On June 24, on the feast of St. John the Baptist, Pope John Paul II blessed a new marble bust of his predecessor Pope Paul VI. It will adorn the atrium of the audience hall that bears Paul VI's name.
The date of the blessing was chosen with care — Paul VI's baptismal name was Giovanni Battista — coming as it did only days after the 40th anniversary of Paul VI's election (June 21, 1963). In the course of his remarks, John Paul recalled the homily Paul VI delivered on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul in 1978.
“On June 29, 1978,” the Holy Father said, “in the last public celebration for the 15th anniversary of his election as Supreme Pontiff, Paul VI gave a talk that had the solemn and heartfelt tone of a last will and testament.”
As we prepare to celebrate the 25th anniversary of John Paul's pontificate this coming Oct. 16, it is worth rereading that “last will and testament” of Pope Paul VI. Rereading that unforget-table homily gives a sense of what the Church was going through in 1978 when John Paul was elected.
Roiled by Events
Pope Paul VI died 25 years ago next month, on Aug. 6, 1978. In his actual last will and testament Paul VI indicated something of the times in which he lived: “Now that the day is dying, and everything is ending and the bond of this stupendous and dramatic, temporal and earthly stage is dissolving, how to thank you once more, O Lord, for the gift, after that of natural life, greater still, of the faith and grace in which solely in the end my still-living being takes refuge?”
Throughout the 15-year pontificate of Paul VI (1963-1978), the world and the Church were roiled by events both stupendous and dramatic, and it often seemed as if the certainties of the faith itself were dissolving. In 1972, on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, Paul VI spoke of the “smoke of Satan” entering the “temple of God.”
“We believe in something preternatural that has come into the world for the very purpose of disturbing and stifling the fruits of the Second Vatican Council, and to prevent the Church from bursting into a hymn of joy at having regained full awareness of herself,” Paul VI said, speaking of the devil's attacks upon the Church in late 1960s and 1970s.
By the last months of his life, Paul VI was greatly afflicted by divisions in the Church and tragedies in the world. The communist world was expanding, and his tireless efforts to secure the freedom of the Church in the Soviet empire had borne little fruit.
His pleas on behalf of the poor and suffering grew more urgent.
In May 1978, one of Italy's leading politicians and a personal friend of Paul VI, Aldo Moro, was kidnapped and assassinated by terrorists. The anguish was so great that at the funeral Paul VI pronounced a prayer of great biblical power, adopting the psalmist's lament that God was not listening to his prayer:
“And who can listen to our lament, if not you, O God of life and death? You did not hearken to our supplication for the safety of Aldo Moro, this good, meek, wise, innocent and friendly man; but you, O Lord, have not abandoned his immortal spirit, sealed by faith in Christ, who is the resurrection and the life.”
Pope Paul VI was able to cry out with St. Paul: ‘We have kept the faith! I can say today, with the humble but firm conciousness of never having betrayed “the holy truth.”’
All this was before Paul VI's eyes as he delivered his last Peter and Paul homily, on the 15th anniversary of his election and six weeks before his death. Even 25 years later, it still speaks powerfully of the apostolic soul of Paul VI.
“This [is] the Church's faith, the apostolic faith,” he said. “The teaching is preserved intact in the Church through the presence within her of the Holy Spirit, and through the special mission entrusted to Peter, for whom Christ prayed. … Such is the untiring, watchful and consuming purpose that has carried us forward during this 15 years of our pontificate. ‘I have kept the faith!’ we can say today, with the humble but firm consciousness of never having betrayed ‘the holy truth.’”
Taking after his pontifical namesake, St. Paul the Apostle, Paul VI was able to cry out — those who were there say he pronounced the words in almost solemn defiance of his critics — “I have kept the faith!”
Paul VI had faced widespread dissent from his teachings during his pontificate, and he was stating his case before the Church and before God that he had not failed in his obligation to protect the deposit of the faith. And to those who would not follow his lead, Paul VI had stern words.
“We give them this paternal warning: Let them refrain from disturbing the Church,” he said. “The moment of truth has come, and everyone must know his or her own responsibilities before decisions that must safeguard the faith, the common treasure that Christ — who is the petra, the rock — entrusted to Peter, the Vicarius Petrae, the Vicar of the Rock, as St. Bonaventure calls him.”
On no issue did Paul VI face more opposition than on his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which restated the immorality of contraception. He acknowledged his own suffering at the hostile reception many Catholics gave to his upholding of the ancient tradition.
“The commitment to teaching in the service and defense of truth, which we have offered at the cost of much suffering, includes, we believe, as an indispensable part, the defense of human life,” he said. “The defense of human life must begin at the very source of human existence. … We did no more than accept this charge when, 10 years ago, we published the encyclical Humanae Vitae. … We have made these statements, motivated only by our supreme responsibilities as universal teacher and pastor, and for the good of humanity.”
Toward the end of his life, Paul VI clearly felt that, while he had done all that he could do, the times were against him and it would be left to his successor to find a way forward. Another day might be more favorable for preaching the Gospel, but as the sun set on Paul VI's life, he could say with a clear conscience that he had never betrayed that Gospel.
Calling him a “strong and humble apostle,” Pope John Paul II spoke about the courage of Paul VI at his general audience June 25. He remembered that Paul VI “wanted the ecclesial community to open up to the world without giving in to the spirit of the world. With prudent wisdom, he knew how to resist the temptation of ‘conforming’ to the modern mentality, sustaining difficulties and misunderstandings, and sometimes even hostility, with evangelical strength. Even in the most difficult moments he did not cease to bring God's illuminating word to his people.”
“Let us give thanks to God,” John Paul concluded, “for the gift of [Paul VI's] pontificate, a solid and sage guide for the Church. … In the light of our eternal goal we understand better how urgent it is to love Christ and to serve his Church with joy.”
Father Raymond J. de Souza is the Register's Rome correspondent.