|An Encyclical that defines a Pontificate
Forty years have passed since that 6 August 1964, the Feast of the
Transfiguration of Jesus on which Paul VI promulgated his first
Encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam. The Transfiguration was a decisive date
in the life of Pope Montini which ended that very feast day in 1978, 14
years after the publication of his Encyclical.
Ecclesiam Suam contained the programme of the Pontificate, even
if the Second Vatican Council had not yet ended. It is a text of great
Perhaps the 40th anniversary of this Encyclical has not been given
enough emphasis. Yet the topics addressed by Ecclesiam Suam are
also relevant for the Pontificate of John Paul II and for the Church of
the 21st century.
Some of the Encyclicals of the contemporary Popes are destined to serve
as reference points: this is the case of Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum
(celebrated not only by scholars but also by Popes), and John XXIII's
Pacem in Terris. For the 40th anniversary of John XXIII's Encyclical
on peace, due to the pressure of the military events in the Middle East,
frequent reference has been made to this very text.
In my opinion, Ecclesiam Suam is one of those ever-timely
Encyclicals. It is not, as some have hastily affirmed, the manifesto of a
Church in transition from a monologue to dialogue, but a text full of
prospects for a Church eager to evangelize and to live in the midst of the
many forms of "otherness" of the contemporary world.
For Paul Vl, "dialogue" is not a line of policy, for he affirms: "This
relationship, this dialogue, which God the Father initiated and
established with us through Christ in the Holy Spirit, is a very real one,
even though it is difficult to express in words. The Church must examine
it closely if we want to understand the relationship which we, the Church,
should establish and foster with the human race".
If the word "dialogue" appears to be new in the Magisterium of the
Popes, its roots are ancient; indeed, they stem from God's initiative
("the dialogue of salvation sprang from the goodness and the love of
God"). Addressed freely to all, "no physical pressure was brought on
anyone to accept the dialogue of salvation; far from it. It was a
tremendous appeal of love".
Self-Awareness, Renewal and Dialogue of the Church
The Encyclical is divided into three parts: the "Self-Awareness" of the
Church and of Christians; "The Renewal" which challenges their vocation;
relations with "others", which thus leads to "The Dialogue".
All too often, the first two parts have been overlooked, thus
presenting a reductive, second-hand interpretation.
The topic of the Church's self-awareness is fundamental: the Pope
extends the invitation to deepen our knowledge of Christian and ecclesial
identity without which there can be neither dialogue nor evangelization.
This means delving more deeply into the mystery of the Church, to which
the Second Vatican Council was committed.
But the invitation to Christians is also impelling: "To be a
Christian... must be something which thrills the baptized person to the
very core of his being. He must look upon it with the eyes of the
Christians of the early Church, as an 'illumination'".
The Pope is aware of the difficulties, affirming that "men's minds...
are deeply affected by the climate of the world. They run the risk of
becoming confused, bewildered and alarmed, and this is a state of affairs
which strikes at the very roots of the Church. It drives many people to
adopt the most bizarre views, for example, that the Church should abdicate
her proper role and adopt the very latest and unprecedented modes of
The Pope also recalls that "one part" of this modern world in the West
"has assimilated Christianity so completely and drawn from it such
strength and vigour that it often fails to realize that it owes the credit
for its greatest gifts to Christianity".
The Church and Christians must renew themselves by deepening their
identity: this is Part II of Ecclesiam Suam. Their commitment
should aim not so much at "elaborating new theories as at generating new
energies", at "revealing new ways of acquiring holiness. It urges love to
be inventive and calls for new enthusiasm for a life of virtue and
For Paul VI, renewal consists in personal conversion and holiness. But
the secret of the Church's renewal, the Pope says, lies in "metanoia": in
conversion and not in relativism, relaxed observance or conformity with
dull "profane" models.
As if he had had a premonition of the problems of the post-conciliar
period (but in France there had already been a debate on the experience of
worker-priests, which Pius XII closed in 1954), Paul VI says there is a
risk that the clergy, despite their laudable endeavour "to come closer to
the people/youth... tend to become like, rather than different from,
them... thus forfeiting the real value and effectiveness of their
For the Pope, it was time to put charity into practice. Inspired by the
Apostle Paul, Pope Montini wrote his own eulogy to charity.
"Charity is the key to everything. Charity inspires all things. There
is nothing which charity cannot achieve and renew. Charity 'beareth all
things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things' (I
And he wondered: "Who is there among us who does not realize this? And
since we realize it, is not this the time to put it into practice?".
The Christian identity: 'living in the world but not as the world'
Parts I and II of Ecclesiam Suam are fundamental: without
self-awareness and renewal there can be no serious relationship with the
world. Living the Christian identity leads to understanding the "distinction"
— "between the Christian and the worldly life". It means living "in
the world but not as the world lives".
This diversity is found in the Gospel, which "recognizes the existence
of human infirmities. It recognizes and denounces them... yet it also
understands them and cures them. It does not cherish the illusion that man
is naturally good and self-sufficient, and needs only the ability to
express himself as he pleases. Nor does it countenance a despairing
acquiescence in the irremediable corruption of human nature".
The Gospel is a mission to carry out, a proclamation to spread abroad:
this was Paul VI's programme.
