The Vatican issued a formal announcement May 10 that Pope Paul VI, pope from 1963 to 1978, would be beatified by Pope Francis on Oct. 19. The pope who is best known for his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae that defended and restated Church teaching on contraception will be beatified during the closing Mass of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family that was announced by Pope Francis last year.
Pope Francis approved the beatification of his predecessor when he signed a decree on May 9 recognizing a miracle attributed to the intercession of Pope Paul, a traditionally vital requirement for beatification and a key step toward canonization. A second miracle is next required by the current norms, although Francis waived the need for a second miracle when he chose to canonize Pope St. John XXIII on April 27, with Pope St. John Paul II. Pope Paul will join a growing list of recent popes who have been beatified or canonized, or who are the subjects of ongoing causes for canonization. (See sidebar.)
In Pope Paul’s case, his cause for canonization began in May 1993 when Pope John Paul II approved the start of the diocesan investigation for the late pope who was born Giovanni Battista Montini in 1897 in the northern Italian region of Brescia. In December 2012, Pope Benedict XVI approved the declaration of Pope Paul as someone who had led a life of “heroic virtue” and granted the late pontiff the title of venerable. The cause then awaited confirmation of a miracle to clear the way for beatification. That miracle proved a very fitting one.
Miracle, ‘Humanae Vitae’
In February, theologians at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints signed off on a proposed miracle that had taken place back in the 1990s in California. It involved an unborn child who was diagnosed with a variety of medical problems, including a damaged bladder and anhydramnios (the absence of fluid in the amniotic sac). As the doctors concluded the child would be born with severe disabilities and probably brain damage, they urged the mother to have an abortion. She refused, and a friend of the family, a nun, reportedly placed a photograph of Pope Paul VI and a small piece of cloth from one of his vestments on the woman’s stomach and asked for his intercession. The child was born in the 39th week inexplicably in perfect health, and doctors continued to track his normal development for more than a decade. The Holy See started its official inquiry into the case in 2003. Medical experts concluded their assessments last December that the survival and recovery of the child were truly inexplicable.
The miracle is considered especially poignant given Pope Paul’s heroic role in reaffirming the Church’s teachings on contraception and the sanctity of procreation and married life with Humanae Vitae. That once controversial encyclical is seen today as powerfully prophetic, in particular Paul’s warnings that a contraceptive culture “could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards” and the threat of the state imposing the use of contraception on everyone.
Pope Paul’s teachings are viewed as clearly relevant to the work of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family that will be held in Rome from Oct. 5-19 to study the challenging issues facing modern family life. Paul established the Synod of Bishops in September 1965 to encourage unity and consultation between the popes and the bishops of the world.
The pilgrim pope
Ordained a priest in 1920, the future pope was recruited two years later for service in the Vatican Secretariat of State and became a trusted secretary to Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, who was elected Pope Pius XII in 1939. During World War II, Montini helped organize a massive effort to assist refugees, including an information service for family members to find their missing loved ones. Appointed archbishop of Milan in 1954, he was named a cardinal by St. John XXIII in 1958 and was a key supporter of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Elected to succeed John in 1963, he brought the council to a conclusion and then spent the rest of his pontificate struggling to implement its reforms. To lead by example, he simplified the protocols of the ornate papal court, declared a Year of Faith for 1967-68, issued the Credo of the People of God and memorably gave away a papal tiara as a sign of his concern for the poor. It is on permanent display in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.
Paul became the first pope in the modern era to travel internationally. He made a historic visit to Jordan and Israel in January 1964, and his nine trips in all included India, the United Nations and New York, the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal, Turkey, Colombia and Bermuda, Switzerland, Uganda and Iran, Pakistan and Asia. During a visit to the Philippines in 1970, he escaped an assassination attempt by a knife-wielding assailant. He also appointed cardinals from all over the world and wrote about the dangers to the human person through globalization and unequal economic development in the encyclical Populorum Progressio in 1967. The encyclical was much praised by Pope Benedict XVI in his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate.
Paul’s last years were noted for his immense suffering as he labored to guide the Church through the storms of cultural upheaval, political unrest and frequent dissent against Church teachings. He bore the trials with fortitude and joy and called for an end to war and violence right up to his passing at the papal summer villa at Castel Gandolfo on Aug. 6, 1978, at the age of 80.
Matthew Bunson is OSV’s senior correspondent.