Not a Monk but a Man of Mission

Author: Michele Giulio Masciarelli

Not a Monk but a Man of Mission

Michele Giulio Masciarelli

In honor of the Servant of God Pope Paul VI

The annual 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. [281]).

Defending man

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 [1966], 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 Gospel joy".

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 Dupront.

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).

The 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 of life.

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 vostragioia. Meditationi sulla spiritualità 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 missionary wisdom.

Above all, however, Paul VI owes his greatness to having been a teacher and a witness of hope.

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 today?

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.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
14 September 2005, page 9

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