Google “Pope Paul VI” and “beatification” and you won’t find yourself slogging through a blizzard of news. It appears that his upcoming beatification, to be celebrated in Rome Oct. 19 as the final step before sainthood, is doomed to relative obscurity even before it happens.
Neglect isn’t a new experience for Paul VI. When Pope John Paul II was elected back in 1978, it seemed that Paul’s 15-year reign was forgotten almost overnight. To many, Paul seemed the last of a long line of business-as-usual, Italian popes, whereas John Paul was fresh, young, and foreign.
As important as these impressions were, there were ideological motives in the rush to forget Paul VI as well. Few, then or now, could fully identify with him. In some way or another, he managed to rankle almost everyone.
Many on the right won’t forgive him for what they consider a bungled liturgical reform, wrought on Paul’s watch by the ill-fated Italian Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, later exiled to an ecclesiastical outpost in Iran. Meanwhile, the left is still smarting 45 years later from the Pope’s reiterated ban on contraception despite contrary recommendations from a majority of advisors.
But let’s leave aside Paul’s political leanings for a moment, as well as some of his more controversial decisions.
There is something else to celebrate here. Paul VI is a truly modern saint, one with critical lessons for the contemporary world. He learned to find joy in sadness, and victory amidst apparent failures.
During my time as a seminarian from 1985 to 1991, I read most of Paul’s magisterial output as pope. Though I found much of it uninspiring, one day I stumbled upon his 1975 letter (“apostolic exhortation”) on Christian joy, called Gaudete in Domino.
The short letter, of just under 11,000 words, resonated very much with me, especially in the midst of revelations that in his last years Paul VI had suffered from what many now consider undiagnosed depression — that quintessentially modern ailment. Through the years, I found myself going back to the letter over and over again.
In it, Paul does not lay out a theoretical discourse on what joy should be. His words are infused with the personal experience of one who wrestled, day after day, to uncover the joy that God promises to those who love him. Even those who question whether the pope suffered from clinical depression acknowledge that he was given to extended bouts of sadness, especially in his later years.
Yet somehow, Paul kept believing in joy.
The letter contains candid references to the Pope’s own sufferings. He speaks of exercising his ministry “in the midst of many contradictions and difficulties” and makes his own the words of St. Paul: “With all our affliction, I am overjoyed.”
The letter seemed almost like a personal pep-talk written to buoy his own spirits while simultaneously exhorting the whole Church to joy in the Holy Spirit.
I couldn’t help but think of Pope Paul when in October, 2003, revelations emerged that Mother Teresa of Calcutta had suffered for decades from anguish, doubts and darkness. Another saint for our times, Teresa was somehow able to keep smiling to the world and preaching the tenderness of God’s love while feeling remote from it herself.
Far from being a hypocrite, she offered the world the truth of her faith, while interiorly embracing her own darkness. When she was unable to find Christ in her prayers, she found Him in her fellow human beings.
Saints like Teresa and Paul make many modern folk uncomfortable. The faith should make us blissfully happy, we tell ourselves. God wouldn’t let his best friends suffer like that.
When I was growing up, one would often hear the complaint that the saints seemed too perfect, too distant from the realities of ordinary Catholics struggling to make ends meet. Nowadays, perhaps the opposite is happening. Some people have a hard time grasping the difficulties faced by real saints of flesh and blood as they fought their way through life. They would like them to be a little more distant from the messy business of life.
But for many of us, the revelations of the interior struggles of the saints are reassuring. The examples of holy people like Pope Paul are especially meaningful to men and women in an age when so many secular forces seem bent on destroying or undermining Christian faith.
In his letter on joy, Paul includes a chapter titled “The Joy of the Saints.” Not surprisingly, he speaks of coming to the light by embracing the cross. And he invokes the memory of another saint who experienced darkness, Saint Therese of Lisieux.
“It is not that she has no experience of the feeling of God’s absence,” Paul writes, “a feeling which our century is harshly experiencing.” And he goes on to quote from her autobiography:
“Sometimes it seems that the little bird [to which she compared herself] cannot believe that anything else exists except the clouds that envelop it … This is the moment of perfect joy for the poor, weak little thing … What happiness for it to remain there, nevertheless, and to gaze at the invisible light that hides from its faith.”
Like Mother Teresa, who offered the world the gift of her radiant smile in the midst of deep interior darkness and pain, Paul gave the world a vision of joy in which he firmly believed, though he may have found it beyond his earthly grasp.
That is something to celebrate.