The 29th Anniversary of the Death of Pope Paul VI: 6 August 1978

The 29th Anniversary of the Death of Pope Paul VI: 6 August 1978

Michele Giulio Masciarelli

Teacher of dialogue, architect of the Council

A good, faithful memory is a characteristic feature of the Christian identity. The life of the Church is a continuous pattern of events that recur in the memory, which it is only right to commemorate. Loss of memory impoverishes us and deprives us of the inspiring critical resources we need to form an opinion; our journey becomes riskier.

On 6 August, the anniversary of the death of Pope Paul VI, our affectionate and grateful thoughts unfailingly turn to him.

Thinking back to the personal and pastoral stature of Pope Paul VI means remembering a Churchman with an impressive profile, an acute interpreter of the times and a passionate lover of the Church, profoundly knowledgeable about our age. As an inquiring person himself, he did not perceive the human person as a problem that could be expressed in a concrete form (hence, dominated), but rather, as a mystery whose orbit we enter with a cognitive approach, only made possible by a broad knowledge and applying multiple interpretations, and especially by immersion in faith. It is helpful to compare ourselves once again with this joyful man of peace, as he liked to describe himself and as he appeared to us all.

An all-embracing choice

A clear legacy of Paul VI is his teaching on dialogue, understood as the more human, more Christian and more ecclesial way of speaking to one another.

He opted for the return to dialogue —in its justification and methodology —as the theme of his first Encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam (6 August 1964). One might describe this choice as "all embracing". Dialogue was conceived of aesthetically, in terms of concentric circles.

The first circle: all that is human (nn. 96-106); the second circle: believers in God (nn. 107-108); the third circle: the separated Christian brethren (nn. 109112); and the fourth circle: dialogue within the Catholic Church (nn. 113-115). These circles express the outreach of dialogue: dialogue must take place always and with all people.

A dialogue with each other, following the dialogue with God

This is the most conspicuous aspect of Paul VI's teaching on dialogue. A more profound aspect can be identified in his call to speak to God, to enter into conversation with him. It is here, as from a source, that dialogue is borne, a participation in that dialogue experienced infinitely and eternally by the three divine Persons.

The dialogue of salvation is the Trinitarian God's resolve to express his experience of dialogue in time and among men and women.

"Here, then, Venerable Brethren", Paul VI wrote, "is the noble origin of this dialogue: in the mind of God himself.... Indeed, the whole history of man's salvation is one long, varied dialogue, which marvellously begins with God and which he prolongs with men in so many different ways. In Christ's 'conversation' with men, God reveals something of himself, of the mystery of his own life, of his own unique essence and Trinity of persons.

"At the same time he tells us how he wishes to be known: as Love pure and simple; and how he wishes to be honoured and served: his supreme commandment is love. Child and mystic, both are called to take part in this unfailing, trustful dialogue; and the mystic finds there the fullest scope for his spiritual powers" (n. 70).

Catholic Church fraternal dialogue

Baptismal brotherhood and Eucharistic conviviality demand that there be trust and dialogue in the Church. This has a sacramental justification and therefore is not only a Trinitarian imitation to be developed.

Paul VI stressed the expansive and pervasive character of this dialogue throughout the fabric of the Church's life: "How greatly we desire that this dialogue with our own children may be conducted with the fullness of faith, with charity and with dynamic holiness. May it be of frequent occurrence and on an intimate level. May it be open and responsive to all truth, every virtue, every spiritual value that goes to make up the heritage of Christian teaching.

"We want it to be sincere. We want it to be an inspiration to genuine holiness. We want it to show itself ready to listen to the variety of views which are expressed in the world today. We want it to be the sort of dialogue that will make Catholics virtuous, wise, unfettered, fair-minded and strong" (n. 113).

