|In honor of the Servant of God Pope Paul VI
commemoration of Paul VI is a small debt of affection and gratitude to pay
to a man who gave so much to the 20th-century Church venturing into the
Third Millennium. This commemoration becomes an invitation to pay Paul VI
a significant tribute as a father of the contemporary Church and a master
of wisdom and holiness in our time.
It is important to listen once again to teachers and
witnesses who can decipher the enigma of a time sick with ephemeral
existence, from whose grip we Christians cannot always free ourselves
unless we recover what one might call the virtue of remembrance and
looking to the future, sub umbra Trinitatis. John Paul II's 1979
Exhortation at Puebla has kept all its value: "Speak in the idiom of
Vatican II, John XXIII and Paul VI. For that is the idiom that embodies
the experience, the suffering and the hope of contemporary humanity"
(Opening Address at the Puebla Conference, Mexico, 28 January 1979;
Puebla and Beyond, ed. by John Eagleson/Philip Sharper, Orbis Books,
1980, p. 67).
This "idiom" is born only from the intersection of
three Christian tenses: the past of "experience", the present of
"suffering" and the future of "hope".
A human man
It is not redundant to say a "human man", for the
fact that a person is human can in no way be taken for granted. One might
say that a person is created human, but whether or not he or she
subsequently becomes so must truly be deduced from the events of his or
her life. Paul VI was a deeply human person in this sense: he showed to
all that he was truly good-hearted.
People have often argued about this side of Paul VI.
The stereotype that claims he was cold and detached is well known. To some
this may have suggested a certain miserliness in expressing love, for the
precious treasure of delicate and refined humanity embodied in this
seemingly frail person was not always capable of being discovered,.
It is true that his meditative and spiritual
temperament was certainly far from encouraging small talk; yet he was
intensely human, and those close to him noted that his humanity was always
something disarming that won people over. Every meeting with him, even a
brief one, was an experience that made a deep impression.
Paul VI disliked talking of himself on the world's
stage. He always seemed in deep concentration: the acute look of his
shrewd grey-blue eyes, highly mobile and expressive, did not miss a trick;
there was nothing, no one, no spiritual situation that he did not
thoroughly understand and whose full depths and even nuances (those who
were closet to him still say) did not escape him.
Paul VI was a great listener, a gift and a virtue
that constantly nourished his fatherliness and his delightful skill with
words. He had a way of listening, perceiving, understanding, speaking and
even being silent that showed sensitivity. And nothing found him
distracted or unprepared, even if he liked to pass over formalities to
make more cordial every encounter with those who approached him. One day
he said that his heart was like a seismograph that recorded all the
"vibrations of human suffering". That was something we were able to note
with joy and gratitude.
Seeking man's meaning
Paul VI would frequently question himself
passionately about the identity and destiny of contemporary man.
He demonstrated with truth and sincerity what it meant to have "concern for
the, human being", as Fr Romano Guardini once said, or as the well-known
axiom of John Paul II's Magisterium states, how we should consider man as
"the way for the Church" (Redemptoris Hominis, n. 14).
And this is not all. He himself developed a wise
anthropological paradigm, which he outlined at the Second Vatican Council,
and invited people to take it a guide for their behavior:
"The whole man, a phenomenon, it were, that is, in
the guise of countless appearances, has addressed, the assembly of the
Council Fathers, also men, all Pastors and brothers, hence, attentive and
loving: the tragic man of his own dramas, the superman of yesterday and
today, therefore ever fragile and false, selfish and ferocious; then the
man discontent with himself, who laughs and cries; the versatile man,
ready to play almost any part, the man who rigidly cultivates his own
scientific reality, and the man as he who thinks, loves and works and is
ways waiting for something; the 'filius accrescens' (Gn 49:22); and
the man who is sacred, because of the innocence of his childhood, the
mystery his poverty, the piety of his suffering...
"In the end, the terrible stature of profane secular
humanism emerged and, in a certain sense, challenged the Council. The
religion of the God who became man was countered by the religion (because
such it is) of the man who becomes God. What happened? A dispute, a fight,
an anathema? There might have been, but it did not happen. The ancient
story of the Good Samaritan is the paradigm of the spirituality of the
Council. An immense sympathy has pervaded it" (Homily at the Ninth
Session, Fourth Period, [8 December 1965] in Enchiridion
Vaticanum, Bologna, 1981, p. ).
Another way in which Paul VI showed that he was a
human man: he always went bravely to the defense of humankind. In
particular, he was deeply concerned about the individual as well as the
whole of humanity.
When suffering depended on the human being or on
oppression, he was not afraid to speak out courageously, as he did in the
Encyclical Populorum Progressio (26 March 1967), in which what he
says is tremendously up-to-date:
"There are certainly situations whose injustice cries
to heaven. When whole populations destitute of necessities live in a state
of dependence barring them from all initiative and responsibility, and all
opportunity to advance culturally and share in social and political life,
recourse to violence, as a means to right these wrongs to human dignity,
is a grave temptation" (n. 30).
