During his general audience with 10,000 pilgrims in St. Peter's Square on June 25, Pope John Paul II paid tribute to Pope Paul VI as “a steadfast and wise guide for the Church” who served as “a strong and meek apostle.” He also said Paul VI was a source of inspiration to him personally “as a father and a teacher” and that the secret of his ministry was love. “Love is the secret of Peter's mission!” he noted. “Love is also the secret of those who are called to imitate the Good Shepherd in guiding the People of God.”
John Paul noted that June 21 marked the 40th anniversary of Pope Paul VI's election as Pope. He pointed out that Paul VI brought the Second Vatican Council to its conclusion and carried forward its program for Church renewal. He also told the pilgrims Paul VI showed “a great openness to the demands of this modern age.”
“I was able to personally appreciate the unceasing commitment that Paul VI demonstrated for the much-needed aggiornamento of the Church that the New Evangelization required,” John Paul said. “With prudent wisdom, he knew how to resist the temptation to’ adapt’ to the modern mentality by facing difficulties, a lack of understanding and, in some cases, even hostility with evangelical fortitude.”
During his teaching, the Holy Father especially singled out Pope Paul VI's achievements in imparting a deeper meaning of the Church and its relationship to the world, his courageous defense of human life and his support for the developing nations in constructing a more just and united society.
The passage from John (John 21:15-17) that we just heard presents a rather thought-provoking scene from the Gospel. The Son of God entrusts his flock, which is his Church, to Peter, against which, as he had already assured Peter, the gates of hell would not prevail (see Matthew 16:17-18). Jesus prefaces this charge with a request for love: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15). This somewhat disturbing question, which is repeated three times, recalls the apostle's threefold denial. Yet, despite his bitter experience, Peter humbly protests: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you!” (John 21:17).
Love is the secret of Peter's mission! Love is also the secret of those who are called to imitate the Good Shepherd in guiding the people of God. “Officium amoris pascere dominicum gregem ... Watching over the Lord's flock is a labor of love,” Paul VI loved to say, borrowing a well-known phrase from St. Augustine.
Love of God
“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” How many times my venerated predecessor, God's servant Paul VI, whom we remember today, must have heard these words resound in his spirit! Forty years have passed since his election to the chair of Peter on June 21, 1963, and 25 years have passed since his death on Aug. 6, 1978. In his early years, he had worked in the direct service of the Apostolic See with Pope Pius XI. For a long period he was one of the most faithful and valuable collaborators of Pope Pius XII. He was the immediate successor of Blessed John XXIII, whom I had the joy of beatifying almost three years ago. His ministry as the universal pastor of the Church lasted 15 years and was especially noteworthy for the Second Vatican Council and for a great openness to the demands of this modern age.
I, too, had the blessing to take part in the work of the council and to experience the period after the council. I was able to personally appreciate the unceasing commitment that Paul VI demonstrated for the much-needed aggiornamento of the Church the New Evangelization required. After succeeding him in the chair of Peter, I have been concerned with continuing the pastoral work he began, and he has been an inspiration to me as a father and a teacher.
A strong and meek apostle, Paul VI loved the Church and worked for its unity and to expand its missionary work. From this perspective, we fully understand how apostolic trips, which are an integral part of the ministry of the successor of Peter today, were an innovative initiative.
He wanted the Church community to be open to the world without, however, giving in to the spirit of the world. With prudent wisdom, he knew how to resist the temptation to “adapt” to the modern mentality by facing difficulties, a lack of understanding and, in some cases, even hostility with evangelical fortitude. Even during his most difficult moments, he did not withhold from the people of God his illuminating word. Toward the end of his days, the whole world seemed to rediscover his greatness and draw near to him in a moving embrace.
Love is the secret of those
who are called to imitate
the Good Shepherd in
guiding the people of God.
His magisterium was rich and was largely oriented to educating believers in the meaning of the Church. Among his many contributions, I will limit myself to recalling, besides his encyclical Ecclesiam Suam (Paths of the Church) at the beginning of his pontificate, his moving profession of faith known as the “Creed of the People of God” that he vigorously proclaimed in St. Peter's Square on June 30, 1968. How could I fail to mention his courageous defense of human life with his encyclical Humanae Vitae (On Human Life) and his support of the developing nations in constructing a more just and united society with his encyclical Populorum Progressio(On the Development of Peoples)?
A Committed Apostle
His personal reflections from his spiritual retreats, when he would “withdraw” into himself as “in the cell of his heart” are also noteworthy. He often meditated on the position to which God had called him to serve his “always beloved” Church, in the spirit of Peter's vocation. “In this meditation,” he noted during one of these retreats, “no one should be more committed than me ... to understanding it and living it! Lord, what a reality, what a mystery! It is an adventure in which everything depends on Christ” (Retreat, Aug. 5-13, 1963, Meditazioni Inedite, Studium Publishers).
Dear brothers and sisters, let us thank God for the gift of this Pope, who was a steadfast and wise guide for the Church. In his homily on June 29, 1978, just about a month before the end of his hardworking life on earth, Paul VI confided the following: “Before the dangers that we have outlined ... we feel the urge to go to Christ, as our only salvation, and cry out to him:’ Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life’ (John 6:68). He alone is the truth, he alone is our strength, and he alone is our salvation. Comforted by him, we will continue our way together” (Insegnamenti, XVI, 1978, p. 524).
In light of our eternal goal, we understand better how urgent it is to love Christ and to serve his Church with joy. May Mary, whom Paul VI wished to proclaim Mother of the Church out of filial love, obtain for us this grace! Indeed, may Our Lady embrace this devoted son of hers in her arms in the eternal blessedness that is reserved for the faithful servants of the Gospel!