The news that Pope Paul VI will be beatified this coming October at the closing Mass for the Synod for the Family comes as something of a surprise. Pope Paul’s cause was introduced back in 1993 by the diocese of Rome, though there were requests before that that he should be raised to the altars. However, for most of us, all this has progressed somewhat under the radar, until now, that is. But not in Italy, where the causes of saints are taken seriously, and particularly not in Brescia, the Pope’s home town, where he is fondly remembered. (In Italy, where the sense of place is still strong, it is usual for a cause for beatification to garner much local support.) But whatever people may feel in Italy in general and Brescia in particular, the beatification of Paul VI will not be enthusiastically received in the wider Catholic world.
There are several reasons for this. People born before 1970 will have hazy memories at best of the late Pope, who, after all, lived in the age before 24 hour news coverage. It is true that in the 1960’s, the early part of his pontificate, Pope Paul was a globe-trotting Pope, just as John Paul II was later to be, but who remembers, let us say, his visit to Uganda to beatify the Ugandan Martyrs now? That was in 1964, and was a huge event at the time. The sermon the Pope preached then was inspiring, and has been preserved in the pages of the Breviary. You can read what he had to say here. This is one of several sermons preached by Pope Paul VI that have made it into the Office of Readings. There is another one here, for the feast of the Holy Family, which again dates from 1964. Reading these, one can be left in no doubt that Paul VI was a great communicator of the gospel. The same is true for his encyclical letters, which are elegant, powerful, and above all, concise. I read them all as a youth, and they made a great impression on me. As Pope, Paul VI wanted to be like Paul the Apostle, a teacher to the nations. This beatification might be an opportunity for us to rediscover his teaching, which would do us all a world of good.
Paul VI may be forgotten in the contemporary world, but he is worth remembering. One of the points of making someone Blessed is so that they will have a liturgical memorial, as it is called.
Let’s also remember some of the other things that Pope Paul VI did. He pioneered the idea and the practice of a humbler Papacy. This was not simply a matter of selling the Papal tiara and giving the money to the poor, which was gesture much noticed at the time. Far more important than this was his meetings with Archbishop Michael Ramsay in 1964 at St Paul beyond the Walls in Rome, which marked the beginning of constructive dialogue between Catholics and Anglicans, and his meeting with Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople, in the Holy Land, also in 1964, did the same for East-West relations.
One notes how the year 1964 keeps on recurring. It was, perhaps, the annus mirabilis of Paul VI. His annus horribilis was to follow in the aftermath of Humanae Vitae, published in July 1968. It is no secret that the Pope was deeply distressed by the widespread rejection of the encyclical, just as he was deeply saddened by the way so many priests left the priesthood in the aftermath of the Council. People who knew him have spoken of the way these experiences, and the burden of the Papacy itself, more or less crushed him. If Pope Paul was a saint (and I for one fervently believe he is) he was a martyr too, a martyr for truth, and a martyr to duty.
Part of the perceived problem with this new beatification is that it comes hot on the heels of the canonisations of St John XXIII and St John Paul II. Do we need more Pope Saints? Frankly, no. But we do need more saints. I am glad Giovanni Battista Montini is being beatified, not because he was Pope, but because he was a holy man.