ROME – According to the Catholic theology of sainthood, canonization amounts to a judgment that a particular individual is already in heaven enjoying the beatific vision, meaning the unmediated presence of God – to quote St. Paul in 1 Corinthians, no longer seeing the splendor of God “indistinctly, as in a mirror, but face to face.”
As such, canonization means very little for the person getting the halo. A formal papal declaration does not “make” anyone a saint; it always comes ex post facto. By the time it rolls around, the saints are well beyond such earthly considerations.
Instead, canonization is for the rest of us. It’s a way of holding a particular figure up as an exemplar, someone whose example is worthy of being followed and whose intercession can be of help along the way.
A canonization, in other words, is a “teaching moment.”
It’s always instructive to ask, therefore, what exactly is being taught with any given canonization. It’s an especially apt question when the new saint is a pope, since it may be hard for ordinary folk to imagine there’s much they could emulate in someone whose life was, almost by definition, highly extraordinary.
Yet Pope Paul VI, the pontiff who famously described the Catholic Church as an “expert in humanity” in a 1965 address to the United Nations, was one of the most recognizably human figures ever to sit on the Throne of Peter – a pastor who both rejoiced and grieved in public, a man who felt deeply and thought widely, and a leader who sometimes struggled but, in the end, always found his inner compass.
Summing it all up, there are at least three lessons from Pope Paul’s life that would seem to be of broad application in the countdown to his canonization along with Archbishop Oscar Romero and five other new saints on Sunday.
1. Passion for humanity
Although the story is apocryphal, it used to be said of Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) that when he would use the telephone to contact one of his subordinates in the Vatican, the other person would drop to his or her knees to receive the call. The mere fact that myth caught on in many circles illustrates how popes used to be seen – almost as particles of divinity, somehow lifted out of the human condition.
All that began to change with St. Pope John XXIII (1958-1963), “Good Pope John,” who came across as an unpretentious peasant’s son from Bergamo who wanted to be the whole world’s beloved uncle.
In many ways, Giovanni Battista Enrico Antonio Maria Montini, the man who would become Paul VI, was an unlikely choice to continue this humanizing trend. He was born in 1897 into rarified circles, with a father who was a journalist and a member of the Italian parliament and a mother who came from rural nobility. He studied in Milan and Rome, entering the Vatican’s powerful Secretariat of State at the age of 25.
From there, Montini became the quintessential court mandarin, never once holding an appointment as a parish priest in his entire life. He founded a publishing house, became a patron of Italian intellectuals and university students, and a friend and admirer of renowned thinkers such as the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain.
He was the sostituto, or “substitute” under Pius XII, wielding power from the very pinnacle of the ecclesiastical system, yet Montini was also a thinker of the first order. When he was elected pope in 1963, the story goes that Montini had some 250 boxes of books shipped to Rome from Milan, where he had been the cardinal-archbishop.
The “common man,” in other words, Montini really wasn’t.
Yet Montini was also a deeply gracious soul, famed as a conversation partner with the widest possible range of people precisely because of his keen interest in the concrete individual in front of him, no matter what station in life or worldview they embodied. Monsignor Guido Mazzotta, a consultor to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints who worked on Paul VI’s case, said the most beautiful testimony they collected during the process came from people who had Montini as their spiritual director.
Because of his deep culture, Paul VI had a genius for being able to relate to what the outside world was feeling in a given moment. Consider, for instance, his famous July 1969 message for the Apollo moon landing: “Honor, greetings and blessings to you, conquerors of the moon, pale lamp of our nights and our dreams.”
(The line is also a reminder that Paul VI was just a flat-out terrific writer, the true son of a journalist father.)
Despite his restrained veneer, Paul VI also gave the world occasional glimpses of his own heart. That was never more dramatically true than towards the end, when, in effect, he became the first pope to all but rebuke God in public.
On May 9, 1978, Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro was executed by a left-wing Italian terrorist movement called the “Red Brigades.” Moro was a close friend of Pope Paul VI, who had made great efforts to save him, and he was devastated by the loss.
