anything envisaged by the ecumenical council alienated many. So did eccentric liturgical experiments with balloons and clowns.

And the burden lay squarely on the shoulders of this conscientious, sensitive pope.

In a homily preached on June 29, 1972, the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, he suggested a startling explanation for what was happening. “From some fissure,” he said, “the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God.” Something diabolical had come on the scene “to disturb, to suffocate the fruits of the ecumenical council.”

Yet, Paul VI never lost hope. In the midst of these darker days of his pontificate, he penned the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (“On the Proclamation of the Gospel”), reiterating the Church’s role as being a light to the world in proclaiming the truth and grace of Christ.

Pope Paul’s last days bordered on tragedy. Left-wing radicals kidnapped and brutally murdered his old friend Aldo Moro, a leader of Italy’s Christian Democratic Party, despite a public plea by the pope for his release. Presiding at Moro’s funeral in the Basilica of St. John Lateran was Paul’s last public act.

While resting at Castel Gandolfo, the ailing pope suffered a massive heart attack. He died on Aug. 6, 1978. “Am I Hamlet or Don Quixote?” he once asked in private notes. Perhaps the answer was a bit of both. Pope Francis beatified him on Oct. 19, 2014, and declared him a saint on Oct. 14, 2018. His feast day is May 29. As his admirers see it, with his canonization, Paul VI received his due at last.

Russell Shaw is an Our Sunday Visitor contributing editor. A version of this article originally was published in Our Sunday Visitor, and this is the eighth in a 2018 series looking at the Church’s 12 most recent popes and the marks they’ve made on the Church.