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Paul VI’s superb, beautiful theology remains as powerful as ever

The pope of my youth’s writing continues to resonate, with a faith as fresh as the day he penned them

By on Monday, 2 January 2012

Pope Paul VI, with the future John Paul II  CNS Photos

Pope Paul VI, with the future John Paul II CNS Photos

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.

  • Ryan

    Pope Paul VI may have had a beautiful theology, but his actual decisions as Pope were disastrous for the Church. It will be another millennium before the Church emerges from the shadow of the liturgical “reform” signed off on by Paul VI.

  • Polycar

    Please tell us what proof you have for your position on Paul VI.

  • Anonymous

    Paul VI is a much maligned figure, especially by certain Catholic bloggers, and their followers, who erroniously consider his policies (and possibly Paul) to be a rupture in the ‘hermeneutic of continuity’. (to use the fashionable term). Whereas I regard John Paul II’s writings to be somewhat laborious, as with Fr Lucie-Smith, I continue to find Paul’s encyclicals to be expressed in a manner which is immensely readable. Unlike Ryan, I believe that Paul was a true gift to the Church.

  • Titus

    Ryan’s conclusion is not inconsistent with Fr. Lucie-Smith’s, although he may state it with perhaps too much assuredness. Paul VI was a faithful, intelligent man who wrote beautifully on the truth of the faith. He was also a poor manager who, at times unwittingly, allowed all manner of things to get quite out of hand and who made some prudential choices that may have been too much the product of contemporary fashion. Paul VI’s own exasperation towards the end of his pontificate points to these facts and the degree to which they troubled not even those who came after him, but he himself.

  • Tony

    The folks in The Novus Ordo Watch archives (recently updated) certainly don’t sing his praises.

  • Charles Martel

    Paul VI was the Pope of my youth. He died when I was 14, and I still remember being excited at the prospect that the next Pope might undo some of the damage of the previous 15 years or so.
    Paul VI was notoriously schizophrenic in his views and actions. On the negative side, you must admit that he botched the liturgical reform, and his writings on the subject are far from ‘beautiful’, let alone logical. Have a look at this, from his General Audience address of 26 November 1969 on his reasons for abandoning Latin in the liturgy against the whole tradition of the Church, against John XXIII’s ‘Veterum Sapientia’, and against Vatican II’s ‘Sacrosanctum Concilium’:
    “We must prepare for this many-sided inconvenience. It is the kind of upset caused by
    every novelty that breaks in on our habits. We shall notice that pious persons are
    disturbed most, because they have their own respectable way of hearing Mass, and they will
    feel shaken out of their usual thoughts and obliged to follow those of others. Even
    priests may feel some annoyance in this respect.”
    I have never seen any Pope write in such a patronising fashion about the Faithful. The full text of this arrogant address can be found here:
    By the way, as far as I remember, Cardinal Luigi Ciappi O.P. wrote Paul VI’s best stuff, such as the Credo of the People of God and Humanae Vitae…