THE POPE OF THE COUNCIL: POPE SAINT PAUL VI
Born Giovanni Battista Enrico Antonio Maria Montini, Italian: (26 September 1897 - 6 August 1978)
When we look to this great Pope, this courageous Christian, this tireless apostle, we cannot but say in the sight of God a word as simple as it is heartfelt and important: Thanks! Thanks! Thank you, our dear and beloved Pope Paul VI! Thank you for your humble and prophetic witness of love for Christ and his Church! - Pope Francis, Beatification of Pope Paul VI, 19. October, 2014
It is well known that Pope Francis has great admiration and devotion to the person and the legacy of Pope Paul VI. Unlike his immediate predecessors who were directly involved in the Second Vatican Council: John Paul I, Saint John Paul II, and Benedict XVI (who was a theological expert), Pope Francis (Jorge Mario Bergoglio) was not. It was his experience of the Church and its Pope after the Council, that deeply shaped and moved the mind and heart of the future Pope Francis and brought him to understand that the sufferings of Paul VI, for the Church and the world were worthy of emulation and respect.
Born in 1897, Paul VI experienced first-hand many of the most turbulent events of the twentieth century and the total reconfiguration of the world which they created. He served the Church as a diplomat, Vatican official, Secretary of State for Pope Pius XII, Archbishop of Milan during the reign of Saint John XXIII, and eventually Pope. Above all it was Saint Paul VI who inherited the unfinished work of the Second Vatican Council. The Council was divided between those who felt the Council of Trent had defined the “culture” of Catholicism forever and those who wanted to create a “new” Church that payed little attention to Tradition. Under his guidance the Council preserved the “deposit of faith” handed down by Tradition while at the same time embraced the emerging Third World as it shed the shackles of colonialism and isolation, affirmed the right of the Eastern Catholic Churches to be fully Eastern, reached out to new areas of missionary activity, began dialogues with other Christian communities and non-Christian religions, and addressed a modern world that was rapidly moving towards secularism, relativism, and skepticism.
After the Council, Saint Paul VI was often criticized within and outside the Church, as being too liberal from the mouths of those on the right and too conservative by those on the left. He was critical of the proliferation of nuclear arms, lobbied for ending the Vietnam War, defended the Church’s teaching against abortion and contraception, was stabbed in Portugal, was the first reigning Pope to visit the United States of America, and near the end of his life mourned the death of his close friend, the former Prime Minister of Italy, Aldo Moro who was savagely murdered by the anarchist Red Brigade terrorist movement. Saint Paul VI explained his ministry this way:
“Perhaps the Lord has called me and preserved me for this service not because I am particularly fit for it, or so that I can govern and rescue the Church from her present difficulties, but so that I can suffer something for the Church, and in that way it will be clear that he, and no other, is her guide and savior” (P. Macchi, Paolo VI nella sua parola, Brescia, 2001, pp. 120-121).
Having lived through two World Wars, Papa Montini as he was often called by Italians, was a great advocate of peace. In his first Encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, written in 1964, he shares with the Council Fathers that part of his ministry as Holy Father will be the promotion of world peace. He writes:
“What we cannot, however, fail to mention here is the fact that We are acutely conscious of Our duty to pay particular attention to the serious problem of world peace. It is a problem which demands Our continuous personal involvement and practical concern, exercised of course within the limits of Our own ministry and entirely divorced from any set political theory and from considerations of Our own personal and purely temporal advantage…. Our mission is to bring men together in mutual love through the power of that kingdom of justice and peace which Christ inaugurated by His coming into the world.” (Pope Paul VI, Ecclesiam Suam, n.16, 1964)
Saint Paul VI suffered greatly in the world media after the promulgation of his last Encyclical Humanae Vitae of 1968. So great was the criticism that he never wrote another Encyclical Letter, not wanting to subject this most important form of Papal teaching to such condemnation. By the 1960s the media was already equipped to distort the news by slanted sound-bites. In the case of this prophetic Encyclical on Human Dignity and Procreation, the world media reduced its content to “Pope bans the pill”. In fact the Holy Father, after considering the final recommendations of the committee formed many years before by Saint John XXIII to address the issues of procreation, contraception and abortion, keeping close attention to the growing desire of Prime Minister Indira Ghandi in India to create a program of mass sterilization, and reflecting on the growth of devaluation of the human person around the world. He produced a masterful work of human affirmation, from conception until natural death and eternal life. He writes the following in response to those (such as was the case in India at the time) of those governments who seek to alleviate poverty through contraception and abortion:
“We are fully aware of the difficulties confronting the public authorities in this matter, especially in the developing countries. In fact, We had in mind the justifiable anxieties which weigh upon them when We published Our encyclical letter Populorum Progressio. But now We join Our voice to that of Our predecessor John XXIII of venerable memory, and We make Our own his words: "No statement of the problem and no solution to it is acceptable which does violence to man's essential dignity; those who propose such solutions base them on an utterly materialistic conception of man himself and his life. The only possible solution to this question is one which envisages the social and economic progress both of individuals and of the whole of human society, and which respects and promotes true human values." No one can, without being grossly unfair, make divine Providence responsible for what clearly seems to be the result of misguided governmental policies, of an insufficient sense of social justice, of a selfish accumulation of material goods, and finally of a culpable failure to undertake those initiatives and responsibilities which would raise the standard of living of peoples and their children.” (Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, n.23, 1968)
This long suffering Pope, this Successor of Peter who steered the Church through rough waters, this Apostle of Peace has been found worthy to be numbered among the Saints of the Church. May our remembrance end with these words he addressed to the American people near the end of his homily during the Eucharistic Liturgy at Yankee Stadium in 1965:
“You must serve the cause of peace. Serve it, and not make use of it for aims other than the true aims of peace. Serve it, and not use this noble standard as a cover for cowardice or selfishness, which refuses to make sacrifices for the common good; not debilitate and pervert the spirit, by evading the call of duty and seeking one’s own interests and pleasure. Peace is not a state which can be acquired and made permanent. Peace must be built; it must be built up every day by works of peace. These works of peace are, first of all, social order; then, aid to the poor, who still make up an immense multitude of the world population, aid to the needy, the weak, the sick, the ignorant. Peace must be like a garden, in which public and private beneficence cultivates the choicest flowers of friendship, of solidarity, of charity and love.” (Pope Paul VI, Homily at Yankee Stadium, New York, 1965)
Pope Saint Paul VI, Pray for Us.
(Rev.) David A. Fisher