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from issue no. 10 - 2004

The humanity of Paul VI

Montini was a simple pope, human, in everyday life and in his meeting with crowds, in daily solitude, in the frequent contacts with his collaborators and in the moments of most difficult choice

by Archbishop Romeo Panciroli

Paul VI greeting the exultant crowd on his visit to the Rome parish of Our Lady of Lourdes in Tormarancia 
24 February 1964

Paul VI greeting the exultant crowd on his visit to the Rome parish of Our Lady of Lourdes in Tormarancia 24 February 1964

The Gospel is always answer and light for everyday human problems, and one of them consists precisely in the excessive disparity between poor and rich who come across each other in very concrete situations in life and society.
We Christians cannot be neutral spectators of the needs and of the poverty of others, because, as we read in the Council constitution Gaudium et spes, «the joys and hopes, the sadness and the anguish of the people of today, of the poor above all and of all those who suffer, are also the joys and hopes, the sadness and the anguish of the disciples of Christ, and there is nothing genuinely human that does not find an echo in their hearts».
Today’s believer must take sides openly for social justice, as we have been taught by Jesus Christ, then the apostles and finally the supreme pontiffs in their memorable encyclicals, up to the Populorum progressio of Paul VI, speaking for developing peoples: a document of particular importance because entering in a direct way into the burning issues of the world and proposing a new conception of universal charity to regulate relations between the people of affluence and those of hunger, for the purpose of achieving the integral development of mankind.
Paul VI was aware that the mission proper to the Church, according to the constitution Gaudium et spes, is of a spiritual order; but he was also very aware of the ties that, precisely because of her religious mission, make the Church really and intimately allied to human kind and its history.
Pope Montini, whom we gladly remember on this the 107th anniversary of his birth, well knew the problems of the world because he was in continuous contact with the world. «Let nobody lack in bread and dignity», he had said before his trip to India, «and may all have the common good as their crowning interest».
Those feelings were to be made concrete during his pontificate in many small and large gestures among which, first of all, the gift to the poor of the tiara given him by the diocese of Milan in order to remind everybody that the Church, following the example of Christ and in harmony with the Council, has always been mother to the poor. They were not impromptu gestures but the expression of a particular sensibility of his toward the poor, in full conformity with the teachings of the Gospel.
«Before our call to the supreme pontificate,» he had written in Populorum progressio, «two journeys, to Latin America and to Africa, had put us in immediate contact with the rending problems that besiege continents full of life and of hope. Invested with universal paternity we have during new journeys… seen with our own eyes and almost touch with our hand the very grievous difficulty» of so many peoples.
Not only the journeys. Every day bags full of documents arrived in his study, reports coming from the pontifical representatives, press reports from every part of the world, thick correspondence, summaries of cases, official letters, projects for messages.
Paul VI read everything with care. He made himself aware of everything with meticulousness in an incessant effort that often lasted beyond one in the morning, when, before sleeping, he went into the chapel for a last greeting to the Lord to Whom he had already devoted the first time of the day, in «audience with God». He needed to find himself alone with him, to listen to him at length before speaking to men, because of his office that led him to give hearing to so many people from all the world.
Let us take the occasion of this anniversary to look more closely at the complex personality of this servant of God who has left us so many lessons and great examples, in the conviction that time will exalt his figure and doings ever increasingly.
Today everybody acknowledges the lucid intelligence with which he guided the Council and brought it to conclusion and the hard-earned wisdom with which he led the Church in the tormented period after the Council. Certain courageous decisions of his, that marked fixed points and that some people thought of as “closing-off” were later judged prophetic in many aspects.
One example out of them all, his call, now extremely relevant, to the Christian roots of Europe: «It is certain that the whole of Europe draws on the traditional heritage of the religion of Christ for the superiority of its legal usage, the nobility of the great ideas of its humanism and the wealth of the distinctive and enlivening principles of its civilization. The day that Europe should abjure this fundamental ideological heritage, it would cease to be itself».
Paul VI with the campesinos of Bogotá 23 August 1968

