Papa Luciani on Pope Paul VI

As you may know, back last December Pope Benedict declared Pope Paul VI to be Venerable, i.e., he lived a life of heroic virtue. This is a first step toward canonization.

There are many in the Church are saying many very unkind words about Pope Paul VI. They blame him for the Church’s ills. Those who do so seem to be the ones who see anything of the Second Vatican Council as regretable, and who believe the Council to have been a mistake, so they blame Paul VI.

Those who write such things are very misled and are short-sighted, in my humble opinion.

I have provided you a translation of a homily then Patriarch Albino Luciani gave about three days after Paul VI’s death.  Luciani was only three weeks after having given this homily to be elected Pope John Paul I, Paul VI’s successor, and patron of this weblog. I think Luciani captures well the man who for fifteen years served the Church as Pope following the Council.

The translation is Lori Pieper’s and I have provided a link to her website regarding it.


“By what name do you wish to be called?” he was asked fifteen years ago at the end of the conclave. He said: “I will be called Paul.” Those who knew him would have sworn to us that this would be the name he would choose. Cardinal Montini had always been a passionate lover of the writings, the life, and the dynamic energy of the great Apostle of the Gentiles. And he lived his “Pauline quality” fully and to the last. Last June 29, he spoke of the fifteen years of his pontificate, and he made his own the words that Saint Paul, also near his end, had written to Timothy, “I have preserved and defended the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7). That the faith should be preserved and defended was the first point of his program. In his coronation address, on June 30, 1963, he had declared: “We will defend the Holy Church from the errors in doctrine and morals, which, from within and from without her borders, threaten her integrity and dim her beauty.” 

St. Paul had written to the Galatians: “If an angel from heaven should preach to you a Gospel not in accord with the one we have delivered to you, let a curse be upon him.” (Gal. 1:8). In our day we might think of culture, being modern, and being up-to-date, as “angels,” and these are all things which Pope Paul cared about very deeply. But when they appeared to him to be contrary to the Gospel and to sound doctrine, he said no inflexibly. It is enough to mention Humanae Vitae, his “Creed of the People of God,” the position that he took in regard to the Dutch catechism, and his clear affirmation of the existence of the devil. Some people have said thatHumanae Vitae was suicide for Paul VI, the collapse of his popularity, and the beginning of savage criticism. Yes, in a certain sense, but he had foreseen it and again, along with St. Paul, he said to himself: “Who would you say I am trying to please at this point — man or God? . . . If I were trying to win man’s approval, I would surely not be serving Christ” (Gal. 1:10). 

St. Paul had also said of himself: “I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:19). Paul VI confided: “Perhaps the Lord has called me to this (pontifical) service, not indeed because I had any aptitude for it, or so that I might govern the Church and save her from her present difficulties, but so that I might suffer something for the Church, and that it might be clear that He, and no one else, guides her and saves her.” He has also said, “The Pope has the difficulties that come first of all from his own human weakness, which, at every moment, is faced with, and almost in conflict with, the enormous and immeasurable weight of his duties and responsibilities.” At times that can even become agony. 

The Corinthians made the following evaluation of Paul: “His letters are severe and forceful, but when he is here in person, he is unimpressive and his word makes no great impact.” (2 Cor. 10:10). We have all seen Paul VI on television or in photographs embracing Patriarch Athenagoras: he looked like a little child, disappearing between the arms of a giant with an imposing beard. Even when he spoke, his voice was rather somber; rarely did it reveal the conviction and enthusiasm that were boiling inside him. But his thought! But his writings! These were truly clear, penetrating, profound, and sometimes finely sculpted. “Today the peoples in hunger,” he has written, for example, “are making a dramatic appeal to the peoples blessed with abundance. The Church shudders at this cry of anguish and calls on each one to give a loving response of charity to his brother’s cry for help.” Development, yes, but the full development “of every man and of the whole man.” “Every man,” and not only the fortunate class, “the whole man,” meaning that man must have the means to develop and progress, not only in the economic dimension, but also in the moral, spiritual, and religious dimensions. “To do more, know more, and have more, in order to be more” (Popularum Progressio, nos. 3, 13, 34, 6).

 But St. Paul was above all the Apostle of the Gentiles, of those who then were considered outsiders to the Jews. He fought for them, in spite of the perplexity of the other apostles, and he traveled and suffered so much on their behalf. He wrote: “Five times at the hands of the Jews I received forty lashes less one, three times I was beaten with rods; I was stoned once, shipwrecked three times; I passed a day and a night on the sea. I traveled continually.” (2 Cor. 11:24-26). Like him, Paul VI has traveled 80,000 miles by air: Palestine, India, the headquarters of the United Nations, Fatima, Turkey, Colombia, Africa, and the Far East, have been the principal stages of his travels. All of these travels, perhaps, have not obtained any conversions, but they have created a feeling that the Church is close to the peoples of the world and their problems. 

Another type of closeness — or better rapprochement — that Paul VI has sought, is that of contacts with governments that profess themselves atheist. A sensitive point, this: the Pope has been criticized on it by some. Undoubtedly, there was a risk. But a limited and calculated risk. Limited, because he did not give way on principles, on the basis of the Gospel saying iota unum aut unum apex non praeteribit a lege [not the smallest letter of the law, nor the smallest part of a letter, shall be done away with] (Mt. 7:18). Calculated, because, although with sometimes slender hope, he sought the advantage of religion. There is the problem of so many Catholics living under persecuting governments: the Pope really must send them bishops or try to obtain for them a few crumbs of religious liberty. The atheists themselves are a problem: there are so many, so many; can the Church shut itself off from them? St. Paul had written “I have made myself all things to all men, in order to save at least some of them.” (I Cor: 9:22). Why then, not admire the courage of a Pope who takes risks? When Pius VII was negotiating the concordat with Napoleon, he had open opponents even among the cardinals. “Negotiate with that criminal!” they said. “And sweep away from their dioceses all the old bishops, many of whom can be considered martyrs for the faith! And put in their place the bishops that the First Consul wants!” Pius VII, with anguish in his heart, asked the old bishops to suffer, or made them suffer, not only for the Church, but also from the Church; he made to the First Consul all the concessions that were morally legitimate in order to have, in return, tremendous advantages for religion. Naturally, the happy outcome of the negotiations were not seen immediately, but with time. History runs its course and repeats itself. So does the history of the Church. 

In the patriarchal archives, there still exist some letters exchanged between Patriarch Roncalli and the deputy Secretary of State Montini. The Pope, Roncalli writes in one, wants a certain priest in Rome: granting this is a heavy sacrifice for Venice, but I am granting it, because in the Church “we must see broad and far.” Thank you, Montini answered him; thank you for the priest you gave up, and for the “broad and far.”

My brothers and sisters, no man is perfect; even Paul VI, who we mourn so deeply, may perhaps have done some things imperfectly. It seems to me, however, that, very cultured as a man, exemplary as a priest, as Pope he truly saw “broad and far.” 

All of us must lift our gaze beyond every boundary and all work in a truly evangelical spirit, beyond every limit, with the Church of Christ, in universal dimensions.

About Deacon Bob

Moderator: Deacon Bob Yerhot of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota.
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