Now that Benedict XVI has officially promulgated the decree on the heroic virtues of his predecessor, Pope Paul VI, you might think there would be a little rejoicing. The contrast with the announcement of the similar decree for John Paul II is depressing. Pope Paul VI is still being blamed for all the ills of the Church since Vatican II, and many are appalled that he is being recognized as a potential saint.
There are a few reprehensible cases of slander, and a dredging up of all the usual ludicrous Masonic, Communist and other conspiracy theories, whose authors no doubt sincerely believe that Paul VI was an enemy of the Faith and the Council the work of Satan. These people are a tiny fringe and they deserve compassion in their delusions. Others are content with simply saying that Paul VI dismantled the traditional Mass and replaced it with the new Missal and so must be condemned, because they themselves hate the new Missal and this of course, makes it objectively evil.
Others point to the glory days of Catholicism in the 1940′s and 50′s and the decline in grasp of the faith, church attendance and general morals since the Council. Clearly Paul VI is to blame for this happening. Humanae Vitae is the only bright spot they will admit. They don’t understand that the decline was actually the result not of the Council, but of the whole atmosphere of society from the late 60′s to the mid 70′s, with the resultant throwing off of all the constraints of authority, traditional morality and all the other trappings of “bourgeois” society. Many in the Church decided to apply the new paradigm of society to the Church. In many ways the decisions of the Council and Paul VI fell victim to this wholesale change in society. He was not to blame for the massive, almost reflexive disobedience to his decisions.
Most of the people who write like this have little grasp of the history involved. The Church, in many ways, had been neglecting the necessary reforms, and had been seriously behind in connecting with society at large for centuries. The Church had drawn the wagons into a circle at the Reformation, developing a defensive stance that looked on Protestants and later the exponents of the Enlightenment and later of political democracy and the secular state, as enemies to be denounced, rather than as a mission field. The Church had faced the real challenges of these changes in society piecemeal, through the teachings of successive Popes, but this was slow and uncertain. Many of these matters would have been dealt with at Vatican I, but there was time to discuss and vote on a very small part of them, because the Council was dispersed by Italian troops entering Rome in 1870. Something much more was needed. Because the Church had not been able to deal with the increasing secularization, by the late 1950′s, church attendance was already falling off. Vatican II was a real necessity, and the resultant decline in the Church would have been much worse without it.
Pope Paul VI had an excellent grasp of what was needed: a Church that had reformed itself and that could present its message to secular society in new terms. He spent himself to the utmost to guide the Church through the last three sessions of the Council, and to travel the world as an “ambassador for Christ.” He presided over the first international Synods of Bishops. He proposed a Church that has a “preferential option for the poor”; he gave a charter for Third World development in Populorum Progressio, and gave away his papal tiara for the poor. He gave an outline of the New Evangelization to come in Evangelii Nuntiandi. He showed by Humanae Vitae that he adhered to true Catholic teaching against overwhelming public opinion to the contrary. This would be enough to make him a good, even great Pope, even without regard to his personal holiness.
But everyone who knew him agrees that he had this personal holiness. Above all, he showed patience, understanding and compassion to those agitators in the Church — from whatever corner they came — who caused him grief. He accepted his sufferings willingly and offered them for the good of the Church. I’d like to suggest that people get hold of the audio CD “Untold Stories of the Last Three Popes” by John Magee, retired bishop of Cloyne, Ireland, and former personal secretary to Paul VI and his two successors. It was put out by Catholic Lighthouse Media, and while it apparently isn’t available from them any longer, you can order it elsewhere on the internet. The part of the talk on Paul VI is absolutely riveting. Bishop Magee said: “Paul VI was the first person who I knew in whom I could see the person of Christ. He was transparent. . . . I knew I was walking with a saint.”
One of the best portraits of Paul VI I know is the one by his successor, Pope John Paul I, which I have already published on the blog. You can read it here. During his first audience as Pope, which took place on September 6, exactly a month after Paul VI’s death, John Paul I called him “A great Pontiff, who has rendered tremendous service to the Church in fifteen years. The effects can already be seen in part now, but I believe they will be seen especially in the future.”
His audience burst into applause. They understood. I hope this generation will too.