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On August 6, 1964, the Feast of the Transfiguration, Pope Paul VI issued his first encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam—a deeply personal meditation on the Church and its mission in the modern world.

The encyclical’s first word is Ecclesiam, “Church”—but it is in the accusative case, the object rather than subject of the first sentence. The subject is Jesus Christ; the Church is his Church. The Italian translation makes this eminently clear, as it begins: “Gesù Cristo ha fondato la sua Chiesa.” This Christocentric vision permeates Paul’s first encyclical, as it does the documents of the Second Vatican Council, which he guided to its conclusion, beginning with the opening of the second session in September 1963.

Ecclesiam Suam, in effect, orients the deliberations of the bishops who were addressing new and controverted issues concerning ecumenism, religious liberty, and the role of the Church in the modern world. Paul makes clear that he does not seek to preempt the labors of the Council, merely to provide points for meditation. (In an amusing example of early-1960s “dynamic equivalence,” the English translation of the encyclical has Paul earnestly asserting that he has “no wish to steal the Council’s thunder!”) 

Paul structures his document around three connected principles. The first is the call to a new awareness of the Church’s distinctive Mystery and identity. Primacy is accorded to the Church’s defining relationship with Christ. Paul quotes St. Augustine’s exclamation: “we have become Christ. For if He is the Head, we are the members; He and we form the whole man, the fullness of Christ.”

The second principle follows closely upon this. If such be the dignity and destiny of the Church and of Christians, then we are called to an ever more faithful appropriation of the Mystery which is ours. True reform and renewal in the Church never transpire absent renewed conversion to Christ. “Hence the Church must be gripped with an intense and unfailing desire to learn the ways of the Lord … to generate new energies in striving after the holiness which Christ has taught us.” Lumen Gentium’s “universal call to holiness” (which Paul and the Council fathers promulgated on November 21, 1964) is already to the fore.

These first two principles give rise to a third: the apostolic mission to which the Church is summoned by its Lord. “The love of Christ impels us” (2 Cor 5:14). In Ecclesiam Suam Paul dares to speak of this perennial mission of the Church in terms of “dialogue.” But—as is not the case in some later invocations of this term—“dialogue” for Paul is Christologically grounded and inspired. It is not aimless but apostolic. He writes: “The Church must enter into dialogue with the world in which it lives. It has something to say, a message to give, a communication to make.”

For Paul, dialogue is rooted in revelation and prayer. It is always respectful of others, accommodating of their positions and convictions. But it never reduces or compromises the truth of Christian faith, nor slackens Christian commitment. In short, it is never separable existentially from the first two principles that Paul highlights. Paul declares: 

Dialogue, therefore, presupposes that there exists in us a viewpoint which we wish to propose and to promote in those around us. It is the disposition of those who realize the urgency of the apostolic mandate and who see their own salvation as inseparable from the salvation of others. Thus their constant endeavor is to communicate the message they have received. 

Paul’s valorizing of dialogue is not romantic but evangelical. In 1964, in the face of militant Communism in Europe and elsewhere, he realized that conditions for authentic dialogue were often unattainable. While affirming his desire to exclude no one, he concedes that “difficulties to dialogue are enormously increased by obstacles of the moral order: by the absence of sufficient freedom of thought and action, and by the calculated misuse of words in debate, so that they serve not the investigation and formulation of objective truth, but are employed to obtain predetermined outcomes.” In such circumstances, the Church’s dialogue will be a voice crying in the wilderness: “The only witness that the Church can then give is that of silence, suffering, patience, and unfailing love, and this is a voice that not even death can suppress.”

The Feast of the Transfiguration always held a privileged place in Paul VI’s spiritual life. It is no coincidence that he dated his inaugural encyclical on that day. And it can be no coincidence that, fourteen years later, the Feast of the Transfiguration would be the last day of his earthly life. It was a providential gift for Giovanni Battista Montini to receive his final Eucharist on the day of the Feast, the Eucharist he knew was his Viaticum.

After his death his long-time confessor, the Jesuit Paolo Dezza, testified: “If Paul VI was not a saint when he was elected Pope, he became one during his pontificate. I was able to witness not only with what energy and dedication he toiled for Christ and the Church but also and above all, how much he suffered for Christ and the Church. I always admired not only his deep inner resignation but also his constant abandonment to divine providence.” 

Forty years after his death, Paul VI continues to offer a striking witness of suffering, patience, and generous love. As he had exclaimed in Ecclesiam Suam, “this is a voice that not even death can suppress.” He will be canonized by the Church, in whose service he spent himself, on October 14 of this year.

Robert P. Imbelli is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, associate professor emeritus of theology at Boston College, and professor of the lecture series Christic Imagination: How Christ Transforms Us.

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