Blessed Paul VI:
Champion of Human Life, Lover of the Church, Model for Our World
It is not by happenstance that Pope Paul VI (1963-1978), whom Pope Francis beatified on World Mission Sunday, October 19, 2014 during the closing Mass of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops dedicated to the theme of the family, is recalled for many important things.
Although some inside and outside the Church gave the impression that they long forgot about Pope Paul, whose baptismal name was Giovanni Battista Montini, after the October 16, 1978 election of his Successor, Saint John Paul II (1978-2005), Pope Paul VI lived a saintly life and is rightly remembered for his tireless work in the vineyard of the Lord. (Saint John Paul II spoke of his Predecessor with great affection and esteem.)
The Beatification of Pope Paul is cause for immense gratitude to God for this His humble servant. And it provides for us a useful springboard for further reflection about this prayerful and learned Bishop of Rome.
Champion of Human Life
Early in his Pontificate, Pope Paul VI recognized the increasing attacks against the Church’s long-held doctrines regarding the sanctity of human life and marriage. He knew that numerous voices preferred to jettison what the Church had always professed about the inviolability of human life, the nature of the marital act and the permanency of marriage.
Pope Paul VI ensured that Holy Mother the Church would continue to proclaim the Truth, notwithstanding the cost. One of the most glorious moments in his Papacy was the promulgation of his Encyclical Humanae Vitae, dated 25 July 1968, which reiterated the ancient teaching that every instance of the marital embrace must be open to the transmission of human life.
The resulting firestorm was intense. The Roman Pontiff was vilified by various quarters. He was accused of being anachronistic, ignorant and even hateful. But the Holy Father courageously persevered. He did not relent in trumpeting the authoritative and perduring teaching of the Church.
A careful reading of Humanae Vitae is more urgently needed than ever. Here are only a few snippets.
From Article 4, which emphasizes the Church’s jurisdiction in interpreting the Natural Law:
No member of the faithful could possibly deny that the Church is competent in her Magisterium to interpret the natural moral law. It is in fact indisputable, as Our predecessors have many times declared, that Jesus Christ, when He communicated His divine power to Peter and the other Apostles and sent them to teach all nations His commandments, constituted them as the authentic guardians and interpreters of the whole moral law, not only, that is, of the law of the Gospel but also of the Natural Law. For the Natural Law, too, declares the will of God, and its faithful observance is necessary for men’s eternal salvation.
In carrying out this mandate, the Church has always issued appropriate documents on the nature of marriage, the correct use of conjugal rights, and the duties of spouses. These documents have been more copious in recent times.
Article 8 stresses the nature of marriage as the union of husband and wife that tends towards procreation:
Married love particularly reveals its true nature and nobility when we realize that it takes its origin from God, Who “is love,” the Father “from Whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.”
Marriage, then, is far from being the effect of chance or the result of the blind evolution of natural forces. It is in reality the wise and provident institution of God the Creator, Whose purpose was to effect in man His loving design. As a consequence, husband and wife, through that mutual gift of themselves, which is specific and exclusive to them alone, develop that union of two persons in which they perfect one another, cooperating with God in the generation and rearing of new lives.
The marriage of those who have been baptized is, in addition, invested with the dignity of a sacramental sign of grace, for it represents the union of Christ and His Church.
Article 11 states the crux of the Church’s longstanding doctrine, which is based in the Natural Law, that “each and every marital act” must be open to the transmission of human life:
The sexual activity, in which husband and wife are intimately and chastely united with one another, through which human life is transmitted, is, as the recent Council recalled, “noble and worthy.” It does not, moreover, cease to be legitimate even when, for reasons independent of their will, it is foreseen to be infertile. For its natural adaptation to the expression and strengthening of the union of husband and wife is not thereby suppressed. The fact is, as experience shows, that new life is not the result of each and every act of sexual intercourse. God has wisely ordered laws of nature and the incidence of fertility in such a way that successive births are already naturally spaced through the inherent operation of these laws. The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the Natural Law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.
Article 14 also treats of the tragedy of “the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons . . . direct sterilization . . . any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation”:
Therefore We base Our words on the first principles of a human and Christian doctrine of marriage when We are obliged once more to declare that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children. Equally to be condemned, as the Magisterium of the Church has affirmed on many occasions, is direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary.
Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means.
Neither is it valid to argue, as a justification for sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive, that a lesser evil is to be preferred to a greater one, or that such intercourse would merge with procreative acts of past and future to form a single entity, and so be qualified by exactly the same moral goodness as these. Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good, it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it—in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general. Consequently, it is a serious error to think that a whole married life of otherwise normal relations can justify sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong.
Article 17 warns of the fallout for individuals and society as a whole from the use of contraception:
Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control. Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law. Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.
Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone. It could well happen, therefore, that when people, either individually or in family or social life, experience the inherent difficulties of the Divine Law and are determined to avoid them, they may give into the hands of public authorities the power to intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife.
Lover of the Church
Pope Paul VI lovingly laboured for the benefit of Christ’s Bride, the Church. He continued the arduous efforts of his immediate Predecessor, Saint John XXIII (1958-1963) regarding the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council (1962-1965) and saw to its initial implementation.
He reached out to the Orthodox Church and to Protestants. He was the first Pope to leave Italy since 1809 and the first Pope to travel to the Western Hemisphere. His pastoral visits took him, among other places, to the Holy Land, India, the United States of America, Portugal, Turkey, Columbia, Uganda, Iran, Bangladesh, Philippines, Australia, Indonesia and Hong Kong.
His 30 June 1968 Apostolic Letter in the form of motu proprio, Credo of the People of God, summarized what the Church, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, proclaims as true and to be believed.
He also hailed priestly celibacy and signalled that the Church would continue this venerable practice.
Pope Paul VI appreciated the centrality of the Most Holy Eucharist in the life of the Church. His Encyclical, Mysterium Fidei of 3 September 1965, affirmed the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Most Blessed Sacrament and responded to some contemporary critiques of the Church’s doctrine.
In article 45 of Mysterium Fidei, the Supreme Pontiff referred to the Council of Trent.
The Council of Trent, basing itself on this faith of the Church, “openly and sincerely professes that after the consecration of the bread and wine, Our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and man, is really, truly and substantially contained in the Blessed Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist under the outward appearances of sensible things.” And so Our Savior is present in His humanity not only in His natural manner of existence at the right hand of the Father, but also at the same time in the sacrament of the Eucharist “in a manner of existing that we can hardly express in words but that our minds, illumined by faith, can come to see as possible to God and that we must most firmly believe.”
He underscores, in article 46, the term and concept of transubstantiation.
To avoid any misunderstanding of this type of presence, which goes beyond the laws of nature and constitutes the greatest miracle of its kind, (50) we have to listen with docility to the voice of the teaching and praying Church. Her voice, which constantly echoes the voice of Christ, assures us that the way in which Christ becomes present in this Sacrament is through the conversion of the whole substance of the bread into His body and of the whole substance of the wine into His blood, a unique and truly wonderful conversion that the Catholic Church fittingly and properly calls transubstantiation. As a result of transubstantiation, the species of bread and wine undoubtedly take on a new signification and a new finality, for they are no longer ordinary bread and wine but instead a sign of something sacred and a sign of spiritual food; but they take on this new signification, this new finality, precisely because they contain a new “reality” which we can rightly call ontological. For what now lies beneath the aforementioned species is not what was there before, but something completely different; and not just in the estimation of Church belief but in reality, since once the substance or nature of the bread and wine has been changed into the body and blood of Christ, nothing remains of the bread and the wine except for the species—beneath which Christ is present whole and entire in His physical “reality,” corporeally present, although not in the manner in which bodies are in a place.
On his deathbed on 6 August 1978, Pope Paul VI asked his closest collaborators to pray not for himself but for the Church.
Model for Our World
The virtues practiced by this saintly Pope were both numerous and inspiring. His good example continues to resound over thirty-five years after his death. Here is only a partial view of the pattern of holiness that he has bequeathed to us.
Prayer. Pope Paul VI began and ended his days with genuine converse with the Living God. He did not fail to set aside time for prayer and reception of the Sacraments.
Love for Our Lady. The Roman Pontiff affectionately looked upon Mary, seeking to imitate her fidelity and humility. Pope Paul VI gave to the Church his noteworthy meditation on Our Lady entitled, Marialis Cultus, which is his Apostolic Exhortation of 2 February 1974. He also made pilgrimage to Fatima in 1967 to see where the Mother of God had appeared in 1917.
Forgiveness. Aware of various hurts that he suffered throughout his life, Pope Paul forgave those who wronged him and those whom he loved. His dear friend, Aldo Moro, who was the leader of the Christian Democratic Party in Italy, was kidnapped and brutally murdered by members of the terroristic Red Brigades in 1978. Although Pope Paul minced no words in decrying their godless violence, he, nevertheless, pardoned them.
Concern for the Suffering. He respected the poor and the downtrodden. Never did he consider himself to be superior to them. He knew his own poverty and suffering. He encouraged the Universal Church and the world to take care of the poor and the suffering.
Perseverance. He relied on the help of God. His confidence in the Lord was strong. No matter what load he had to carry, he continued along the Way of the Cross, sure that the empty tomb was not far off.
Blessed Paul VI was a man after the Sacred Heart of Jesus. May we meet him one day in Heaven.