The Transfiguration of Paul VI

It was 37 years ago, on August 6, 1978, that Pope Paul VI died of a heart attack at the age of 80. He had been in ill health for some time; he had suffered greatly from arthritis, which restricted his movements. At the time, like many in Rome, he took his annual vacation up in the Alban hills to his summer residence in Castel Gondolfo to escape the heat of the August summer.

When he departed the Vatican, he told assembled aides the he was leaving, but whether he “would return” was an open question. He was referring of course, to his immanent death, which he knew would soon be coming, but even he, as pope, did not know with exactitude when that would be. To an outsider, such a statement would be a quizzical one: one would expect to return from a summer respite. But to those who knew Pope Paul, they would have understood. Throughout the year he had hinted that the time for his departure from this earth would occur soon and he felt that he had done the best he could ever since that time he accepted out of obedience the mantle of the Petrine ministry back in 1963. 

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But when the Feast of the Transfiguration came on August 6th, the gentle soul of Giovanni Battista Montini went back to his Father, after a period of prayer and expressing gratitude to those who helped him along the way. And, in an eerie coincidence, at the moment of his death, the alarm clock—the one he had bought when had briefly served as a papal representative in Poland so long ago—immediately went off, ringing wildly away, as if to signal at that moment his elevation to eternal life.  Like other popes before him, he was given a dignified funeral; and at his request, was buried “in the earth” underneath the Vatican grottoes, with a simple marble slab with his name, birth and death dates etched thereon. And when his body was brought back into the Vatican for the last time after the funeral rites were concluded, the crowds gathered in St. Peter’s Square broke out in a farewell of handkerchief-waving and applause.

The years of his pontificate were turbulent ones; when he was elected to succeed the beloved “Good Pope John”—Pope John XXIII—many believed that the cardinal electors had chosen the best qualified man to assume and carry forward the work of the Second Vatican Council which John had started. Little did Pope Paul or anyone else realize what lay in store for him personally and for the church generally in the years ahead. It was said that Pope John himself had favored Cardinal Montini from Milan as his successor; he knew of him and his abilities, his diplomatic tact, his education, his cultural and religious sensibilities. Even though he referred to him as a “Hamleto”—the Hamlet from Shakespeare—who could seem indecisive and overly cautious, John knew that the Giovanni Montini who became Pope Paul VI basically had the same forward—looking outlook with a strong faith in God and his church. 

But the years of assassinations, political upheaval and religious dissension tested Paul mightily. True, he held the church together and brought the Council to a successful conclusion, despite grumblings from some quarters. Also, he had the unfortunate and unenviable task of succeeding a beloved pope in the figure of Angelo Roncalli—no matter what he did or said, he would not come out favorably in the comparison. These were the crosses he had to bear and those, too, he accepted out of obedience and faith.

To a querulous world, he tried to present Catholicism—and Christianity—as a model for living and as a program to give human life meaning and value. And as so often happens when one goes against the grain and offers an alternative to the “ways of the world,” the prophet who was Pope Paul was denied, rebuffed, held in contempt, or just ignored. That, too, hurt him, for he was a sensitive soul and he could not help feeling the pain of rejection that is all too often a part of the human experience, which we all share. And yet, he accepted it all because he was devoted to his vocation that he offered to his Lord, way back to his days in Concescio, (in the Lombardy region of Italy) where he felt the stirrings of faith among his family, friends and neighbors.

Paul VI served for fifteen years by the time he died on that Transfiguration Day. His labors wore him out; though his countenance seemed sad at times, it was understandable, for he was human. He wanted to do good, for he was a good man and wanted others to be and do likewise. But he had an inner joy because of his faith in Jesus and keeping his gaze on Him, he persevered in that faith. He was mindful of what was said in the Book of Sirach; he performed his tasks with humility and realized that though he assumed a position of great power, he had equally great responsibilities, ones which worried him endlessly. He did his best to accomplish the tasks that were laid before him, for he knew that “in fire, gold is tested,” and that he had to endure “the furnace of humiliation.” 

It is curious to reflect on how the will of God works in human affairs. It was just 33 years before, on another August day, when the world was transfigured in another way, when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, ushering in an unwelcome chapter in the annals of death and destruction. But it was on those twinned anniversaries—one when death reigned as a result of war, and the other, when the Lord of all became “dazzlingly white” before mankind—that a frail, elderly pope died, after repeatedly praying the words of the Nicene Creed.

For 80 years, the pope who was born Giovanni Battista Montini, simply trusted in God and placed his hope in Him and because of that, he hoped “for good things,” like “lasting joy and mercy.”  After all these years, his work is now rewarded, and he is now “Blessed.” One day, it will ultimately result in the recognition of sainthood. Self-effacing as he was, Pope Paul would not have wanted glory as such; it was enough for him to know, in life—however dimly—the joy and mercy that his Lord offered him. Because of his lifetime of faith and devotion, it was through death that he gained eternal life’s gifts of that joy and mercy, a transfiguration he devoutly desired and one which we on earth sorely need.    

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