Today during a Mass in St. Peter’s Square marking the conclusion of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, Pope Francis beatified his predecessor, Pope Paul VI. How fitting that our Holy Father has lifted up Blessed Paul VI as a model for families, and indeed for all individual Catholics, in our call to emulate the Apostle Paul and bring the Good News of Jesus’ Gospel to the ends of the earth.
When he was elected pope in 1963, Giovanni Battista Montini took the name of Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, and he immediately declared his intention to complete the Second Vatican Council. While studying for the priesthood in Rome during this period, I along with my fellow seminarians had a sense that something very wonderful was happening – that the Church was undergoing a moment of renewal, rededication and recommitment. We were also reminded during those years that while the Church was in the process of being made new again, the renewal was anchored in her history, in the living continuity of the great apostolic tradition.
Blessed Pope Paul VI has been called a “great light” by Pope Francis. Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI likewise attested to the profound influence of Pope Paul on them – from his teachings and steadfast guidance of the Church through the storms of cultural upheaval, to his pioneering practice of overseas apostolic journeys and a more modest papal style.
Pope Francis often quotes from Blessed Paul VI’s 1975 apostolic exhortation on evangelization in the modern world, Evangelii nuntiandi, which he has called “the most important pastoral document” following the Second Vatican Council, and “a great source of inspiration” to him personally.
In my 2010 pastoral letter on the New Evangelization, Disciples of the Lord: Sharing the Vision, I underscored the importance of that landmark document by Blessed Paul VI, noting that he affirmed that the Church should be an evangelizing community.
“The command to the Twelve to go out and proclaim the Good News is also valid for all Christians, though in a different way…. the Good News of the kingdom which is coming and which has begun is meant for all people of all times. Those who have received the Good News and who have been gathered by it into the community of salvation can and must communicate and spread it,” Paul VI wrote in Evangelii nuntiandi, 13.
In my pastoral letter, I also noted that in this historic document, issued 10 years to the day after the close of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI discerned the need for “a new period of evangelization”. In a heartfelt way, Pope Paul VI encouraged us to continue the work of the Apostles today, and carry out the New Evangelization as we share our faith by witnessing to Christ’s love and hope in our homes, our workplaces, our communities and our world.
Pope Paul VI was a true pastor, as he worked to implement the documents of the Second Vatican Council and reaffirm how the Gospel and the Church’s teachings offer a light to humanity. His encyclical Humanae vitae offered a template for the work of the just-concluded synod in its teaching on the God-given dignity of marriage and family life, and that holy pope responded in a pastoral way to the public dissent and confrontation which followed that encyclical’s challenging but prophetic teachings.
As the first modern pope to make pilgrimages to his flock around the world, Blessed Paul VI made nine major trips abroad, including to the Holy Land, Asia, Africa, South America, Australia and to the United States, where he made his famous plea for peace at the United Nations in 1965. He also demonstrated the importance of ecumenism and interfaith relations, and of working together with people of different religions for peace and to bring justice to the poor.
Saint John Paul II said of Pope Paul: “He made himself a pilgrim on their roads, meeting them where they lived and (he) struggled to build a world of greater attention and respect for the dignity of every human being.”
As he frequently calls on Catholics to “go out” and share their faith, and reach out with love to the poor, Pope Francis echoes the call of Blessed Paul VI, the pilgrim pope who not only set the stage for the New Evangelization – he lived it. So should we, as pilgrims on the journey to heaven.