Despite severe challenges, the Church did not enter a steep decline the end of the pontiff's reign
Thirty-six years ago today Pope Paul VI died at Castelgandolfo. It was the feast of the Transfiguration, and he was staying at the Papal Summer Palace as usual, though his health had been visibly failing the previous Easter. He was eighty and he had reigned for fifteen years. I was fifteen years old, a schoolboy on holiday in Malta and Gozo that August. Pope Paul had been pope my entire life. That was long before 24-hour news channels; in those days news came via the Times of Malta, or else day old newspapers sent over from London, or by Malta Television which started in summer at 7pm. In Gozo we had no television, so we went to the local bar and bought a Kinnie, and watched the news there. I think the bar’s television, indeed all televisions in the Maltese Islands then, was black and white.
I found the events surrounding the death of Paul VI not just interesting but profoundly involving. I have always maintained that Pope Paul was a great Pope, and now, thirty-six years later I shall be going to Rome for his beatification. The Church of then, the era of Paul VI, was a different Church to now, but also a Church that was in many ways healthier and happier. And it was this Church I grew up in. I think my devotion to the Venerable Paul VI can perhaps be explained, if it needs explanation, by reference to the 1970s and the days of my youth.
It is perfectly true that the 1970s were in many ways a low point, particularly liturgically: this was the era of the coffee table Mass, after all, at several of which I assisted, though without ever approving them, I might add, much to the rage of several clergy. But back in the seventies there were lots of priests and nuns about, and the Church seemed to be flourishing, even if the number of vocations had dried up quite dramatically; but this had still to work its way through. Moreover, the almost complete rejection of Christian morality on the part of the world had not yet made itself felt. It is true that the disasters of the sixties had already happened, but the effects of these had not made themselves fully visible. In the 1970s the Church felt as it always had, perhaps, though it was clearly living on borrowed time. There were Christian Democrat governments in many European countries: no one could have imagined the terrible corruptions scandals that were to engulf Italy and destroy the Christian Democrats there; or indeed the child abuse scandals that were to overtake the Catholic Church. Indeed the first time I heard of child abuse was someone talking about a scandal at a Catholic orphanage in Canada when I was 18 years old; that would have been in 1981. That was the first ripple that was to turn into the tsunami.
Outwardly the Church bequeathed by Paul VI was hugely successful; some might tell us, and perhaps they would be right to do so, that it was a system about to collapse, hollowed out from within, a bit like the France that Louis XIV bequeathed to his heirs. This, though is a subject that historians will have to analyse; they may reach useful conclusions long after we are all dead.
It is said that Paul VI himself had dire forebodings about what would happen after his death, prophesying that by the end of the twentieth century the Catholic Church, in Europe at least, would be “un pugno di vinti”, a bunch of broken men. But this seems to be an apocryphal story, though, as Italians say, “se non é vero, é ben trovato': it may not be true, but it makes a good point. But the point it makes is not the one you would expect: though facing severe challenges by the end of the reign of Pope Paul Vi, the Church did not enter a steep decline, but a period of both decline and renewal. Certain institutions inside the Church have headed towards extinction, but there is plenty of new growth as well. The reign of Saint John Paul II was not characterised by hopelessness. For that Paul VI deserves great credit. May he watch over us all from his place in heaven; particularly all of us who grew up in his reign, and who loved him for his firmness, gentleness, holiness, and humility.
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