Paul VI with the campesinos of Bogotá 23 August 1968

Paul VI was a simple pope, human, in everyday life and in the meeting with crowds, in daily solitude, in the frequent contacts with the collaborators and in the moments of the most important choice; faithful to himself and to his mission.
He wanted an atmosphere of simplicity around him. He got his apartment furnished in simple style and without any lavishness; his study, his library, the rooms where he received had the fittings required by good taste and the meaning of his mission. All marked by a sober style, to the measure of man, that he had installed and consolidated.
The humanity of Paul VI transpired above all in his relations with people: with individuals and with crowds, with young people and with adults, with the great and the powerful figures of this world, and with his brothers in the episcopate.
Some people described him as cold and detached, and perhaps there was towards him a meanness in love, even on the part of many Christians who were unable to see the treasure contained in that seemingly fragile man. His collectedness certainly didn’t encourage facile panegyric, but his humanity was always disarming and winning. Every meeting with him, even if brief, was an experience that left its mark.
He presented himself with discretion, almost unnoticedly, but nothing escaped the acute gaze of his grey-blue, mobile and expressive eyes, intent as he was on penetrating the depths of those he spoke to. He was not explosive, but suasive; he encouraged with words specially made, words that then resonated inside for a long time.
His fatherliness and his ability with words came out of his talent for listening and from his insight. Everything in him was sensibility and fellow-feeling: his way of listening, of understanding, of perceiving, of keeping silent, of speaking. He had a propensity to welcome and nothing found him extraneous or unprepared, often passing over formalities to make every meeting with others more cordial.
The crowds felt this communicative humanity of his and they always flocked to him in numbers. It’s enough to think of the gatherings in the 1975 Holy Year, of those during the visits to Rome and on the trips outside Rome, where he was greeted festively and acclaimed by so many thousands of exulting people eager to hear him.
He was fully at ease among the faithful, and he sought encounter, and to welcome them he created an ample meeting-place, the present Paul VI Aula. It is the place where he prayed with them, listened, taught, encouraged, admonished, where he gave out his word and spent his energies. Everyone felt he was close and understood him, even non-Catholics and the non-believers; the separate brethren often forgot in his presence the “weight” of the primacy, in a communion that did not exclude them.
Some people accused him of speaking in difficult terms, and he strove to make an effort because it’s not always easy to explain Christianity; he did everything he could to get himself understood, because preaching was his mission: «You see, I’m always preaching...». Often speaking freely, without following his notes, he found himself swapping between “I” and “we”, naturally inclined to feel among others like one of them, to bring only joy and love. In fact, John Paul I said of him: «He is a teacher of the faith because he knows how to present the revelation of God in an attractive way».
True announcer of the Word, fully taken up by his mandate; but how much humility in his daily behavior, in all his gestures. He found the occasion to say openly with huge conviction: «Who announces this to you? A poor man, a phenomenon of smallness. I tremble, brothers and children, I tremble in speaking, because I hear myself saying something that goes immensely beyond me, things that I have not sufficiently testified and served, things that truly merit a prophetic voice, I feel my smallness and the crushing disproportion between the Message that I announce and my ability to expound it and even to live it».
In his governing as universal pastor he chose dialogue and inducement as the highroad, devoting his first and programmatic encyclical Ecclesiam Suam to the theme: «We», it says, «are ever conscious of this ineffable and extremely real dialogical relation, offered and established with us by God the Father, through Christ, in the Holy Spirit, for us to understand what relationship we, that is the Church, must seek to set up and encourage with mankind».
He took especial care of communion with the bishops. After experiencing the communion of the Council with them, he welcomed them in periodic consultation in the Synod, he even went to listen to them in their continental conferences, in Latin America, in Asia, in Oceania. He also made of the episcopal ring, given to so many bishops, and that many of us still wear, a bond of communion, offering a model of simple make, more symbol than decoration. He felt himself united to them and showed it on every occasion, listening to them with attention and celebrating together the Eucharist, the sign of the unity. «United so that the world believe», he was to say to the bishops, to the clergy and to the faithful of the Eastern Catholic rites gathered in the Basilica of Saint Anne in Jerusalem.
He made himself the animator of communion between all the people of God. He visited the parishes of his Roman diocese, always meeting his priests, the religious communities and the gatherings of his faithful, «to make Catholics», he said, «men truly good, wise men, free men, men calm and strong ».
Paul VI greeting a poor invalid, a guest of the Latin Patriarchy of Jerusalem, during his trip to the Holy Land between 4 and 6 January 1964

