The Prophetic Papacy of Paul VI

“Eight days ago I went to Fumona to pay my respects to Celestine V. You know his story. He was a very simple man who mistrusted himself. At the moment of [his] election the Apostolic See had been vacant for twenty-seven months: there were only twelve cardinals left and they could not agree among themselves. Those were terrible times. Pietro di Murrone, a holy hermit, was elected and invited to ascend the chair of Peter. After having hesitated, he accepted from a sense of duty, and made his entry into Aquila on a donkey, like our Lord. But he found there two kings waiting for him.”

“He abdicated,” I responded. “Is that exemplary for a Father? Paternity cannot be renounced.”

“But,” the Pope said, “Celestine found himself duped by his attendants. He had accepted out of duty. The same sense of duty brought about his resignation, not from cowardice, as Dante said, if Dante’s words really refer to Celestine V.”**

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The above conversation may easily mislead some to be a story told by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in one of his interviews, especially in light of his resignation that stunned the world in February 2013 and after he placed his pallium on the casket of Pope St. Celestine V in 2009.

Actually, it’s Pope Paul VI and Jean Guitton in 1966, recounted in Guitton’s Dialogues avec Paul VI (The Pope Speaks). Benedict XVI was not the only pope to pray at the tomb of the tomb of Celestine V—Pope Paul visited the tomb on September 1, 1966 and his tribute address details the story of the election, resignation and exile of “the holy hermit,” who displayed, in Paul’s words, “ma per eroismo di virtu, per sentiment di dovere”—by virtue of heroism, and a sense of duty.

The duty theme would surface more than forty years later when Benedict confided to Peter Seewald in Light of the World: “If a Pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.”

The approval by Pope Francis of the promulgation of the decree for the cause of beatification of Pope Paul VI was announced this past May. On the one hand, this latest move by Francis to raise his papal predecessors to the altars clearly marks a recent papal renaissance: from 1903-2013 there have been nine popes, three of whom are saints (Pius X, John XXIII and John Paul II), one whose potential sainthood has been debated for decades (Pius XII), and another who is on the path towards it (John Paul I). Paul VI’s beatification in October 2014 is only the latest testimony to the papal prowess of the last century.

On the other hand, the pending beatification offers an opportunity to reintroduce the world to the prophetic nature of Giovanni Battista Montini, Paul VI. While the word “prophetic” is sometimes used to describe his final encyclical, Humane Vitae, there are five other areas aside from the Church’s moral teaching found in Humanae Vitae in which Paul VI unlocked the many questions and mysteries surrounding the papacy, its nature and mission in the modern world—the world of the 1960s and 70s, no less. Not only did it fall to Paul to complete and promote Vatican II, it was he who shouldered defining and exemplifying Church teaching and tradition in a world increasingly hostile and alien to it.

Here’s five areas how he did it.

1) The Pilgrim Pope

When Paul VI set course for the Holy Land in the first few days of January 1964, it likely marked the first time a pontiff stepped outside Europe since St. Peter—who, 1900 years earlier, himself came from Jerusalem to Rome. This particular trip to Israel, which today appears rather traditional and expected of a pope—precisely because of Paul VI—caught the world’s attention 50 years ago, the first of numerous instances in which Paul upturned the pervading mentality that the Bishop of Rome was prisoner behind Vatican walls.

So impactful was Paul VI’s journey to the land of Christ, especially his exchange with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Athenagoras II that commemorating the 50th anniversary of their meeting was the primary purpose of Francis’s Holy Land pilgrimage in May 2014. “Fifty years ago, two great church leaders, the late Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, cast out fear; they cast away from themselves the fear which had prevailed for a millennium, a fear which had kept the two ancient Churches, of the West and East,” declared Patriarch Bartholomew with Pope Francis at his side.

By 1970, Paul had ventured into India, the United States, Portugal, Turkey, Colombia, Switzerland, Uganda, West Asia, Oceania and Australia. While John Paul II’s global expeditions remain astounding, the pontiff as “pilgrim pope” was made possible by Paul VI. At the United Nations in New York in 1965, his “no more war, war never again” plea remains both prophetic and a testament to the turmoil of the time, as Vietnam and Cold War threats loomed in the minds of many.

2) Modernizing the Papacy

Volumes and volumes have been written about the changes that transpired in the 1960s both in and outside the Church. As for recognizing the need to update the Vatican and the Church to the changing needs of the times, one may cite any number of liturgical reforms Paul implemented, but a unique example may be in what he did with the venerable papal protection forces.

In The Pope’s Army: 500 Years of the Papal Swiss Guard, author Robert Royal details how Paul VI directed his secretary of state, Cardinal Jean Villot, “to eliminate or to restructure virtually all of the existing papal security forces, with the sole exception of the Swiss Guard.” His intent, as he describes in his own words, was to return to the essential mission of the Church and “ensure that everything that surrounds the successor of Peter should clearly manifest the religious nature of his mission.”

The Swiss Guard, however, remained at the Pope’s side. They had been defending the pope since 1506 and while their function was threatened with extinction after the fall of the Papal States, Paul knew certain traditions were to remain intact—and the values the guards embodied were too valuable to abandon. In Paul’s own experience their presence was vital when he survived an attempt on his life in the Philippines in 1970, 11 years before Ali Agca aimed to gun down John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square.