Here we encounter one of the most beautiful expressions of Montini's
thought: "The fact that we are distinct from the world does not mean that
we. are entirely separated from it. Nor does it mean that we are
indifferent to it, afraid of it or contemptuous of it. When the Church
distinguishes herself from humanity, she does so not in order to oppose
it, but to come closer to it".
Grace is not a jealously guarded privilege but is poured out and
communicated. This is where "dialogue" fits in.
For Paul VI, dialogue is the maturation of an inheritance, that of his
Predecessors, starting with Leo XIII. Thus, the Pope says, "the Church has
something to say, a message to give, a communication to make". The purpose
of this dialogue is therefore "to inject the Christian message into the
stream of modern thought".
Paul VI did not want a Church estranged from the world (or which
condemned it), reduced as it were to a proud minority; but he did not
believe in a Church which is diluted in the world. There was a message to
communicate and a dialogue to revive.
It was necessary to learn "the way of making spiritual contact" through
"dialogue", characterized by clarity, meekness, confidence and pedagogical
prudence (which also means gradually, step by step and sensitive to one's
audience). Ecclesiam Suam was a programme for the Church and for
"If we want to be men's pastors, fathers and teachers, we must also
behave as their brothers. Dialogue thrives on friendship, and most
especially on service.... But the danger remains. The worker in the
apostolate is under constant fire. The desire to come together as brothers
must not lead to a watering down or whittling away of truth".
A path of dialogue for the Church, a path to peace
It is clear that the Pope was thinking of giving the Church a new
impetus in evangelization. Indeed, he spoke of a renewed orientation to
preaching and of the effort to "be a worthy match for those whose skill in
the use of words makes them so influential in the world today and gives
them access to the organs of public opinion".
On the stage of history, "The Church... says to men and women: 'Here in
my possession is what you are looking for, what you need'. Indeed, the
Church has the 'secret' of truth, justice, peace and civilization". This
is the Pope's thought.
The Church of Paul VI is not afraid of the boundless horizons of the
contemporary world with all its differences, whose substance and
resistance challenge the Church: Communism, atheism, division among
Christians, non-Christian religions, new countries and various different
civilizations. The Pope's concern knew no bounds: "all things human are
Even the worlds that are most resistant to evangelization concern the
Church, including those that oppose or "despise" her.
Much is said today about the clash of civilizations. Even if it appears
highly relevant today, the topic is not new.
In the mid-1930s the Catholic Social Weeks of France, held in
Versailles, addressed this problem, identifying various civilizations in
conflict: the Communist, the Muslim, and the Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist
worlds. Perhaps young Giovanni Battista Montini, who was so attuned to
French culture, felt an echo of that debate, and he must certainly have
been aware of the problem which, moreover, was by no means new. Even the
path of dialogue was not new to the Church: Leo XIII had recommended it to
avoid conflicts and to further peace.
For Paul VI, dialogue was an instrument of peace, always an important
objective of his Pontificate: "May it point the way to prudence and
sincerity in the ordering of human relationships". That is, the Church
does not accept the logic of the enemy: "The Church's ministry regards no
one as excluded. She has no enemies except those who wish to make
themselves such. Her catholicity is no idle boast. It was not for nothing
that she received her mission to foster love, unity and peace among men".
Even her persecutors (only think of the plight of the Church in the
Communist regimes of the time) are not considered enemies. But as the Pope
said: "The voice we raise against them is more the complaint of a victim
than the sentence of a judge".
Pius XI drew Paul VI's attention to relations with non-Christians
The dialogue is also addressed to other religious worlds: to Judaism,
Islam, the "great Afro-Asiatic religions", to cite the words of the
Undersecretary of the Secretariat for Non-Christians, Mons. Pietro Rossano,
a champion of interreligious dialogue (who, on its 10th anniversary,
eulogized Ecclesiam Suam in this paper, L'Osservatore Romano),
who said that he had heard this account from Paul VI; it was Pius XI
himself who attracted his interest to relations with non-Christian
Without giving up his own conviction ("that the Christian religion is
the one and only true religion", and the hope "that it will be
acknowledged as such by all who look for God and worship him"), Paul VI
was concerned to be open to dialogue and collaboration with the world's
With regard to ecumenism, we find in the Encyclical the resolutions and
hopes that Paul VI developed at his meeting with Patriarch Athenagoras in
Jerusalem in early 1964. Although he affirmed that it was not in his power
to make any concessions regarding the integrity of the faith, the Pope
stated: "We readily accept the principle of stressing what we all have in
common rather than what divides us. This provides a good and fruitful
basis for our dialogue".
From the pages of this Encyclical emerges the image of a rich and
complex Church that is preparing to live in a more and more complex, even
polycentric world, like the one that evolved in the 1960s. Paul VI's plan
was to encounter well-known difficulties, especially in the fraught
atmosphere of 1968 and afterwards.
Pope Paul VI died on 6 August 1978 and was not to see the realization
of so many of his aspirations that came to fruition with his Successor,
John Paul II.
Forty years later, the dream of Ecclesiam Suam remains current:
"[to] make Catholics virtuous, wise, unfettered, fair-minded and strong".
And despite the time that has elapsed, the Encyclical ends with words that
are ever timely:
"The Church today is more alive than ever before. But when we weigh the
matter more closely we see that there is still a great way to go. In fact,
the work which is beginning today will never come to an end. This is a law
of our earthly, time-bound pilgrimage".