The pope of my youth's writing continues to resonate, with a faith as fresh as the day he penned them
Was there a particular highlight for you in the Christmas liturgies?
One reading, from the office of Readings for the Feast of the Holy Family, is a great favourite of mine. It is a translation of part of a speech given by Paul VI on the occasion of his visit to Nazareth on the 5th January 1964. The French original of the entire speech can be found on the Vatican website here and an English version of the reading can be found here on the Universalis website, though I note that the English translation that I have in my breviary differs in several respects and is rather better than the one online.
It is a superb piece of theology from Paul VI, and more than just that – it is beautifully expressed and completely accessible. Paul VI came from an upper middle class family in Brescia, in the north of Italy (his father was a member at one time of the Italian Senate). It is interesting to note that this speech was made in French, which back in 1964 must have been considered the natural language for an Italian pope to speak on a visit to Israel. One wonders if the Pope wrote it himself, or how comfortable he was in expressing himself in French. One suspects that it must have been written by a native French-speaker, so sonorous does it sound; but that a man of Paul VI’s education would have had no problem making these words his own.
When I was youngster, aged about thirteen or fourteen, I read all the encyclicals of Pope Paul VI, and found the experience rewarding. They were short and to the point, and expressed with clarity, concision and beauty, and they were all published in user-friendly little pamphlets by the Catholic Truth Society. I have read somewhere that the Pope composed these encyclicals himself, and wrote them in Latin, which explains their stylistic excellence. Modern Vatican documents are usually translated into Latin from some other language, which is not the same thing at all. But Pope Paul, born in the nineteenth century, would have been at home with Latin composition in a way that few are today. And Latin, let us remember, is a language ideally suited to theology, being both profound and precise. Anyone who doubts this should read St Augustine in the original, which is manageable in small chunks, or with a parallel text, even if you are only up to O-Level standard; for me Augustine is the great Latin stylist, and style is important.
Paul VI, who died a few days before my fifteenth birthday, was the Pope of my youth, and he was a huge influence on me as I was growing up. He communicated to me, through his writings, a profound gospel message. Every time I read the second reading for the feast of the Holy Family, something of that freshness of faith returns to me.