3) The Interview

Waves have been made of Pope Francis’s interviews that he has freely given to the press, such as the Jesuit interview “A Big Heart Open to God” published in September 2013. And while Benedict made book-length papal interviews a literary genre with his Peter Seewald triptych and John Paul’s Crossing the Threshold of Hope was received with wide acclaim in 1994, it was Paul VI who as both pope and simple priest held ongoing conversations with French thinker and philosopher Jean Guitton chronicled in The Pope Speaks.

In these conversations with his longtime friend, the human aspect of Pope Montini emanates. While not technically the question-and-answer style we have grown accustomed to (and indeed have welcomed as a more personal approach to lofty topics), they nevertheless served as a precedent for future interviews between pope and a collaborative journalist. These chats between Montini and Guitton, read in the context of what would evolve in the decades that ensued, reveal a cultural thinker keenly aware that the changing world around him was not the rustic peace he had known growing up in northern Italy, but that joy and hope were needed to build a “civilization of love.”

At the center of Paul’s interviews is the root of what would become the New Evangelization (a focus capped in 1975 with his own exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi), best summarized by Montini himself to Guitton in 1950: “One has to be at the same time ancient and modern, to speak according to tradition and also to speak taking into account our sensibilities. What purpose would be served by saying what is true, if one does not make it comprehensible to men of today?”

4) The Evil One

“The demons know very well what the Creed says, and they know it is the truth.”

This line comes from a February 2014 homily by Pope Francis in one of his numerous morning sermons at Casa Santa Marta where references to the work of the Evil One are not uncommon. Such language has surprised some of Francis’s admirers, though it remains quite hidden in mainstream reports about him.

In 1972, Paul VI devoted a November General Audience to the existence of evil, “a whole mysterious world, convulsed by a most unfortunate drama about which we know very little.” In this address, the 75-year-old pontiff displays a textbook-style grasp of theology, classical literature and Scripture, but does not hesitate to speak about the “very obvious signs of the Evil One.” Nine years already into his papacy, having survived a tumultuous decade of cultural revolution and upheaval, the aging pontiff seemed unafraid to do battle one more time:

People are afraid of falling back […] into frightening deviations of fancy and superstition. Nowadays they prefer to appear strong and unprejudiced to pose as positivists, while at the same time lending faith to many unfounded magical or popular superstitions or, worse still, exposing their souls—their baptized souls, visited so often by the Eucharistic Presence and inhabited by the Holy Spirit!—to licentious sensual experiences and to harmful drugs, as well as to the ideological seductions of fashionable errors. These are cracks through which the Evil One can easily penetrate and change the human mind.

More than 40 years later following the delivery of Paul’s General Audience, it is one thing to note Francis’s steady references to the presence and power of the Evil One as “interesting” or “surprising.” It’s another thing to take serious what he is preaching and warning about, especially in light of the similar words spoken by the man he will beatify in October.

5) Resignation

As early as 1966, upon visiting the tomb of Pope St. Celestine V, the last (to date) of the Celestine popes who resigned out of duty, speculation quickly arose that Giovanni Battista Montini would himself do the unthinkable. In Peter Hebblethwaite’s sprawling 1993 biography, Paul VI: The First Modern Pope, questions over a possible resignation were put to rest by indicators that Pope Paul could not resign because, in the same way that his successor John Paul II later saw it, “He can’t come down from his cross.”

Interestingly, his September trip to the Celestine tomb was a follow-up to a previous pope’s expedition to the same site—Paul’s mentor Pius XII also visited the tomb in 1948. Was there an unacknowledged script popes were following to pray for Celestine V’s intercession and protection in their ministry, so misunderstood in a world increasingly resistant to their message? At any rate, even if Paul VI contemplated resignation and life in Monte Cassino, he had decided at some point that he would not be the one to do it.

But yet he had showed that it could be done, out of duty and service to Christ and His Church. And so it fell to Benedict XVI to do what so many popes had likely thought. The work leading up to the Year of Faith 2012-2013 had been done. He had celebrated the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II. Benedict seemed to signal that a pope was only a man, that the One who stayed on the cross was Christ, and a pope need not be a martyr to carry out his service. With Benedict’s “Declaratio,” a gateway to a new voice to be heard was opened, and the world was startled to find they were ready—indeed, hungry—to hear that voice.

On the other hand, Paul remains a conflicted figure, weighed down by criticism of his choices and indecision that dogged the second half of his papacy. After Humanae Vitae in 1968, he wrote no further encyclicals. After 1970, he made no further travels at home or abroad. It is generally agreed that Paul VI ran out of steam in the 1970s, limping into the summer of 1978, finally succumbing to death on the Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6. While Humanae Vitae has garnered acclaim over time, the theological dissent—including the internal belittling of Humanae Vitae—and the confusion that followed resulted in a widespread crisis of faith, its consequences both immediate but also prevalent to this day, particularly affecting those born after Paul’s peak years and the role Catholicism has failed to play in their lives.

Paul VI’s 15-year pontificate, in his quest “to speak according to tradition and to speak according to the times” is in major need of rediscovery. It has now been 36 years since his death and with the pilgrim pope approaching beatification, the one who shouldered the ever ancient, ever new Church during the 1960s and 1970s deserves new consideration.

“Become what you are,” Jean Guitton is to have quoted Paul VI saying. “Be better. Be more. Be better still. Remain the same, but at a higher level, a greater depth.”

** Author’s note: The Dante reference is Canto III, lines 58-60 in the Inferno: “After I had identified a few,/I saw and recognized the shade of him/who made, through cowardice, the great refusal.”

Editor’s note: Pictured above is Pope Paul VI conferring the cardinal’s hat on Karol Wojtyla in 1967. (Photo credit: AP)


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