Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

When the Vatican recently announced its new candidates for sainthood, there was a remarkable name on its list: Pope Paul VI.

On December 20, 2012, Pope Benedict declared Paul a Christian of “heroic virtue,” granting him the title, “Venerable.” Paul VI is now one approved miracle away from beatification, and a second from formal canonization.

The response has been both surprise and confusion: many people didn’t even know Paul VI was up for sainthood, and to the extent they did, expressed very uneven feelings about him.

Assailed by both progressives and traditionalists alike, and having reigned during a tumultuous era, Paul VI remains, in death, almost as controversial as he was in life.

In light of all that, the now-Venerable Paul VI deserves a much-needed second look; Catholics need to discern what really drove him, and why the Vatican has advanced his cause.

In looking for answers beyond the usual divides—and hoping to explore Paul on a deeper level—I spoke with Father John Langlois, the Vicar Provincial for the Dominican Province of St. Joseph in New York. Born the same year Paul VI became pope, and holding degrees in theology and history, Langlois is in an excellent position to asses his pontificate, since, as Father mentioned, “I grew up with Paul—he was the first pope I knew; and as a Catholic and future priest, I followed his pontificate closely, amidst all the turmoil going on.”

Father Langlois welcomed the Vatican’s decision, and explained why Pope Paul is so worthy of the honor: “He was a missionary, a reformer, an upholder of tradition, and on a personal level, someone who had a profound understanding of the priesthood, and the theology of the Cross.”

Consider the name he chose after being elected pope—“Paul.”

“That was of great significance,” said Langlois, “because, like St. Paul, the new pope saw himself preaching the Gospel to the whole world.”

Pope Paul did more travelling than any of his predecessors—visiting six continents—setting the stage for the international journeys of Blessed John Paul II, and Pope Benedict.

Paul was determined to spread the Gospel to a global audience: the documents of his pontificate are suffused with evangelical fervor, and his words remain as inspiring as ever. “We wish to confirm once more,” he proclaimed in Evangelii Nuntiandi, “that the task of evangelizing all peoples constitutes the essential mission of the Church.” He continued:

It is a task and mission which the vast and profound changes of present-day society make all the more urgent. Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize, that is to say in order to preach and teach, to be the channel of the gift of grace, to reconcile sinners with God . . . . Anyone who rereads in the New Testament the origins of the Church, follows her history step by step and watches her live and act, sees that she is linked to evangelization in her most intimate being.

What is especially impressive about Evangelii Nuntiandi, said Father Langlois, is how it applies the call for evangelization to the Church itself. Paul wrote:

The Church is an evangelizer, but she begins by being evangelized herself . . . . She is the People of God immersed in the world, and often tempted by idols and always needs to hear the ‘mighty works of God’ which converted her to the Lord; she always needs to be called together afresh by Him and reunited . . . . this means that she has a constant need of being evangelized, if she wishes to retain freshness, vigor and strength in order to proclaim the Gospel.

Pope Paul’s insight about the Church’s need for self-evangelization, highlights his next strength: a commitment to reform. When John XXIII died in 1963, Pope Paul could have tried to slow Vatican II, or even halted it altogether. But wisely—and providentially, Father Langlois believes—Paul gave his full backing to Blessed John’s Council, and shepherded all its decrees and documents to their conclusion. For doing so, he was criticized by both the Left and Right, the former claiming he didn’t go nearly as far as he should, the latter saying he was much too progressive. Neither of the critics are correct says Father Langlois. “If you actually examine the documents carefully, there is nothing in them that sustains either reactionary thinking, or a revolutionary agenda.” As Pope Benedict has declared, there is certainly a call to reform, but reform within a hermeneutic of continuity.

In fact, Dignitatis Humanae—one of the Council’s most famous documents, on religious liberty—made that clear, in its opening paragraph, when it described how the Council Fathers, “in accord with truth,” searched “the sacred tradition and teaching of the Church, from which it draws forth new things that are always in harmony with the old.” (emphasis added)

Once the Council ended, Paul VI began implementing its reforms with care and dedication. He reorganized the Vatican curia and bureaucracy, set up several important post-Conciliar commissions, expanded collegiality with synods of bishops, increased the role of the laity, reached out to the larger Christian community, solidified the Church’s relationship with the Jewish community, made impassioned appeals for peace and on behalf of the poor, and undertook major reforms of the liturgy.

The latter was undoubtedly his biggest challenge. Paul VI’s introduction of the Novus Ordo caused a considerable stir, and still does within some circles today. But whether one prefers the Old or the New Mass, Father Langlois, as a church historian, made it a point to underscore that “liturgical reform—including major liturgical reform—has always been part of Catholic tradition. The traditional Latin Mass is quite different than the Mass as it was celebrated in the primitive Church, and, yes, so too is the Novus Ordo (though only in form, not content). Paul VI, acting as the Vicar of Christ, wanted to bring the sacred liturgy closer to the faithful, and he sincerely believed his liturgical reforms would accomplish that.”

That said, there can be no doubt that certain Catholics, after the Council and Novus Ordo, took liberties which were never authorized, and at times made a mockery of Catholic teaching. These scandals grieved Paul VI deeply—he reportedly spoke about the “smoke of Satan” having entered the Church—as did the wide-scale collapse of religious life, which Father Langlois believes had “far more to do with the tremendous upheavals and rebellions occurring within the wider culture, rather than any papal or hierarchical decisions.”

Yet, it was precisely at that point, when the Church seemed lost in a maelstrom, when Paul VI’s true character and spirituality came to the fore. Against a world (and even Church) largely seduced by the errors of the sexual revolution, Paul published Humanae Vitae, the most prophetic papal document of modern times, and certainly one of the bravest. He upheld and championed priestly celibacy; re-affirmed and explained the importance of an all-male priesthood, while advancing the true dignity of woman in all other ways; issued a clear declaration on sexual ethics, and a decree against abortion and on behalf of life. Both John Paul II and Benedict built upon his teachings, and extended them to the modern world.

Pope Paul VI has been called a weak and indecisive pope, but no one who lacked true courage could have issued the powerful statements he did, or done so under the circumstances he faced. And far from being a broken or dejected man at the end of his life—as some critics maintain, the better to make their case against him seem plausible—Paul VI was carried and sustained by something much stronger than anything in this world, his faith. He knew, as long as he retained that, nothing in this life could cause permanent damage, no matter how bad any situation became. His confessor, Father Paulo Dezza, revealed the pontiff’s life-long secret. Venerable Paul, Dezza once remarked, “was a man of great joy.”

It is a lesson all Christians should take to heart, as we, too, look forward to that day, in hopeful and joyful anticipation, of receiving Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.

Humanae Vitae’ Author Pope Paul VI Moves Toward Sainthood,” Catholic News Agency, December 20, 2012

Evangelii Nuntiandi, Apostolic Exhortation of Paul VI (1975)

Sacerdotalis Caelibatus (on priestly celibacy), Encyclical Letter of Paul VI (1967)

Populorom Progressio, Encyclical Letter of Paul VI, 1967

Humanae Vitae, Encyclical Letter of Paul VI (1968)

Declaration on Procured Abortion, Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, approved by Paul VI, 1974

Persona Humana, Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics, Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, approved by Paul VI, 1975

Inter Insigniores, Declaration on the Question of Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood, Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, approved by Paul VI, 1976

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles