Memories of Paul VI

Author: Most Rev. Jacques Martin


Most Rev. Jacques Martin
Prefect of the Pontifical Household

My memories of Paul VI are first of all memories of Monsignor Montini.

When, as young priest in 1936, I entered the service of the Holy See, Monsignor Montini held the post of "primo minutante" (chief drafter of documents) of the Secretariat of State. Of this he soon became Sostituto, that is the principal person in charge, before becoming in later years Pro-Secretary of State to Pius XII. Thus it was that for about twenty years, up to his departure in 1955 for the archbishopric of Milan, I had the honour to work directly under his orders.

The impression that he made on all can be summed-up in one word. One expected that the function would dominate the man; with astonishment, one discovered the contrary: the man dominated the function. One dreaded that one might have to deal with a bureaucrat, at best with a diplomat: one discovered a priest and a friend.

Harassed by visitors, telephone calls, instructions to be given to staff, briefs to be prepared for a papal audience, the Sostituto paid the utmost attention to the person who was speaking to him; even if this were the most junior of his collaborators. I remember him returning from an audience with Pius XII. Under his arm was a mountain of papers which he tranquilly began to distribute among the employees. Someone of us, taken aback by this serenity, timidly hasarded: "But Excellency, your waiting room is full of people who are waiting..." The reply came, calm but definite: "The Pope first of all - then the service of the Pope"! It is not necessary to say that he later received his visitors with such cordiality that they forgot the long wait and left, after the interview, won over in outlook and in heart.

His capacity for work was astonishing. When we, simple employees, used leave the office about 8 p.m., having placed our work on the Sostituto's desk, our day was ended. For him, practically another was beginning, for he drove himself for long hours through the silence of the night. To the late stroller who found himself in St Peter's Square around midnight an interesting sight was to be seen: while the Vatican lay plunged in darkness and in sleep, along the immense facade of the apostolic palace only two windows emitted a ray of light: that of Pope Pius XII and that of the Sostituto Montini.

It was alongside Pius XII that Monsignor Montini experienced the drama of the second world war. The volumes published, through the care of the Secretariat of State, on "The Holy See and the World War" have revealed the breadth of action unfolded by the Holy See, both on the level of diplomacy and that of charity, in order to save so many innocents from death; in order to relieve so many who were starving (including Romans); in order to organise an immense system of exchange of news between prisoners and their families; in order to safeguard the impartiality of the Holy See between the pressures of the opposition between the "Allied" Countries and the "Axis" Powers; and in order successively to lodge their representatives on the narrow territory of The Vatican.

For me, a moving memory attaches itself to the tragic days of June 1940. At the same time as they were invading Belgium and Holland, the German armour, overcoming the Maginot line, pushed towards Paris which they entered on the 14th. On this evening, despite the emotions and fatigues of the day, Monsignor Montini would not go to sleep without first writing to his young French collaborator the following letter which manifests clearly the nobility and the delicacy of this soul:

"Reverend and dear Friend, I did not have time today to see you and to speak with you about the very severe ordeal that your great Country is undergoing at this moment. I should have liked to tell you how close I am to you and how I pray that the Lord may change the bitter sufferings of your Homeland into blessings for itself, for the Church, for the world. I wish and hope that it will be so, and I tell it to you most sincerely that you may know also the friendship of yours most sincerely, J.B. Montini".

In December 1954, Monsignor Montini was raised to the episcopate and named Archbishop of Milan. For many, he was the future Pope. Nevertheless, strangely enough, Pius XII, during the almost four years of life remaining to him, did not bring him into the Sacred College, in this way excluding him from the immediate succession. Pope John was perfectly aware of this when he placed him at the head of the first group of Cardinals promoted by him. 0n the eve of the consistory, Monsignor Montini was received in private audience, and with his customary humility, prostrated himself to kiss the new Pope's foot. "Excellency, what are you doing?" exclaimed Pope John, compelling him to raise himself up, "you know well that if you had received the purple some months earlier, it is you who would be here in my place today, and I who would kiss your foot!"

What many awaited and would have desired since 1958 became fact five years later. On 21 June 1963 Cardinal Montini was raised to the tiara.

