Throwback Thursday: The Passionate Love of Pope Paul VI for Christ and His Church

This coming October 14, Pope Paul VI will be canonized in a Mass where Archbishop Oscar Romero will also be formally recognized as a saint.  Looking forward to that day, now on the 40th anniversary of the end of his earthly sojourn, we remember with joy the life and ministry of soon-to-be Saint Paul VI.

Pope Francis revealed in his July 2014 interview with the Roman daily newspaper, Il Messaggero, that Blessed Pope Paul VI, whose beatification the Church celebrated in October 2014, has been a great light for him.  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 humble papacy.

Many people today are too young to remember or have known Pope Paul, who died 40 years ago on August 6, 1978, but I can never forget that time which formed my priestly ministry.  My seminary formation in Rome began in September of the year in which Pope Paul VI was elected, June 1963.  I still have and cherish both the photo of myself being presented to him in July of the following year and the book he gave to each of the North American College seminarians, a collection of his talks as Archbishop of Milan on the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints.  Later when I was serving with the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy, I had an opportunity to experience close up Pope Paul’s pastoral shepherding of the Church.

At his election as Pope, Giovanni Battista Montini took the name of the Apostle to the Gentiles, and he immediately declared his intention to complete the Second Vatican Council, which had begun the year before.  We seminarians had a sense first-hand during this period that something very wonderful was happening – 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, that renewal was anchored in her history, in the living continuity of the great Apostolic Tradition.

In his first encyclical, Pope Paul took up the question of the Church, much like the Council itself and our own Archdiocesan Synod in 2014.  “We believe that it is a duty of the Church at the present time to strive toward a clearer and deeper awareness of itself and its mission in the world, and of the treasury of truth of which it is heir and custodian,” he wrote. “By doing this it will find a more revealing light, new energy and increased joy in the fulfillment of its own mission, and discover better ways of augmenting the effectiveness and fruitfulness of its contacts with the world” (Ecclesiam Suam, 18).

The Pope then went on to discuss the imperative of charitable dialogue with the world in which the Church lives.  “The very nature of the gifts which Christ has given the Church demands that they be extended to others and shared with others,” he stressed.  “The Church can regard no one as excluded from its motherly embrace, no one as outside the scope of its motherly care” (Id., 64, 94).

Pope Paul was a true pastor.  Throughout his life, often in very trying circumstances, he dedicated his energies to serving the Lord and his Church in the work of salvation, transforming humanity with the love of Christ and making it new.

“Few have known, as he, to interpret the anxieties, desires, toils and aspirations of the men of our century,” Saint John Paul II would say of Pope Paul.  “He wished to walk at their side; to do this he made himself a pilgrim on their roads, meeting them where they lived and struggled to build a world of greater attention and respect for the dignity of every human being.”

This service to the Lord and his sisters and brothers in the human family came at a time of cultural turmoil.  But through it all, during which he was in a sense “poured out like a libation” like his namesake, Pope Paul competed well and kept the faith (cf. 2 Timothy 4:6-7) while setting the stage for the New Evangelization.  Thanks be to God for sending us such an inspiring shepherd and servant of his kingdom.