Pope Paul VI is finally getting his due. On Oct. 14, when Pope Francis canonizes the pope who served from 1963-78, he will definitively attest to the goodness of a shepherd who guided the Church through tumultuous decades of transition and who not only safeguarded the Church’s teaching and Tradition, but prophetically positioned them to address the challenges of decades to come. We stand at a confluence of anniversaries related to Paul VI — 40 years since his death (Aug. 6); 50 years since Humanae Vitae, his encyclical on family life (July 29); and 50 years since he reinstituted the permanent diaconate (June 18). We are indeed the beneficiaries of his legacy.
That legacy includes not only implementing the work of the Second Vatican Council but setting the tone and trajectory of it. While the world’s bishops met for the final three sessions of the council in 1963, ’64 and ’65, Pope Paul was already realizing his vision. His August 1964 encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, which refers to the council in the present and future tenses, urged, “The Church must enter into dialogue with the world in which it lives. It has something to say, a message to give, a communication to make.” The council fathers responded with landmark documents on the modern world, ecumenism, non-Christian religions and religious freedom.
In January 1964, Pope Paul lived this call to engage the world by example with his historic pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Not only did his meeting with Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople begin a thaw in relations between Churches that had officially split in the year 1054, he immediately recast people’s perceptions and expectations of his ministry, transitioning it from “Prisoner of the Vatican” to global pilgrim. It sounds like something his latest successor, Francis, might say — that dialogue and encounter with the world should take place in person.
Paul would go on to visit every continent — with memorable stops including New York, India and the Philippines. That his record of travels would be eclipsed significantly by his successors — Pope St. John Paul II most notable among them — is a testament to how Paul changed the papacy in lasting ways. It was never about him, but about the course the barque of Peter needed to follow.
Pope Paul’s canonization coincides with another consequential piece of his legacy: an assembly of the Synod of Bishops. (The gathering on young people, the faith and vocational discernment will take place in Rome throughout the month of October.) The Synod, instituted by Paul in the waning days of the council, has allowed a cross-section of the world’s bishops to carry on the energy of the council, advising the pope on a range of issues confronting the Church in every region of the world. As the Synod has received renewed focus under Pope Francis, we see how Paul VI recognized the need not only for the Church to engage the world but for the parts of the Body of Christ to be attuned to one another. The Church has learned once again, all too painfully in recent weeks, the importance of being honest and transparent with one another, of prioritizing Christlike concern for the well-being of all God’s children, and of being attentive to people’s suffering.
In the 40 years since he left us, the legacy of Blessed Paul VI has borne immense fruit, and the renaissance he has recently experienced is deeply deserved. We are greatly indebted to this servant of God who for 15 years shouldered the lonely burden of leading the Church into a new age.
OSV Editorial Board: Don Clemmer, Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott Richert, York Young