Quite often it is easily forgotten that Blessed Pope Paul VI guided the Catholic Church during the most turbulent times the Church in the 20th century has ever endured. The many adaptations triggered by the Second Vatican Council (11 October 1962-8 December 1965,) required the leadership of a pope that understood the direction the Catholic Church needed to go and strong paternal leadership to guide the journey. Pope Paul VI accomplished both tasks and laid the foundation for subsequent popes to build on his strong papacy that firmly rooted the Church in the modern world.
Legacies are indeed arbitary markers that call to mind particular events and accomplishments in the life of a significant individual. Giovanni Montini, later Pope Paul VI was indeed a significant individual and a pivotal instrument in defining the Catholic Church after the decrees of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council. He was indeed a reformer, not just for his gentle but affirmative guidance of the sessions of Vatican II but for his truly global perspectives envisioned for the Church through him. PaulVI wanted the Church to proclaim the Gospel to the world, other nations and restore the disunity initiated by the Protestant Reformation and the Great Great Western Schism.
Pope Paul VI’s papacy ended in August of 1978. We have had four popes since the death of Pope Paul VI, but he would indeed recognize quite readily the Catholic Church of 2016 simply because it is reflective of his initiatives as pope. Pope Paul VI like Pope Francis embraced the needs of the poor and under priviledged. Constantly and consistently he voiced his concern for the Church’s need to promote social justice throughout the world and his teachings consistently made social justice part of the foundational doctrinal proclamations of the Catholic Church.
Pope Paul VI initiated the Synod of Bishops, an opportunity for the worlds bishops to come together and discuss and debate issues confronting the Church’s ministry both in their own dioceses and globally as those issues pertained to the Universal Church. Collaboration among the Pope and the College of Bishops is a key component of Paul VI’s operational model of how the Church functioned and developed throughout the world. He enjoyed the input of the worlds bishops and valued their opinions and suggestions.
Pope Paul VI through his writings and teachings called for the Church to engage in evangelization.In 1975 he penned the apostolic exhortation, Evangelli Nuntiandi (On Proclaiming the Gospel,) which maintained the constant need for evangelization throughout the world on the part of all Catholics, not just as teachers of the Word, but as witness’ to the Word.
“The world calls for, and expects from us, simplicity of life, the spirit of prayer, charity towards all, especially towards the lowly and the poor, obedience and humility, detachment and self-sacrifice,”Paul VI wrote to indicate to the entire Church the need for all faithful Catholics to evangelize and to practice the teachings of the Gospel in their daily celebration of Christianity.
The teachings of Humanae Vitae (On Human Life, July 25,1968) transformed the Church’s teachings on the sanctity of human life and promoted the virtues of responsible parenthood, married love and upheld the Church’s prohibition against artificial methods of birth control. This encyclical celebrated natural law and was the spring board for Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, which excentuated and reaffirmed the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church on the sanctity of human life. Paul VI’s proclamation of Humanae Vitae reached over the span of time and united the modern understanding of the Church’s teachings against contraception with the teachings of Clement of Alexandria and Saint Augustine, Church Fathers whose teachings were in essence the same as those of Paul VI.
Before the world was exposed to the frequent pastoral jurneys of Saint Pope John Paul II, Blessed Pope Paul VI was the first pope of the modern era to travel outside of Italy and internationally visit Catholics throughout the Middle East, and in Asia. His example of pilgrimage became the status quo for Saint John Paul II and elevated the role of the papacy to one of international diplomacy and of the highest importance among world leaders. Without the openness towards change and development of the Catholic Church globally the possibility of a non-Italian pope and the election of Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis would most likely not have occurred. Pope Paul VI’s legacy of greatness stands as a testimony to his commitment of pastoral change for the needs of the Church and his vision of a global pope, serving the needs of the Church and the world.
Collectively, the legacy of Pope Paul VI is that of a great leader, deeply devoted to the beliefs of his faith and the activities of the Church throughout the world. His greatest contribution perhaps to the Church of the 21st century rests in and with his effective guidance and leadership of the Church throughout the sessions of the Second Vatican Council and more importantly the sometimes personally painful implementations of the Council’s directives. Pope Paul VI was subjected to many harsh and critical assaults launched against him by members of the Curia, the worlds bishops, clergy and faithful Catholic that were against the progressivism of the Council. Despite his own personal feelings and sentiments, Pope Paul VI prayerfully and pastorally continued on with the reforms, gave us the definitive teaching on the sanctity of human life since the earliest Church Fathers, and restored the papacy to a visible sign of the Church’s ministry of love and reconcilliation. If these things are not deserving of a great legacy, associated with a great man, contemporary Catholics have yet to fully comprehend the magnitude of his accomplishments and his papacy.
When I was in graduate school, studying scriptural and moral theology among other things, we studied the documents of the Second Vatican Council. In particular, Dei Verbum (On the Word of God,) was of particular note. We studied the document in the original Latin and reflected on the great and theologically pregnant points only Latin can communicate and often the professor wandered into a discussion of Pope Paul VI. I keenly remember that this professor, Father (now Monsignor Michael Chabach STD,) would often say that: “The Catholic Church will someday call Pope Paul VI, Pope Paul the Great because of his leadership of the Church in very stormy times!” That statement from a man who studied in Rome at the time of the Second Vatican Council and observed Paul VI first hand was indeed prophetic. Since that time, the moniker of ,”Great,” has been attached to Saint John Paul II, however I believe that is indeed an injustice that will ultimately be remedied. Yes, John Paul II was great in some aspects of his pontificate. However, without Pope Paul VI as the pioneer of the Church during and after the Second Vatican Council, the papacy of John Paul would have never occured.
Legacies and great men are made with the revelations of the present realities of the Church as we now experience it with Pope Francis, the first pope from the western hemisphere, the first American and pope from the New World to occupy the Chair of Peter. I have no doubt that this indeed is only possible because of the legacies of Blessed Pope Paul VI and his pontificate.
Monsignor Michael Chabach, S.T.D. was indeed correct, we will someday regard Blessed Pope Paul VI as great. For some of us, he already is!
Blessed Pope Paul the Great, thank you for the great legacy of faith and evangelization you have given the world with your papacy!