Paul VI greeting a poor invalid, a guest of the Latin Patriarchy of Jerusalem, during his trip to the Holy Land between 4 and 6 January 1964

Paul VI loved the world in which Jesus Christ had called him to rule the Church. He was the first pope to bring the Church amid the world, the whole world, describing and signing himself “Viator Christi”.
Through a precise and targeted program, he reached cities and nations remote from his See so as to animate significant anniversaries with his presence. He was everywhere the bearer of human warmth and ecclesial communion. If every bishop, every priest and every Christian had done, in proportion, what he achieved in terms of animation and renewal, the Church today would be much farther ahead along its road.
Paul VI was a man of notable courage which might have seemed rash did it not arise from his unshakable faith and from that Spirit of God of which he was full: «Of all the experiences that human life may have, the most beautiful, the richest in promise and solace, is precisely that of possessing the Spirit of God».
Courage to go ahead in the pastoral mission with which he had been invested, and in the work of Council renewal. Courageous his stance in defense of life with the encyclical Humanae vitae, courageous also another of his encyclicals, Dignitatis humanae, on freedom of religion, on which much has been said in recent days at the international colloquium promoted by the Paul VI Institute; audacious finally, and moving, the profession of faith, the Creed of the people of God, proclaimed with so much vigor in Saint Peter’s Square at the end of the Year of the Faith.
And his letter to the Red Brigades and the words spoken at the funeral of his friend Aldo Moro are still deeply imprinted on our minds: «And who can listen to our lament if not you again, O God of life and death? You did not hear our entreaty... for his safety».
The speech given at the meeting of the Ecumenic Council of Churches in Geneva was also dense with humility and courage: «Our name is Peter. Peter is fisher of men, Peter is shepherd... And the name that we have chosen, that of Paul, sufficiently indicated the orientation that we wanted to give to our apostolic office».
The opening of his homily in Manila on 29 November 1970, in a large park on the outskirts of the capital, in front of an immense crowd mainly of young farm workers and fishermen was strong and courageous; with great force and conviction he said: «I, Paul, successor of Saint Peter, charged with the pastoral mission for the whole Church, would never have come from Rome to this extremely distant country if I had not been firmly convinced of two fundamental things: the first of Christ, the second of your salvation. Convinced of Christ; yes I feel the necessity to announce it, I cannot keep silent on it, woe to me if I don’t proclaim the Gospel. For this I have been sent by him, from Christ himself. I am an apostle, I am a witness».
And because he was “sent”, he had the courage to pronounce various nays, for some of which he had to suffer the rejection of large sectors of public opinion, but the positive import of which will be fittingly judged by history. No to indiscriminate contraception, no to divorce and to abortion, no to the breach of human rights, no to wars, no to the marriage of priests (in the Latin Church), no to women priests, no to the break-up pressures within the Church.
During his trip to India he was informed that the Italian Parliament had approved the law on the possibility of divorce; on his return, with delicacy but firmness, he immediately and openly stigmatized the event «that for many reasons» - his actual words - «especially for the love we bear for the Italian people, we judge infelicitous».
He was a man of inexhaustible patience and knew well that the true pastor, before separating even the least of his brethren from communion, must seek every other possible way out. Patience in bearing attacks on his person, patience in clarifying doubts, in offering reasons for reflection, in creating area of dialogue especially in those cases where his interventions were interpreted in a political key.
Because of his “too much” patience, that often was farsightedness, he was descried as “Hamletic”, hesitant. But he himself made a point of clarifying the matter: «I often happen to read that I am indecisive, uneasy, apprehensive, uncertain between opposing influences. Perhaps I am slow, but I know what I want. After all it is my right to reflect»; and on another occasion: «Burning issues are also complex questions. Honesty requires that they don’t get treated hastily. We must respect the complexity».
Maybe few popes have found themselves in such a complex historical situation, when changes in society and in the religious sphere had taken on the pace of a whirlpool. He had inherited an ongoing Council, a state of ferment throughout the Church. To Paul VI, admirably prepared by Providence, fell the task of reorganizing and reforming, of reconciling the pressures of audacious ideas, of holding in check both the fanatics and those allergic to organizational structures.
He had to watch over, in charity, the inclusion in the life of the Church of opposing pressures to rush ahead and to drag back; the confirmation is obvious if one looks at his work overall, in the whole span of the fifteen years of his pontificate. In his patient, pondered, often innovative decisions, there is an evident coherence and an incontestable linearity.
Paul VI with his secretary Monsignor Pasquale Macchi walking in the Vatican Gardens

