Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Suffering Pontiff

News from Rome seems to confirm that Pope Paul VI may well be beatified next year: the Congregation for the Causes of Saints is examining a possible miracle.  He has yet to be declared Venerable, but once that decree is signed and the miracle accepted, beatification can quickly follow.  If Pope John Paul I's cause is as advanced, Pope Benedict may well make history by beatifying his three immediate predecessors - Paul VI, John Paul I and John Paul II.    

Pope Paul's beatification may well prove to be controversial - I imagine there are many of a certain generation who will be appalled.  And perhaps some of our more Traditionalist Catholics will not be impressed either.   

Paul's legacy is a mixed one and he was a complex man.   He was a holy man, I think few would doubt his personal holiness.  But for all of that his pontificate is controversial and perhaps even seen to be divisive. Some maintain he was a weak man unable to control the fall out from Vatican II, others see him as a liberal intent on changing the Church radically.  And of course there are those who reject his teaching on artificial contraception and see him as a man who, in the end, turned against the "spirit of Vatican II".   This last view may well be the thing to raise the ire of some in the Church should he be beatified. 

Whatever position people may take, I think Paul's stance on the issue of artificial contraception may well have been the work for which he was called to be Pope.  Despite the urgings of the committee Blessed John XXIII set up, and the attempts of various Church figures to influence him, Paul saw he could not change the moral teaching of the Church, but rather had to reiterate it even though it meant becoming a pariah.  It was surely a case of Paulus contra mundum: doing what he saw was the right thing though the world and many Catholics, now gripped in revolution, could neither accept nor understand.  With the promulgation of Humanae Vitae, Paul's via crucis began in earnest and he became what I believe to be "the suffering Pontiff".

My view of the last few popes is simple.  I believe the Ven. Pius XII prepared the Church through his own engagement with the world and fight against tyranny, for a great reform.  Blessed John XXIII was called to initiate that reform with the calling of the Council.  Pope Paul VI was to suffer in the turbulence of the post-conciliar period for the reform.  John Paul I was sent to reveal, after years of trouble and division, the gentleness and humanity of Christ - the "smiling pope" was just to be there, though only for a short time, to bring a certain peace.  Then John Paul II, the great charismatic one, brought the Council back on track: he stabilised, taught, drew people back in and went out to the world to proclaim Christ and promulgate the New Evangelisation which is the fruit of Vatican II when that Council is properly understood.  And then there is Benedict the Teacher who, in his gentle way, teaches those John Paul II brought back and prepares the members of the Church to go out to the whole world and proclaim the Good News.  He teaches, consolidates, puts us back in touch with the tradition (the ressourcement of the Council): reminds us that we already have a solid foundation on which to build our new missionary effort.  And the next Pope?  A missionary?  A defender of the faith in a secular world where civilisation is crumbling?  I do not know, nor will I speculate - the Holy Spirit is in charge there.

Is that all too simplistic?  Perhaps, but I do see a plan, a divine plan, where each of our recent popes were called to fulfill a certain role in these times.  Paul was the one called to suffer - they all suffered of course, but Paul's own suffering seemed to mirror the confusion and craziness of the times.  His suffering was inflicted by the disobedience of Catholics who rebelled against the Church's teaching because they thought they had a deeper insight into their humanity and into how things should be. 

Did Paul make mistakes?  Yes, I believe he did: for example he should have upheld the suspension of the Washington priests who rejected Humanae Vitae.  In reinstating them he sent a dangerous message to all those who dissented: rebel and nothing will be done to you.  But Paul wanted to bring them around, and while in hindsight we see that did not work, hindsight is a wonderful thing.  Paul was not a disciplinarian, he wanted to persuade, to encourage people to see the truth and accept it: he had pure intentions, I believe.

In related news I see that a Cause has been opened for Aldo Moro, the former Prime Minister of Italy and personal friend of Pope Paul, who was murdered by radical socialists in 1978.  Moro was a noble man who, with Paul's help, saw his role as a politician in terms of a call from God to serve his people.  His faith was important to him and he may well have been a saint - time and the process will tell.  His murder left Paul devastated and most likely hastened the Pontiff's death: Paul died a few months later.  One of the saddest images of Paul is from the funeral of Aldo Moro in St John Lateran's.  Paul, broken and burdened with grief and suffering is carried into the basilica to preside over the funeral Mass.  In his homily, Paul asks God why this good man had been so brutally torn from his family and friends and killed in such an inhuman way.  That homily is one of the most extraordinary ever delivered by a Pope: indeed, it is one in which the Pontiff seems to rebuke God:
And who can listen to our lament, if not you, O God of life and death? You did not hearken to our supplication for the safety of Aldo Moro, this good, meek, wise, innocent and friendly man; but you, O Lord, have not abandoned his immortal spirit, sealed by faith in Christ, who is the resurrection and the life.
Blessed John Paul deeply admired Pope Paul: they were friends, and Paul turned to the then Archbishop of Krakow as he was writing Humanae Vitae.  In one of his speeches about Pope Paul, Blessed John Paul praised his legacy and his courage:
A strong and humble apostle...Paul VI wanted the ecclesial community to open up to the world without giving in to the spirit of the world. With prudent wisdom, he knew how to resist the temptation of ‘conforming’ to the modern mentality, sustaining difficulties and misunderstandings, and sometimes even hostility, with evangelical strength. Even in the most difficult moments he did not cease to bring God's illuminating word to his people.
Paul's beatification will, I think, bring us to focus on his legacy, his teaching and his courage.  It will also be an opportunity for the Church to explain what Paul actually teaches in Humanae Vitae, this time with evidence.  Paul was a prophet - what he said might happen should we abandon the moral law of God, has happened: it may well be time that the world woke up and saw reality for what it is.

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