I smiled when I learned that Pope Francis in October will beatify Pope Paul VI. I always have had a special affection for Pope Paul. He was in office during my seminary years and when I was a young priest. It was a troubled, angry time. Frankly, it was a time of soul-searching and of easy disenchantment.
I came away from that stormy era firmly believing that even in the most chaotic human situations, private or vastly broad, the Gospel, precisely as understood by the Catholic Church, has every answer, and Pope Paul very much helped in creating my impression.
He was not often on my mind when one morning a classmate burst into our classroom with the news that a radio broadcast had just reported that Pope Paul VI would be visiting Israel and Jordan.
The good priest who was our instructor said that, without a doubt, once again, “the media” was all wrong. Popes never leave Italy! Actually, of course, the report was right. The pope indeed went to the Holy Land. It was a spectacular moment.
He used a chalice there to celebrate Mass, and then he gave the chalice to the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople. When I was ordained some years later, by then highly regarding the pope, I ordered a replica of that chalice for my own use at Mass. I wanted to connect with him, remember him.
Biographies of Giovanni Battista Montini (Pope Paul VI) say that he was quiet, pensive and cautious, not the usual characterizations of a revolutionary. Yet he was a revolutionary. He went to the Holy Land, but he also visited every continent. When he first arrived in Latin America (in Bogotá, Colombia), he stepped from the airplane and knelt to kiss the ground. All the popes since imitate that act when traveling the world.
Personally quite refined, Paul VI was a man of simplicity, but he drastically curtailed Church pomp.
Not as often forgotten, at times without delight, are Paul VI’s liturgical reforms. He had a reason. He confirmed the decisions of the Second Vatican Council, a step he did not have to take, but he verified the yearning of what was known as the Liturgical Movement, that actually had been around for while, with Pius XII its most recent inspiration.
The objective was simple. Even then the Church was losing people. The Liturgical Movement sought to provide the setting in which ordinary people truly could pray, and make their own, the liturgy of the Church.
Paul VI saw the world turn upside down. The vast Belgian, British and French colonial empires were coming apart. It is to his credit, in great measure, that in so much of Africa and Asia the Church survived — and is thriving today. The Congolese Church today is Congolese, for example, not a hand-me-down from Belgian days. The Kenyan Church is for the Kenyans, the Vietnamese Church for the Vietnamese, and so on.
His masterful encyclical Populorum Progressio (“The Development of Peoples”) listed as moral requisites economic policies genuinely responding to the realities of its time in history. By the way, the world would be a much better place now if financial and political powers had accepted this encyclical’s principles back then.
Few modern pontiffs have endured the rebuke from Catholics that followed Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae (“Of Human Life”). Not many critics took the time to notice that it was not just about artificial contraception. Look at where we are now. If we had listened to Pope Paul about human dignity, marriage and intimacy!
On Oct. 19, I will thank God that Pope Paul VI affected me, and I will hurry, with joy and love, to call him “blessed.”
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.