Today, August 6, the Feast of the Transfiguration, is the 36th anniversary of the death of Pope Paul VI. He is due to be beatified this October 19.
This announcement created some consternation (inexplicable to me) in some traditionalist corners and cubbyholes in the Church. They credit Paul VI with single-handedly destroying the Church in the wake of Vatican II. The only good thing that they can recall about him is that he issued Humanae Vitae. Though many in the progressive wing of the Church aren’t that happy with him either. After all, he did issue Humanae Vitae.
The thing that strikes me most about both these groups is their superficiality. Few of them give any evidence that they have really studied Paul VI’s life. On the other hand, I have read quite a bit about him, I hope with some depth. So I have decided that, beginning today, and in installments leading up to his beatification, I will published posts illustrating little-known aspects of his personality.
Today I’ll begin with something simple, but profound. The popular perception of Paul VI was that he was a gloomy Pope, and deeply pessimistic. He brooded, and vacillated, and in fact, was another Hamlet; as Pope John XXIII was alleged to have said.
So was Paul VI gloomy or joyful?
The following comes from a conference held at the Lateran University in Rome, called “John XXIII and Paul VI: The Two Popes of the Council” held October 9-11, 2002. This reporting comes from an archived version of John Allen’s blog at the National Catholic Reporter, from October 18, 2002.
A touching moment came when Bishop Pasquale Macchi, who was Paul VI’s private secretary, rose to defend the image of the pope he obviously loved.
“Once and for all, may we please get rid of this phrase, falsely attributed to John XXIII, that Montini was a ‘Hamlet’”? Macchi asked. He said that John XXIII’s secretary, Bishop Loris Capovilla, has written an article denying that John XXIII ever called Montini, whom he knew and loved and actually made a cardinal, a “Hamlet.” In fact, Macchi said, John XXIII knew that people attributed this remark to him, and was bitter about it.
“This idea does not correspond in any way to the figure of Paul VI,” Macchi insisted. “He studied problems in depth, yes, but there was absolutely nothing Hamlet-like in his character.”
Someone then asked Macchi about the other common label for Paul: Paolo VI mesto, “the sad Paul.”
“Also this is absolutely false,” Macchi responded. “He was never sad. He had a profound serenity, and even if he was sometimes anguished, he never was an ‘anguished pope.’ He had an awareness of problems, he searched to understand them in depth, but he always felt a strong interior peace.”
Here is the testimony of someone else who knew Pope Paul intimately, his successor: Pope John Paul I, who wrote this comment two days after his death.
For me the true, authentic Paul VI is the one that we Venetians saw and heard in Venice in 1972: informed about our problems, full of tact, and poetically genial in expounding them. This is the Pope that I met in private audiences: not gloomy and pessimistic, as some have presented him, but optimistic, smiling, and even gently humorous. For me, a great Pope, who, however, has had to carry out his lofty mission in difficult times. About him Cardinal Hoeffner has written: “You have been crowned with thorns.” And Arturo Carlo Jemolo: “Paul VI is a martyr who has accepted, submissive to the will of God, one of the most painful pontificates that history can recall, with the decaying of a society that had been formed on the basis of a Christian morality.” (“Un grande Papa per un tempo difficile,” Il Gazzettino, August 8, 1978; Opera 8:579 83).
Other duties call, so — to be continued.