Saturday, August 09, 2008

Why not admire the courage of a Pope who took risks?

Homily of Albino Cardinal Luciani
Mass offered for the late Pope Paul VI

St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, 9 August 1978

"How do you want to be called?" he had been asked fifteen years ago at the end of the Conclave. And he: "I shall take the name Paul." Those who knew him would have sworn that the choice of the name would be that. Montini had been from the start an admirer of the writings, the life, the dynamism of the great Apostle to the Gentiles. And lived his “Pauline” passion wholly and up to the end.

On 29 June last he spoke of the fifteen years of his pontificate; he adopted the words that Saint Paul, also nearing his end, had written to Timothy: "I have kept and defended the faith" (2 Tm 4:7).

The faith to keep and to defend was the first point in his program. In the speech at his coronation, on 30 June he had declared: "We shall defend Holy Church from the errors of doctrine and of behavior, that inside and outside its confines threaten its integrity and mask its beauty."

Saint Paul had written to the Galatians: "If an angel from heaven should preach to you a Gospel different from what we have preached to you, let it be anathema" (Gal 1:8).

Culture, modernity, keeping up to date, can be considered the angels of today, though all things for which Pope Paul cared greatly. But when they seemed to him contrary to the Gospel and to its doctrine, he said “no” inflexibly. It’s enough to point to Humanae Vitae, to his “Creed”, to the position he took on the Dutch catechism, to the clear affirmation of the existence of the devil.

Some have said that Humanae Vitae was suicide for Paul VI, the collapse of his popularity and the onset of fierce criticism. True in a certain sense, but he had foreseen it and, always with Saint Paul, told himself: "... Is it perhaps the favor of men that I mean to gain, or rather that of God?... If I still pleased men, I would no longer be servant of Christ" (Gal 1:10).

Saint Paul also said of himself: "I have been crucified with Christ" (Gal 2:20). Paul confided: "Perhaps the Lord has called me to this [pontifical] service not because I have any aptitude or may govern and save the Church from its present difficulties, but so that I may suffer something for the Church, and that it be clear He, not others, guides and saves it." He also said: "The Pope has tribulations, that come above all from his own human inadequacy, which at every instant he finds himself faced with and almost in collision with the enormous and immeasurable weight of his duties and responsibility." That sometimes reaches as far as agony.

The Corinthians made the following assessment of Paul: "Your letters are hard and strong, but your physical presence is weak and your speech subdued" (2 Cor 10:10). We have all seen Paul VI on television or in photos embracing Patriarch Athenagoras: he looked like a child disappearing into the arms and full beard of a giant.

When he spoke also, his voice was rather low-key; rarely did he bring out the conviction and the enthusiasm that boiled within him. But his thinking! But his writings! They were pellucid, penetrating, deep and sometimes chiselled.

"The people of hunger," he wrote, for example, "call today in dramatic manner upon the people of wealth. The Church starts awake in front of this cry of anguish and calls upon each of us to respond with love to his own brother." Development, yes – he said – but across-the-board, "of every person and of the whole person." "Every person" and not only the class of the fortunate; "the whole person": these, then, must be enabled to develop and progress not just in an economic dimension, but one that is also moral, spiritual and religious. "Do, know and have more so as to be more."

But Saint Paul was above all the apostle of the Gentiles, of those who were then considered against the Jews. He fought for them, despite the perplexity of the other apostles, he travelled and suffered a great deal. He wrote: "Five times have I received the thirty-nine strokes from the Jews; three times have I been beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times suffered shipwreck, I have spent a day and a night at the mercy of the waves. Countless journeys..." (2 Cor 11:24-26). In his image, Paul VI travelled 130,000 kilometers by plane: Palestine, India, the United Nations headquarters, Fatima, Turkey, Colombia, Africa, the Far East were the main stages in his travels. All those journeys won, perhaps, no conversions, but they made people feel the closeness of the Church to them and their problems.

Another closeness, or rather approach, that Paul sought for was that of contact with professedly atheistic governments. A delicate point this: the Pope was criticized by some people because of it. Undoubtedly risk there was. But limited and calculated. Limited, because he did not yield on principles, following the Gospel "iota unum aut unus apex non praeteribit a lege." Calculated, because, even sometimes with little hope, he sought the advantage of religion.

There was the problem of the great many Catholics who live under persecutory governments: of course the Pope needed to send them bishops or try to gain some crumb of religious freedom for them. The atheists themselves are a problem: they are so many, so many; can the Church shut itself away from them?

Saint Paul had written: "I made myself all things to all men, to save someone at any cost" (1 Cor 9:22). Why then not admire the courage of a Pope who took risks? When Pius VII was negotiating the concordat with Napoleon, he had against him open opponents even among the cardinals. "Bargaining with that criminal!" they said. "And sweeping out of the dioceses all the elderly bishops, quite a number of whom can be considered martyrs for the faith! And replacing them with bishops acceptable to the First Consul!" Pius VII, with his heart breaking, asked or required the old bishops to accept suffering not only for the Church, but also from the Church; he made to the First Consul all the concessions morally lawful so as to gain in exchange great advantages for religion. Naturally the happy outcome of the negotiations was not seen there and then, it took time. History has its runs and reruns. So does that of the Church. In the patriarchal archive there are letters exchanged between Patriarch Roncalli and Montini as substitute at the Secretariat of State. The Pope – Roncalli writes in one – wants such a priest in Rome; conceding him is a serious sacrifice for Venice, but I yield, because in the Church "one has to see wide and far." Thank you, Montini answers; thank you for the priest granted and for the "wide and far."

My brothers, no man is perfect; Paul VI also, whom we lament so much, will have perhaps done some things imperfectly. To me, however, it seems, that he, extremely cultivated as a man, exemplary as a priest, as Pope really did see wide and far."

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