His love for men and women impelled him tirelessly to
encourage initiatives for justice and progress. He felt he was the
champion and brother of human beings, in the name of the mandate of Christ
himself. He was also the advocate of the poor. He began Populorum
Progressio by saying: "The peoples in hunger are making a dramatic
appeal to the peoples blessed with abundance" (n. 3). Therefore, he felt
that the Church, "expert in humanity", should propose a development that
was not limited to mere economic growth but was an "integral" development
that would "promote the good of every man and of the whole man" (n. 14).
For Pope Montini, authentic development was the
passage from less human to more human conditions. He wrote with great
perception in the same Encyclical: "Less human conditions: the lack of
material necessities for those who are without the minimum essential for
life, the moral deficiencies of those who are mutilated by selfishness.
Less human conditions: oppressive social structures, whether due to the
abuses of ownership or to the abuses of power, to the exploitation of
workers or to unjust transactions.
"Conditions that are more human: the passage from
misery towards the possession of necessities, victory over social
scourges, the growth of knowledge, the acquisition of culture. Additional
conditions that are more human: increased esteem for the dignity of
others, the turning toward the spirit of poverty, cooperation for the
common good, the will and desire for peace. Conditions that are still more
human: the acknowledgement by man of supreme values, and of God their
source and their finality.
"Conditions that, finally and above all, are more
human: faith, a gift of God accepted by the good will of man, and unity in
the charity of Christ, who calls us all to share as sons in the life of
the living God, the Father of all men" (n. 21). This says it all.
A man of God
Paul VI had a sense of God, a sense of the Father who
is merciful to all and inclines his heart to every life. This powerful
religious perception led him to be a contemplative, a man immersed in the
silence of the mystery.
But in life, he was not a monk but a man of mission,
a fervent Pastor who watched over the destiny of the Church. His life had
two facets: it was indeed an active apostolic life but it was also a life
firmly grounded in contemplation.
Paul VI showed, not only with his words as a Teacher,
but especially with his life as a Pastor, that a great synthesis should be
brought about between contemplation and action, as Cardinal E. Suhard once
wrote: "The reconciliation between the two terms: action and
contemplation, which are all too often wrongly set against each other, is
not achieved by any abstract proportion. There is a living synthesis of
these terms: holiness" (Il senso di Dio. Pastoral Lenten Letter
1948, Milan, 1997, p. 60).
Thus, contemplation does not deter people from action
but fosters spirituality, supernatural motivation and prayer.
The strongly contemplative character of Paul VI
contributed to the recovery and preservation of the wonder of faith, as he
sought to counter the dulling of wonder at the Gospel proclamation and the
reality of the church, which is grace but is often ensnared by the
temptation to consider it in an excessively human or solely human way.
Paul VI's interiority echoed throughout the Church, giving rise to hope.
The Magisterium of Paul VI was a constant invitation
to hope, even when he pronounced his unequivocal "no", never against the
human being but only an invisible enemy of the human being: that sort of
spiritual torpor or sloth of heart, that ugly laziness of the soul, that
servile cynicism with which people live, devoid of any passion for ideals
and lacking sensitivity, without the lofty attention that is due to God
and to other human beings.
We could point to this invisible enemy as the numbing
of wonder, a real spiritual disgrace that ends inevitably by casting a
shadow over the milieus and behavior of human beings. Indeed, when we are
"deprived of wonder, we remain deaf to the sublime" (A.J. Heschel, Dio
nella ricerca dell'uomo, Turin, 1969, pp. 273-274).
Paul VI, with his profound spirituality and exalted
contemplation, warned further that the superficial man "builds his house
on sand" (Mt 7:26). Therefore, he made constant references to the interior
man, that is, the hidden man of the heart (cf. 1 Pt 3:4).
Man of the Beatitudes
The Gospel of the Beatitudes was a paradigm in Paul
VI's life. He called it "the code of Christian life; the principle in
order to show us authentic, truly faithful, effective followers of Christ"
(Insegnamenti di Paolo VI, IV , 1005).
He attributed to Jesus' Beatitudes an essentially
prophetic nature. This is what he said in 1972: "Is not the evangelical
message of the Beatitudes the revelation of a connection between an
unhappy, poor, mortified, oppressed present and a future of bliss,
recovery and fullness? Blessed in a future tomorrow (of which they have a
foretaste now) will be those who today are poor, weeping, oppressed,....
Jesus proclaims. The solution revolves around hope, and in Christ 'hope
does not disappoint us' (Rom 5:5)" (L'Osservatore Romano English
edition, 27 April 1972, p. 12).
Secretary, of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano,
commenting on these very passages by Montini, said: "If in past times the
tendency was to ignore 'earth' to think of 'Heaven', our times are marked
rather by immanentism and materialistic hedonism, apart from subsequently
making room for irrational flights into spiritualism and magic. Pope Paul
VI was a deeply attentive, passionate connoisseur of contemporary man. His
concern for the progress of peoples is universally known, yet he did not
miss an opportunity to educate consciences in the true meaning of history"
(Homily in the Papal Chapel to Commemorate the Supreme Pontiffs,
Paul VI and John Paul I, 28 September 2001).