Paul VI with his secretary Monsignor Pasquale Macchi walking in the Vatican Gardens

He was the builder of the Church of the future: a simple, brotherly Church, one of communion; sacrament of salvation, whose main strengths in the world will be the word of God, the Eucharist, the sacraments, the living communities with their pastors, united to the supreme pastor. A Church that he has brought down to a more human, accessible, brotherly scale, almost the image of a temperament made of simplicity and dialogue; the Church that he loved, it was his Church, Christ had entrusted it to him so that he might safeguard it as supreme pastor.
«The Church is our abiding love,» he said, «our primordial concern, our fixed idea; the chief and leading thread of our humble pontificate».
He was the pope of the renewal of the Church in line with the Council, a path he walked with decision, slowly while he was still not quite sure, but then firm and steadfast once he had decided. Fervid about the values of the past as he was about the prospects of the future, he suffered for every choice with all the commitment of his humanity invested in a task that the world cannot always understand.
Returning from his great visit to India he was to exclaim in Saint Peter’s Square to the Roman faithful who were waiting enthusiastically for him: «A great thing is the Church, reality and mystery at the same time. We have once again understood, in clear way, how it is made for the world, even for the world of today».
And so he also taught us how to love the Church and how to listen to the word of God, teacher of love to mankind and to the Church, a teacher who did not shut his ears to the cries of humanity, because he lived, took on, shared in all the anxieties of the world.
«Our heart», he said, «is like a seismograph which records all the vibrations of human passion». He suffered with those who weep and rejoiced when it was the moment, enfolding the anguishes of the world of today and the joyful certainties of the Christian who believes and hopes in Jesus Christ risen.
His apostolic mission made him feel continuously close to the problems of the poor, the needy, those stricken by natural and social calamities, reminding us that «our neighbor, the one we must love as we do ourselves, is not only our fellow Christian».
Wherever he went in person he always wanted to meet the poor and the sick, take account of their situation, bring a word of comfort and material help, speak and pray with them. In Palestine, in India, at Fatima, in Turkey, in Colombia, in Uganda, in Polynesia, in Bangladesh, in the Philippines, in Indonesia, in Sri Lanka; returning from his trip to Latin America he said he had seen, in the numberless and devout crowds that had come to meet him, «the reflection of the Lord’s love for poverty».
Paul VI in prayer in front of the grotto of the Virgin of Lourdes in the Vatican Gardens

Paul VI in prayer in front of the grotto of the Virgin of Lourdes in the Vatican Gardens

Wherever and always he told the poor of the beatitude of poverty, however to those with responsibility he denounced the crimes of injustice. When sufferings were the fault of people and oppression, he was not afraid to say so courageously, as in the encyclical Populorum progressio quoted, in which he took on tremendous relevance when he said: «There are situations whose injustice cries out to the heavens. When whole peoples, deprived of the necessities, live in a state of dependence such as to prevent them from adopting any initiative and responsibility, and even any possibility of cultural mobility and of sharing in social life and politics, great is the temptation to reject such offence to human dignity with violence » (no. 30).
Love for mankind made him indefatigable in initiatives for justice and progress; he felt himself defender and brother of mankind in the name of the mandate from Christ, reminding all that the solution to mankind’s problems large and small is love, «not weak and rhetorical love», he said, «but that which Christ in the Eucharist teaches us, the love that devotes itself, the love that multiplies, the love that sacrifices itself»; and again: «May Christ vanquish our human resistances and make each of us a credible witness of his love».
Despite the sufferings of mankind and his own personal ones, Paul VI had in his words and actions a human energy that made him alive and full of hope. An optimistic pope then, so very optimistic that he even reached the point, at Whitsun of 1975, of launching the challenge of joy to the world: for the first time a supreme pontiff emanated a document on joy, an explicit positive interpretation of life and history, because Christianity is joy, because Christ risen is our joy and our salvation Him alone.
John Paul II recently said: «He carried the light of Tabor in his heart, and with that light walked to the end, bearing his cross with evangelic joy».

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