Francis canonizing not only Paul VI’s life, but also his legacy

Francis canonizing not only Paul VI’s life, but also his legacy

Pope Paul VI served as pontiff from 1963 to 1978. (Credit: Stock image.)

Despite numerous contrasts between Blessed Pope Paul VI and Pope Francis, they seem to be giving rise to the same kind of bishops.

News Analysis

ROME – Now that Pope Francis has said out loud what many have long suspected, which is that Blessed Pope Paul VI will be declared a saint within the year, it’s worth asking what the current pontiff seems to have picked up from his recent predecessors.

In all honesty, it’s possible to see pieces of each of the previous five popes in Francis.

From John XXII, Francis gets a maverick streak, and a determination to shake up a Church that both popes saw as being excessively closed on itself. From John Paul I, Francis picks up the smile and a populist touch. He’s got John Paul II’s charisma and command of the stage, as well as his relentless drive to make the social and political message of the Church relevant in the here-and-now. And from Benedict, Francis carries forward the root conviction that it’s time to focus on what the Church says “yes” to, not those things to which it says “no.”

That leaves the question of what Francis’s inheritance from Paul VI is, and perhaps the best one-word answer is “bishops” – like Paul VI in his time, Francis seems to want a cohort of pastorally-minded, center-left prelates to steer the Church in a direction perceived as more dialogical and less rigid.

At first blush, it’s often the dissimilarities between Paul and Francis that seem to loom largest.

Giovanni Battista Montini, the man who became Paul VI, was a figure of deep refinement and a delicate touch, somewhat shy and reserved, and always did everything with a deliberate elegance. Francis tends to be far more spontaneous and informal, a sort of “let-it-all-hang-out” personal approach that doubtless would have left the carefully prepared Paul a bit speechless at times.

Even on the rare occasions when Paul VI emoted in public, such as his famous cry of anguish after the assassination of his friend, former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro, in May 1978, he did it with deep eloquence and conscious aforethought.

In terms of substance, of course, each man handled what would become the defining moment of his papacy differently. Fifty years ago, in 1968, Paul VI faced the issue of whether to change the Church’s longstanding opposition to artificial birth control, delivering a strong “no” in his landmark encyclical Humanae Vitae.

Two years ago, Francis took up the question of whether to change another seemingly firm Church teaching, which was a prohibition on divorced and civilly remarried Catholics receiving Communion, offering up a cautious and qualified “yes.”

In terms of background, the two men are also something of a study in contrasts. Francis never served in the Vatican prior to his election five years ago, and as the Cardinal-Archbishop of Buenos Aires, was well known for his aversion to the trips to Rome he was occasionally compelled to make.

Paul VI, on the other hand, was a consummate Vatican insider, having worked in the Secretariat of State from 1922 to 1945. He and Monsignor Domenico Tardini, later also made a cardinal, were the closest aides and advisors to Pope Pius XII, so by the time Paul VI took over the top job himself, he had decades of experience under his belt of making the Vatican’s trains run on time.

In terms of programs of governance, however, Paul VI and Francis do bear striking similarities.

Both popes, in a sense, have seen themselves as the inheritors of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) – Paul VI in terms of its conclusion and immediate implementation, and Francis in terms of its revival after what he diagnosed as a period of slowdown and consolidation. Among many other examples, his decision to shift primary authority for matters of liturgical translation away from Rome to local bishops’ conferences comes straight out of Vatican II’s emphasis on collegiality, which some critics believed to be more honored in the breach than the observance during the John Paul and Benedict years.

More broadly, Paul VI wanted a church that was open to evolving, and in dialogue with the modern world. He treated the theme of dialogue at great length in his 1964 encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, which was intended to set the table for the final stages of Vatican II’s reflections. In very broad strokes, that’s the same kind of Church that Francis wants to lead.

Where things get concrete in terms of the similarities between Paul and Francis, however, tends to be in the bishops’ appointments under each man.

Around the world, Paul was looking for pastors – men who weren’t necessarily dogmatic theologians, but who were deeply in touch with the currents of modern culture, and able to project a friendlier and more open face to the world.

In the United States, that impulse gave rise to what would eventually be known as the “Jadot bishops,” named for Belgian Archbishop Jean Jadot, Paul’s apostolic delegate in the country (this was before formal diplomatic relations were established in 1984, so there was no nuncio). Well-known names included Archbishop Patrick Flores in San Antonio, Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen in Seattle, Archbishop John Quinn in San Francisco, Archbishop John Roach in Saint Paul, and Archbishop Rembert Weakland in Milwaukee. Jadot’s very last appointment in November 1980 was another center-left, dialogical prelate, Bishop Kenneth Untener in Saginaw, Michigan.

All helped shape a post-Vatican II era in American Catholicism in the 1980s in which the Church often took sides on what would be perceived as the “progressive” end of the spectrum on some social questions, including celebrated pastoral letters by the U.S. bishops on “The Challenge of Peace” in 1983 and “Economic Justice for All” in 1986.

Those documents also bore the stamp of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, who, as the Archbishop of Cincinnati during the Jadot years also served as the president of the U.S. bishops’ conference and worked closely with Pope Paul’s man in Washington.

Today, there’s a similar crop of center-left, pastoral and progressive minded bishops arising in the U.S. on Francis’s watch, the two best-known examples of which would be Cardinals Blase Cupich in Chicago and Joseph Tobin in Newark, N.J. It remains to be seen in which directions these “Francis bishops” will take the U.S. conference in the years to come, but it’s a safe bet it won’t quite be the same as in the John Paul and Benedict era.

Whether any of this is good or bad for the Church in the long run, obviously, lies in the eye of the beholder. However, it does suggest that when Francis performs the canonization ritual later this year, he won’t just be ratifying the life of Paul VI, but in a certain sense, his legacy as well.

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