Indeed, in his teaching Paul VI coordinated the two
aspects of commitment to history and the search for the meaning and
purpose of history itself. History does not contain its own meaning;
history acquires meaning by the entrance into it of the Son of God with
his Incarnation and all he brings about in it with his great Paschal Hour.
Man of veiled joy
What John Paul II said about Paul VI is impressive:
"He brought the light of Tabor with him in his heart, and with that light
he went on walking to the very end, carrying his Cross together with
With a little thought, the full truth of Pope
Wojtyla's affirmation dawns on us: Paul VI lived joy, but he combined it
with sorrow, thoughtful questioning and the wonder that diligently avoids
noisiness and distraction.
Thus, Paul VI expressed a "veiled" joy. It was as if
to say that in him, joy also had to encounter "the integrity of his
tormented genius", to use an interesting description of him by Alphonse
Therefore, the publication of the Apostolic
Exhortation Gaudente in Domino on 9 May 1975, came as a pleasant
surprise. It was a deeply thought out, powerful "hymn to divine joy" that
he saw as a need of all people's hearts (cf. first paragraph) and then as
a revelation (cf. Part II), and a proposal of grace to which Christians
are called to open themselves in order to witness to the salvation
received (cf. Parts III-VII).
In this way, Paul VI taught that joy never an easy
fruit of the spirit; it exists on condition that everything in the
Christian is functioning: when the experience of Christ is alive,
membership in the Church complete, sacramental life assiduous, ethical
observance rigorous ascetic effort constant, the commitment to witnessing
serious and the commitment to prayer fervent. When all these conditions
are fulfilled, then and only then is there joy.
Paul VI grasped joy's special connection with the
Eucharist with subtle theological acumen: joy is the most mature fruit of
the experience of prayer to which the Eucharist leads. For example as Pope
Montini said, "In essence Christian joy is the spiritual sharing in the
unfathomable joy, both divine and human, which is the heart of Jesus:
Christ glorified". And this participation in the joy of the Lord "cannot
be disassociated from the celebration of the Eucharistic mystery" (Gaudente
in Domino, Parts II and IV).
effect of Jesus' personal presence is the source of the surge of joy
released from the Eucharistic experience. Christians expert in the
Eucharist are at the same time steeped in and radiant with joy. It is as
though the joy infused in their souls and hearts overflows from them and
resounds in others. Such Christians are then the subjects of a very
effective pastoral care that passes through the attraction and contagion
It is interesting to note
that "joy" was among the very first words spoken by Benedict XVI: it is a
word dear to his heart, which he too, like Paul VI (how many similarities
could we establish between these two Popes!), places at the heart of
spirituality (cf. J. Ratzinger, Servitori della vostra gioia.
Meditationi sulla spiritualitā sacredotale, Milan, 1989).
The greatness of Paul VI
lies in his words, to which we would do well to return frequently. His
greatness should also be seen in the pastoral skill with which he directed
the Council, which remains a goldmine of theological, pastoral and
Above all, however, Paul VI
owes his greatness to having been a teacher and a witness of
Today, the scarcity of witnesses often saddens
us. But if one thinks carefully, there is a lack of teachers, too. We have
seducers, hidden persuaders, reconcilers, spin doctors, charmers, people
who have a way with youth, but not always teachers. Paul VI, instead, was
a true teacher: he taught Christ, he pointed him out, led people to him,
asked for obedience to him.
What did this silent and eloquent, reserved and
communicative, docile and strong Pope teach which is particularly relevant
The answer: hope. And in having taught hope he
reached the peaks of his service to the Word, since hope defines
Christianity and indicates who is Christian.
Hilary of Poitiers records the question that many
have cried out to Christians: "Christians, where is your hope?"
(Commentary on the Psalms [119 (118)]:15, 7). This very question comes to
us from the Magisterium and life of Paul VI. We must give it a serious answer, for: "It
is hope alone that truly makes Christians" (Augustine, City of God, 6, 9,
5). This Augustinian affirmation, to which Pope Montini witnessed with
much suffering, is at its most evident when times do not encourage
people to hope, hence, to be Christian.
With steadfast hope, Paul VI withstood the storms of
the post-conciliar period and the multifaceted crisis of a world starting
out on the descent to post-modernity. He thus witnessed that it is
precisely in difficult times that we need hope.
Indeed, he justified the strong and convincing words
of one of the most important women of the 20th century, Simone Weil:
"You cannot be born in a better epoch than that in which all has been
lost" (Gravity and Grace).
With his Encyclicals, Letters, Apostolic
Exhortations, Discourses, Messages, and above all, his tenacious
determination to overcome the obstacles of the present time with trust,
Paul VI taught hope in God and for humanity.