Three days later, the pope addressed himself directly to God in the Basilica of St. John Lateran, saying: “You did not grant our plea for the safety of Aldo Moro, of this good and gentle man, wise and innocent … who was my friend.” The question he left hanging, unstated but clear to everyone present, was, “Why didn’t you help?”
If that isn’t a recognizably human question, it’s hard to know what is. Paul VI showed the world not only that even popes wrestle with such existential doubts, but also that holiness and heartbreak sometimes go hand in hand.
As Mazzotta put it recently, “Probably if there had been no Montini, the council wouldn’t have happened,” referring to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), over which Paul VI presided and whose conclusions it fell to him to implement.
Beyond anything else, it was Vatican II which marked the real drama of Paul’s papacy, and which today represents the cornerstone of his legacy.
It may have been his predecessor John XXIII who once said “I have to be pope both of those with their foot on the brake and those with their foot on the gas,” but Paul VI was the one who really lived the motto amid the tensions unleashed during the council and which threatened to split everything to pieces afterwards.
All that, of course, played out against the backdrop of the upheaval of 1968 and everything that followed, from race riots and student protests to the ugliness of the Vietnam War and the disillusionment of Watergate, a time when, to quote Yeats, it seemed “things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”
In that context, the fact that Paul VI managed to hold the Church together now seems, all by itself, something of a miracle. Perhaps more than anything else, he pulled it off due to his keen sense of balance.
Facing a seeming intractable stalemate between progressives and conservatives, between aggiornamento and ressourcement (“updating” and a “return to the sources”), Paul VI always tried to do justice to the wisdom in both instincts.
The most celebrated example of that approach came in November 1964, when he issued his Nota Praevia, or “preliminary note,” prior to the vote in the Vatican over its dogmatic constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium. In effect, the note reasserted the core principles of papal primacy, thereby balancing the document’s emphasis on collegiality. To put it all in crass political terms, publishing the note addressed the concerns of the conservatives; allowing the vote on the document to go forward satisfied the liberals.
Mazzotta described the note as Paul’s way of “ensuring the unanimity of the council’s vote” and a reflection of his “passion for unity.”
One measure of Paul’s success is that Vatican II was the lone ecumenical council in the history of the Church which wasn’t immediately followed by a schism. (Whatever one makes of whether the traditionalist Lefebvrist movement is or isn’t “schismatic,” the formal breach didn’t come until 1988 under St. Pope John Paul II.)
As another expression of that belief in balance, Paul VI was a man of dialogue to the very core. The classic expression came in the 1964 encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, in which he described patient, respectful dialogue not merely as a hallmark of good governance but an expression of God’s very nature.
“No physical pressure was brought on anyone to accept the dialogue of salvation,” Paul wrote. “Far from it, it was a tremendous appeal of love.”
Though the point may seem obvious, it may be worth spelling out anyway: In a polarized and angry culture, Paul VI’s gift for balance, as well as patience, may be more relevant than ever.
Paul VI was often described as a “Hamlet pope,” wracked by doubt and indecision, anguishing over every choice, with critics suggesting that he sometimes lost his nerve when walking up to the brink of making a significant decision.
Before his death in 2006, Archbishop Pasquale Macchi, who had been Pope Paul’s personal secretary, told me he rejected that image of his mentor as fundamentally false. Paul VI was perfectly capable of being resolute, Macchi insisted – and the fact that he didn’t disappoint people or cause them pain casually, he insisted, hardly should count against him.
In fact, one could make the argument that no pope of the modern era showed greater courage over the years than Paul VI, given the nature of the choices he faced and the deep uncertainty of their consequences.
That courage, for instance, was manifest in the way Paul VI consistently backed the liturgical reforms called for by Vatican II, despite the depth of opposition they aroused. On all the points that mattered, he never wavered from the council’s basic vision, and the renewed worship in the vernacular languages that three generations of Catholics now take for granted is the result.
Most famously, that courage was the basis for Humanae Vitae, Paul’s 1968 encyclical letter reaffirming the traditional Catholic opposition to artificial birth control.
