Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting into the Deep
October 17, 2014
On Sunday, Pope Francis will beatify his predecessor, Pope Paul VI, the one who guided the Church when Jorge Bergoglio was a seminarian, young priest and Jesuit religious superior.
It’s multiply significant that the beatification will take place this Sunday.
The Mass will conclude the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family and it was Pope Paul VI who established the Synod of Bishops in 1965. It was also he who, out of pastoral zeal to keep love truly loving within the family, wrote Humanae Vitae in 1968 describing the corruption that would come to marital love, to women and to family life through the use of contraception.
It’s taking place in the month dedicated to Mary under her title of Our Lady of the Rosary; Pope Paul VI wrote four major documents on Marian devotion and sought very much to encourage families to pray the Rosary.
It’s World Mission Sunday and Pope Paul VI wrote the Magna Carta on the Church’s missionary work, Evangelii Nuntiandi, the 1975 exhortation that Pope Francis has called “the greatest pastoral document that has ever been written.”
It’s lastly the 40th anniversary of his first encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, describing the principles of the Church’s interaction with the modern world.
His beatification this Sunday therefore gives the Church today a rich context as we seek prayerfully to care for the family in light of the demands of the new evangelization.
The beatification of a pope recognizes his personal heroic virtue and of at least one miracle God has granted through his intercession — in this case, the healing of a California child in utero fourteen years ago after his mother was urged to abort. It’s not a beatification of his papacy, although it certainly provides an opportunity to re-examine his papacy through the light of his personal holiness. I think in Pope Paul VI’s case, this reevaluation is important, because to a large degree criticism of his papacy, most of it unjustified, has jaundiced opinion of his person.
The only thing I remember of the pope of my first eight years was news of his death. But when later I started to pay attention to the things of the Church and learn from the opinions of older Catholics, most of the evaluations of Paul VI I heard were negative.
Those who lamented the liturgical chaos after the Second Vatican Council spoke disapprovingly of various changes he authorized, many of which we now know he sanctioned only because he had been betrayed with false information from the person he had placed in charge of the liturgical reforms.
The legion of Catholics who used contraception spoke derisively of what he wrote in Humanae Vitae.
Those who thought that he should have disciplined those teaching falsely or living in a manner unworthy of the Gospel arraigned him as a weak leader.
He was criticized by right and left, by curialists and secularists, and basically portrayed as pusillanimous rather than valiant.
Over the course of my seminary studies and work in the Vineyard, however, I have grown to grown to see him in a much different light.
He was pope during one of the most tumultuous periods in the history of the Church. He had to confront various crises simultaneously, from the Cold and Vietnam Wars, to the assassination of so many political leaders, the inhumane poverty of various parts of the world, the hemorrhaging of vocations to the priesthood and religious life, the corruption of sexual abuse that was clandestinely occurring within the Church, the sexual revolution, and the vast crisis of faith that impacted so many areas of Church teaching and life. Whereas some of his approaches can be second-guessed, he sought to do everything he could to help guide the Church through the storm.
In 1972, he publicly admitted what, or better whom, he knew he was up against. “From some fissure,” he stated, “the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God.… There has been an intervention of an adverse power [whose] name is the devil” who was seeking to “disturb, to suffocate the fruits of the Ecumenical Council, and to impede the Church from breaking into the hymn of joy at having renewed in fullness its awareness of itself.”
It was Satan, he said, who was ultimately behind the liturgical “creativity” that was wreck-ovating Churches and making the priest, rather than God, the center of the liturgy; the lack of trust in the Church and the gullible credence given to the “first profane prophet who speaks in some journal or social movement”; the “doubt that had entered consciences … by windows that should have been open to the light”; and the tempests, darkness and uncertainty that was reigning in the Church and in culture.
Paul VI fought the devil hard and never gave up, never lost hope, even if often he appeared weary. He saw his mission at the time of confusion to “strengthen the faith of his brethren,” the task Jesus himself gave to Peter, with the certitude of the truths of faith, even if the seeds fell on unreceptive soil.
In his Testament published after his death, he said two things that all of us should ponder as we mark his beatification this Sunday. They’re as relevant today as when he wrote them facing death.
Regarding the state of the Church, he said, “May she listen to a few of our words, uttered with seriousness and love for her.”
And regarding the world, he added, “Do not think the Church can help it by assuming its thoughts, customs, and tastes, but rather by studying it, loving it, serving it.”
His beatification is an opportunity for us to study anew his words and to study and serve the world, not by assimilating its spirit or “smoke,” but leavening it with the spirit of the Gospel, the spirit with which he lived heroically.