The canonization of Blessed Paul VI, the pope who masterfully led to its conclusion the Second Vatican Council – convoked a few years earlier by John XXIII – gives us the opportunity to revisit, albeit briefly, some significant moments of the conciliar event at which he was a propeller and tireless mediator in search of consensus and communion among the Council fathers.
Giovanni Battista Montini, Archbishop of Milan, was elected to the papacy on June 21, 1963. According to many Vaticanisti – and not only them – his election was thoroughly unsurprising, although not to be taken for granted. The conclave that elected him after a day and a half of voting consisted of a number of conservative cardinals, mainly Italian and from the Roman Curia, who would have preferred the election of one of their candidates, such as Cardinal Ildebrando Antoniutti from the Italian region of Friuli or Cardinal Francesco Roberti from the region of Le Marche. Instead, the conclave chose a cardinal who actively supported the Council, and would continue with wisdom and foresight the work started by John XXIII. In practical terms, they looked for a moderate cardinal capable of holding together the different spirits in the Council, and this person was quickly identified as the Archbishop of Milan, over against Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro, who was supported by the more progressive wing of the conclave.
For both sides of the conclave and of the Council – which actually were not symmetrical, as conservative cardinals were more numerous in the conclave – Montini was the ideal candidate: he was a residential bishop with pastoral experience and at the same time an accomplished prelate, an expert of the mechanisms of the Roman Curia. In the first conciliar session he had kept a low profile. He had intervened only once in the assembly to criticize from a centrist perspective the scheme on the Church presented by the doctrinal commission presided by Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani. In short, he was close to the views of the so-called progressives – who, from the exploratory vote of October 1963, regarding some essential points of the schema De Ecclesia, became identified as the conciliar majority – but he was also sensitive to the doctrinal reasons of the so-called “conservatives” whose mentality and cultural background he knew well from his time working in the Secretariat of State (1937-54).