Contraception was hardly the only concern of Humanae Vitae, which admirers describe as a compelling and original treatment of both the unitive and procreative aspects of marriage. Still given the cultural currents of the late 1960s and the sexual revolution, it hardly seems fair to describe a pope willing to buck all of that as timid or lacking fortitude.
Paul VI also had the courage to break the mold in a staggering variety of ways, despite being a consummate man of Catholic tradition. He became the first pope to travel overseas, the first pope to meet an Orthodox patriarch and begin the process of ecumenical healing, the first pope to renounce the papal tiara, and on and on.
It likewise required courage in 1967 to release Populorum Progressio, his social encyclical on development, which he knew full well would be criticized in some circles as a way of sprinkling holy water over socialist, liberationist and anti-colonial movements across the Third World. Yet Paul was unwavering, even plaintive: ““The hungry nations of the world cry out to the peoples blessed with abundance …[they] ask each and every person to hear his brother’s plea and answer it lovingly.”
It also required a bold leader to stick to his policy of Ostpolitik, despite ferocious opposition from those who saw it as a form of appeasement and capitulation in the face of the Soviet Empire.
Most fundamentally, Paul VI had the courage to see Vatican II through to its completion, even though many observers thought the council might die with John XXIII, the pope who had summoned it, and the fact that Montini himself once told a trusted friend that his predecessor had “no idea what a hornet’s nest he’s stirring up.”
None of these were the actions of a weak-kneed, do-nothing pontiff. Far from being Hamlet, in other words, Paul VI actually could be seen as a profile in courage, and a reminder that doubt and weakness are not always the same thing.
A legacy of decency
In the finale of Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series “Newsroom”, the beloved veteran director of the news division has died and his protégé, the anchor of the main nightly news show, delivers a tribute. Perhaps the most moving line comes when he says of his mentor, “His religion was decency, and he spent a lifetime fighting its enemies.”
Pope Paul VI’s religion, of course, was not decency. He was an ardent Roman Catholic, profoundly convinced that Jesus Christ is the key that unlocks the mystery of the human heart. He believed, in tandem with his good friend Maritain, that “it is impossible for a Christian to be a relativist.”
Yet at the same time, Giovanni Battista Montini was a model of decency to all. He had an abiding respect for people with convictions that differed from his own, whether he found them inside or outside the Catholic Church. He was curious, attentive, and unfailingly gracious, whether addressing the Red Brigades or traditionalist opposition in his own fold. He was a “gentleman” in the fullest, most etymological sense of the term.
To be honest, that didn’t always serve him well. Paul VI reminds one of Pope Benedict XVI a bit in that regard, a leader who just never seemed to catch a break in PR terms. Ironically, he was often mocked for possessing qualities in abundance people typically say they admire – patience, forbearance, an unwillingness to close doors or end conversations until the very last possibility had been exhausted, and a deep confidence that some piece of the truth can be found virtually anywhere if one has but eyes to see.
The world of his day didn’t always want to see. So bad were things by 1967, even before Humanae Vitae appeared, that when the Beatles released “Fool on the Hill,” some rock critics actually thought it was a reference to the pope:
His head in a cloud
The man with a foolish grin is talking perfectly loud
But nobody wants to hear him
They can see that he’s just a fool
Had those same critics been able to anticipate how Paul VI would seem in retrospect, however, it might have been another couplet from the ballad that caught their attention:
And the eyes in his head
See the world spinning round
Paul VI not only saw the world spinning around, but spinning out of control, fueled by the trajectories of ideological warfare and personal animosity as a spectator sport which have come to full flower in our day, in the era of Donald Trump in America, Matteo Salvini in Italy, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and on and on.
Paul VI leaves behind a vast legacy for the Church he led, beginning with the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and the vast transformation in Catholic life that flowed, and continues to flow, from it. This month is a reminder of that heritage in Rome, as bishops from all around the world are participating in an event called a “synod,” designed to give them a voice in governance of the universal Church, founded by Pope Paul in 1965.
For the wider world, however, if Paul VI offers nothing else, perhaps it’s the example of a decent man who refused to lose himself in an increasingly indecent age. By now, that alone might be enough for many even outside the Church to join Pope Francis on Sunday in hailing him as a saint.