This pontificate was to hold more than one surprise in store for the author of these lines. The first was being sent with Monsignor Macchi, private secretary of the new pontiff, on a secret mission to prepare for the first of the great voyages which were to reveal Paul VI to the world and which were to give a new look to the pontifical function. For centuries the Pope had not left Italy. From 1870 until the Lateran Pacts of 1929, he had not left the Vatican. John XXIII himself, bold innovator as he was, had not dared to go beyond Assisi and Loreto. And suddenly Paul VI darts off to the homeland of Christ which, curiously enough, was not yet known to him personally.

After the preparation of the voyage, its realisation held a new surprise in store for me. Renewing the deed of Christ who called his apostles along by the lake of Genesareth, Paul VI had awaited this place and this moment in order himself to make the announcement to his humble collaborator of his elevation to the episcopate.

Finally, a third surprise. In 1969 he committed to me the Prefecture of the Pontifical Household, involving the organisation of the papal audiences and ceremonies. It was especially by reason of this that it was granted to me frequently to come close to Paul VI and day after day to appreciate the extraordinary quality of this pontiff's soul.

I should like first of all to point out his fidelity in friendship, that "memory of the heart" which enchanted his entourage. He was Pope for scarcely a month, and one can imagine the flood of business with which he was beset; yet he remembered that the 25th of July was the feast of St Jacques and had sent to me a message of greeting inscribed by him at the bottom of a photograph.

One can say that this attention shown to the members of his entourage was extended by him to all those whom he met. One of his constant cares, on the occasion of private audiences, was the preparation of presents that he desired to present as souvenirs to his visitors.

Public audiences, which in recent times had taken on gigantic proportions (ten, twelve, fifteen thousand people each Wednesday at the high season!) provided an astonishing spectacle for those who accompanied him! As he gradually advanced, carried upon the sedia (which, like his predecessors, he had to use to be seen by all), the countenances lit up on his way; one would have said that a current was flowing, a kind of fluid, a wave of happiness which was reflected in the eyes, in the smiles, at times in the tears of emotion of all these faces turned towards him.

His journeys brought us the same surprise, enlarged to the scale of thousands of encounters. They also enabled us to realise each time the fortitude that he needed to undertake these long tours, and his capacity of resisting fatigue. Just think of the continual changes of climate and of time lags, of the length of certain ceremonies (ordination of hundreds of priests!), of the number of discourses that every journey necessarily involved. He could not go into a country, as is obvious, without being received by the civil authorities. The Diplomatic Corps, the representatives of non-catholic communities or of certain ethnic groups (Aboriginals in Australia ... ) wished to be presented to him. Meetings were generally provided for the bishops, the priests, the religious, sometimes for children, always for the journalists ... : several discourses each day, and generally in a language that was not his own!

It will be necessary also to speak of the moral energy with which he faced the crisis in the Church after the Second Vatican Council, and the suffering that it caused to him ...

One cannot say everything. In conclusion, we cite a characteristic of which we, the intimates of Paul VI, were often witnesses and which seemed to belie a countenance apparently rather austere: the very subtle humour with which his conversation was spiced.

When distributing to priests the book containing the sermons preached before him by Father Loew during the annual retreat, he commented: "It is a book that sells well. Everybody wants to know how to go about converting the Pope"!  To a prelate departing on a mission to a cold country, he made this unexpected recommendation: "Remember Tartarin of Tarascon: cover yourself with glory, but also ... with flannel!" And when I presented him with a list that was slightly too filled with audiences for the following day, he smilingly commented: "There is only one thing lacking, at the end: the Pope's funeral!"

The Pope's funeral! We have suddenly arrived at it ... and we have no longer any desire to smile. We see only too well that it is in part the necessary consequence of overwork and fatigue that this man daily. imposed upon himself; devoured as he was by a keen awareness of his responsibility and by the extreme sensitivity with which he endured and made his own the sufferings of the Church and of mankind.

May these few memories, picked out hastily over the tomb as yet scarcely closed, be able to help to gauge better the worth of the gift that God made to his Church in giving it such a Head, and of him of whom he now deprives us in calling him back to himself!

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
31 Aug 1978, page 9

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