Putting Pope Paul VI on the path to sainthood struck some as a surprise. Born as Giovanni Battista Montini, Pope Paul brought the Second Vatican Council to conclusion, and was often--and inconsistently--perceived as either ineffectual or obstructionist--a “Hamlet” suffering in the Vatican as a confused Catholic Church suffered throughout the world.
Those on the path to sainthood are challenging figures because they call us not only to assess their times and context but also to reflect upon our own. For contemporary Catholicism-assertive yet increasingly unpopular in America and Europe--Paul VI is an important figure for considering where Catholicism has come in the last fifty years and where it might go in the future. Pope Paul is also an important figure for me personally: He was the first Pope that I remember when I saw Catholicism through a child’s eyes.
When Benedict XVI proclaimed Paul VI as “venerable,” he was attesting to Pope Paul’s “heroic virtues.” Virtue is first and foremost an internal state that reflects a person’s relationship with God. But virtue has external expressions, and what is being acknowledged is how Pope Paul’s virtues were expressed during his pontificate. One of the key concerns of Pope Benedict XVI has been establishing an overarching narrative of Vatican II. Benedict has spoken repeatedly against interpretations of the Council that emphasize “rupture” as opposed to “continuity.” His point is that Vatican II was fully consistent with the councils that preceded it. Recent Vatican efforts to “reform” the “reform of the liturgy,” or to promote “The New Evangelization” have much of their source in this effort to effect and ensure a correct understanding of the council, particularly in America and Western Europe where Vatican II’s legacy is still very much contested.
And so, Paul VI has now joined his mentor Pius XII as venerable, and a case is pending concerning the heroic virtues of his immediate successor, John Paul I. John XXIII is blessed and John Paul II will almost certainly be proclaimed a saint in coming years. An official narrative of Catholicism in the latter half of the 20th century is becoming fixed: it is a narrative that emphasizes unity and continuity in doctrine and papal governance, with Vatican II as a moment of renewal, not of revolution.
Beyond specific considerations of Vatican II, Paul VI’s influence continues to be felt. Pope Benedict XVI’s condemnations of economic greed echo themes in Pope Paul’s 1967 encyclical Populorum Progresso . Pope Paul’s teaching has also become foundational for proclaiming “the culture of life” that has been an important part of Catholic assertiveness in recent decades. Of course, Paul VI was the author of Humanae Vitae , the encyclical that reaffirmed Catholic teaching prohibiting artificial forms of contraception, while permitting natural “spacing” of births. It is particularly interesting that a miracle now being investigated credits Pope Paul’s intercession for the healing of a child in the womb--a child whom doctors thought should be aborted. The symbolism of the miraculous protection of unborn life has powerful resonances for those who wish to renew Humanae Vitae’s teaching as distinguishing mark of Catholicism in today’s day and age.
When I saw Pope Paul in 1976, I hadn’t read Humanae Vitae--it was a little too mature for me. But I did follow the Pope, which is why I begged my parents to take me to St. Peter’s where I insisted that we attend, uninvited, the Papal Christmas mass. On a double-decker Roman bus, I was given tickets by a kind and perceptive nun who appreciated my zeal-and my manners when I offered her a seat. Even though I was young, I did know that Pope Paul VI had kissed the feet of the representative of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople in an unprecedented act of humility; and I did know about Paul VI’s speech at the UN in which he memorably said, “No more war, never again war!” He also dispensed with the papal tiara, and laid it upon the altar to renounce papal claims to worldly power.
For me, Pope Paul VI’s was a figure of gentleness, an embodiment of the kindness that I experienced in the Catholicism of my youth. Of course, I saw Paul’s kindness from a distance, through a child’s eyes that reflected out what was immediately around me. Those who knew the pope personally, like Archbishop Rembert Weakland, have written more specifically about his kindness, and his sensitivity to interpersonal relationships. These qualities find eloquent expression in Pope Paul’s Last Will and Testament. The text itself is a meditation on “Divine kindness,” and is filled with gratitude to those who “were mediators of the gifts of life” that God had bestowed. From those he had “failed to serve or failed to love enough,” the pope asked pardon. The sense emerging from the document is of a church bound together by ties of love and service. As for himself, the pope wrote that he had decided to die poor: “no monument for me.”
Childhood memories are tricky things, of course. And there are many who remember Catholicism of the 1970s with far less fondness than I. And it is obviously the case that no Roman pontiff holds sway over the specifics of Catholic life at every time and place. But I do credit Pope Paul VI for setting a context in the Catholic Church that allowed me to ask seemingly impertinent questions about what being Catholic meant and could mean. In return for asking these questions, I received kindness and understanding--and responses that neither compromised the depth of Catholic teaching nor failed to appreciate the complexity of human experience.
I hope that those who are young now approach the Catholic Church of today with the inquisitive enthusiasm that I did back then. But for those who struggle with a Catholicism that appears to be less than kind, and for those who have experienced the anger that characterizes too much of contemporary Catholic life, I would recommend looking to Pope Paul VI and considering what his virtues might teach us about being Catholic in the heady days of Vatican II and in our own no less challenging time.
Schmalz writes and teaches in the fields of Comparative Religions and South Asian Studies at the College of the Holy Cross. He also writes on Catholic spirituality.