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Issue 07 – Saint Rose 2021

Historia Ecclesiastica

Blankets of Snow

On Paul IV.


It is something of a wonder that Paul VI does not have a great English biographer. The popular reputation of the saintly pope is a man of psychological complexity, though controlled by events more than controlling them. Who has not heard, most likely at a coffee hour in a dingy church basement, the story of John XXIII calling Cardinal Montini “Our Hamlet”? It is true that Paul VI is not a widely loved figure, nor even, in fairness, a figure with a cult following. But that is no impediment to a great biography in our age. Lytton Strachey, impelled upward by malice, was able to reach the heights of the biographer’s art in his chapter on Cardinal Manning, and I am confident no one ever called Manning “Our Hamlet.”

I mean no disrespect to Peter Hebblethwaite’s biography. His Paul VI was written in the early 1990s and has been reissued since. It covers Paul’s life in great detail, and Hebblethwaite has an eye for moments that reveal something of the man. For example, he recounts Paul’s remarks during an Angelus late in his pontificate (on December 8, 1975), in which Paul rhapsodizes about Our Lady spreading over Rome and not only Rome but the whole world a blanket of her own snow, a snow of “her purity, innocence, and beauty.”

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About the author

Patrick Smith