When the much anticipated and much discussed preliminary session of the Synod on the Family concludes on Sunday, Oct. 19, 2014, a concelebration of the Mass will take place at the Vatican and will be presided over by Pope Francis, along with the bishops and cardinals who attended and participated in the Synod. The eyes and ears of the world will be also be present (as they have been throughout the deliberations), through the various media outlets and news organizations. At the conclusion, journalists, commentators and analysts will try mightily to reassess and bisect what documents arise from these discussions, hoping to discern what it all means for the mission and future of the church. Amidst—and despite—all that, one pertinent detail will be unfortunately overlooked by many (and not just in the secular press)—and that is the fact that the Mass concluding the synod will be in recognition of the virtues and sanctity of one of Pope Francis’ predecessors, Pope Paul VI, who will be formally beatified and henceforth be known as “Blessed.”
Until now, Pope Paul VI has seemingly been lost to the mists of history: since his death on the Feast of the Transfiguration in August 1978, his personality and his reputation has suffered due to the comparisons that were inevitably made with his immediate predecessor and his successors in the Petrine office. It seemed impossible for that not to happen to someone who was a shy, retiring, religious, and very cultured man that was Giovanni Battista Montini, who came from the Italian town of Concesio, in the province of Brescia. By way of background, education, training and experience and world-view, he had the wherewithal and seasoning necessary for being able to assume the papal duties after the death of “Good Pope John” in June 1963 and to move forward the Vatican Council that Pope John hoped and prayed would be an aggiornamento for the church.
Unfortunately for Pope Paul, he had the misfortune to be the pontiff during the upheaval of the 1960s and the uncertainty of the 1970s. Speculation was that he would have been a logical successor to Pius XII at the 1958 conclave, had he been a cardinal then; if he had been elected, it is unknowable whether he would have convoked the Council as John XXIII eventually did—and one of the great “what-ifs” of history is what course the church would have then taken had the papal election turned out differently.
And the fact that he happened to be between two very popular and beloved popes further clouded perspectives about him (a circumstance not unknown by another similar successor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI). Paul VI knew he would not be compared favorably with John XXIII; a story at the time vividly illustrated their contrasting styles: as it was told, John, being an expansive, good-natured person, once pushed back the curtains of his window in the Vatican apartments and saw two lovers embracing near the fountain below. He observed it, smiled and silently blessed the couple. But when Paul came upon a similar scene, he rushed to the telephone, ringing their parents to alert them to what their children were doing in St. Peter’s Square. The story may be apocryphal, but it put in high relief the contrasting nature the perceptions of the two men who led the church.
For Pope Paul, the process of canonization will begin at the Mass at the conclusion of the Synod when he will be beatified for the miracle that is attributed to him due to his intercession on behalf of a baby who was expected to have numerous birth defects when born.* The baby’s parents decided to go ahead with the pregnancy after praying for Pope Paul’s intercession; as a result, the baby boy survived and is now a healthy teenager. When another miracle occurs, he will become—and declared—a saint, highlighting the life and work of one who served the Church during turbulent times.
And what turbulent times they were: succeeding a much-loved pope, steering Vatican Council II towards its conclusion and trying to implement its decrees (and by adroit handling of the cross-currents within the church, miraculously avoiding a schism), trying to promote peace in a world besotted by war, facing a climate when admired and respected leaders were assassinated and an era where trust and respect were no longer automatically assumed—or given—all the while trying to teach above the din of hate by simply saying that if we “want peace, work for justice.” And, enduring misunderstanding and dismissal because of an encyclical that tried to elevate the treatment and meaning of human life—all these occurred in trying times and those times sorely tried the man who was called to assume a place in the long line of succession to that first apostle, Peter.
It is amazing to think of what Pope Paul accomplished in his life of service to the church, given his natural inclination towards shyness and reticence. Also, his health wasn’t the best at times, and it was not easy to keep it from impeding his vocation. But he was anchored in his faith as he went about his work. From his childhood days in Cesare Arici (a Jesuit school), to his studies as a young man at the Gregorian University in Rome and thereafter, his was a life-long quest for knowledge of God and the wider world—he was renowned for study, books and culture. He was so enamored of learning new things, that a neighbor once remarked that the young Giovanni Battista must have “eaten the dictionary” for breakfast! When Pius XII appointed him as Archbishop of Milan in 1954, it was reputed that as he left Rome for his new residence, he did so with 90 crates of books in tow. With his faith, education, travel and pastoral experiences, he was well-grounded for the role he had to assume in 1963.
Much can be commented on about the pontificate of Paul VI and how well or not he steered the church during his tenure. In his day he was both hailed and assailed “for what he did and what he failed to do” (to paraphrase the Confiteor). Among his accomplishments besides completing Vatican II, he opened dialogues with other religions and churches, thus fostering ecumenism, and he was the first pope to leave Italy and travel abroad with the Gospel message in the jet-age era (an innovation that became commonplace under John Paul II). He updated and internationalized the Curia, expanded the College of Cardinals, began the process of simplifying the papacy, inaugurated the Annual Day of Peace, created the consulting body of bishops known as the Synod and continued Pius’ work on making the Bible more accessible and relatable to the faithful in their everyday lives. And it was Paul, out of his devotion and veneration, having Mary, the Mother of God, declared the Mother of the Church at the conclusion of the Council.
Apart from all this, what can be said of Pope Paul himself? Perhaps the best way to picture him is through the image from Isaiah of the Suffering Servant. Anyone familiar with the Holy Week liturgies will recognize those passages from Isaiah which foretells the Passion of the Messiah, Jesus. But it is impossible not to apply it also to Pope Paul, who exemplified in his own person such suffering in his own times, when he had to preach the joy of the Gospel in a period when people (and that infamous TIME magazine cover) went about declaring that “God is dead.” Like the Servant and like Jesus, Paul “was acquainted with grief,” “oppressed and afflicted,” “despised” and not “esteemed,” “crushed for our iniquities.” And yet…
Despite the obstacles he had to encounter along the way, Pope Paul persevered and never gave up hope, even when he had more than enough reasons to be sad and despondent (like Abraham Lincoln in his day). If anything, Giovanni Battista Montini was simply a man of faith. He did not have all the answers but endured the suffering of all the questions. He worked for the good of humanity while trusting in the Lord. He once said, “If only we can say Our Father and know what this means, then we would understand the Christian faith.”
Maybe this is the message of Pope Paul, that despite our sufferings, we can still have an inner joy which is incomprehensible to the outside world; that ascending with faith, we cannot really fail, no matter how often we may appear to fall. And by possessing such a trust—like Pope Paul did—someday, maybe, we, too, can be “allotted a portion with the great.”
*CORRECTION: The original version of this post said that the baby in question was expected to be stillborn; in fact, the baby was expected to have severe birth defects.