Pope Montini's words say clearly that without dialogue, communion does not exist and mission is jeopardized. He invites us to grow in the spirit of an ecclesial dialogue that is theologically motivated, spiritually lived, conducted as a community and finalized for the mission. This missionary note in ecclesial dialogue is well emphasized by Pope Montini: "The Church must enter into dialogue with the world in which she lives. The Church has something to say, a message to give, a communication to make" (n. 65).

Becoming people who are ready to dialogue

Paul VI was a teacher of dialogue because his focus was on formation. What is good in the task of education is always linked to its aim: achieved in ways that are sometimes long and at times impracticable. What is truly at stake, however, is not providing the rules for the dialogue but training the person in dialogue, as expressed in n. 113 above.

Dialogue is understood as a necessary quality in the religious personality of the Christian. Therefore, addressing the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council while it was still in session, Paul VI wrote: "Our purpose is to win souls, not to settle questions definitively" (n. 66).

The Council assimilated his invitation to train for dialogue people of the Church whose spiritual identikit was outlined in those years by Cardinal A. Masella: "A person of dialogue is one who has the patience to become thoroughly acquainted with his conversation partner. He appreciates him, loves him, interprets his hidden aspirations, shares in his passion for the Truth and for Good and is desirous of walking with him to seek together new elements of light and goodness" (L'Osservatore Romano Italian daily edition, 23 November 1968).

The culture of dialogue

Paul VI conceived of dialogue as the way to communicate in the Church. He expressed his "conviction that it is this kind of dialogue that will characterize Our apostolic ministry. From Our Predecessors of the past century we have inherited a pastoral outlook and a pastoral approach" (n. 67).

And his eulogy was complete. He even placed dialogue among the "greatest manifestations of human activity and culture" (n. 81a).

Perhaps he was alluding to the contemporary thinker's great interest in dialogue, grasping its indispensable value to man even if its motives may not always be powerful and cannot always be shared by Christians (cf. L. Alici, La persona e it volto: l'orizzonte della responsabilita, in Aa.Vv., La filosofia del dialogo da Buber a Lévinas, Assisi, 1990, pp. 195-217).

Dialogue is based on the rock-hard foundation of faith and on the need to affirm the "irreplaceable importance preaching still has" (cf. nn. 86-90), in which a Word is proclaimed that should first of all be obeyed. Thus, it is clear that dialogue cannot be, as it were, a makeshift expedient following the relativistic shipwreck that might occur during the quest for the truth.

The contrary is true: cultural relativism, taken to the extreme, turns into incommunicability. As a result, there arises the need to propose a culture of dialogue which indeed accepts limitations but acts as a shore from which to start a new voyage, ever humble, to seek the sources of the truth.

Paul VI's call to dialogue was prophetic. In fact, he foresaw the emergence of the theme of the Other, which is a central issue now that the global tent is being pitched before the eyes of all. The culture of dialogue, as foreseen by Paul VI, can help and assist today's endeavour to consider otherness in its most critical areas: how to conceive of an open identity, how to bring about the discovery of the other, how to appreciate the other's viewpoint and lastly, how to ward off denial of the other.

The pedagogy of dialogue

Paul VI develops in his first Encyclical a sound, concentrated pedagogical theory through dialogue. Indeed, it is not only theory that it addresses.

The aesthetic dimension appears frequently and unexpectedly in his writings. For example: "Dialogue, therefore, is a recognized method of the apostolate. It is a way of making spiritual contact" (n. 81). This is followed by a lucid scanning of the methodology of dialogue, treated in four crystal-clear points: clarity, meekness, confidence and prudence.

The first point: "Clarity before all else; the dialogue demands that what is said should be intelligible. We can think of it as a kind of thought transfusion. It is an invitation to the exercise and development of the highest spiritual and mental powers a man possesses" (n. 81a).

This is a fitting barrier raised against any temptation to accomplish dialogue via the compromising solutions that always lie in ambush, together with the drifting apart of improvised relationships which never save the face of those taking part in dialogue.

The second point: "Dialogue must be accompanied by that meekness which Christ bade us learn from him: 'Learn of me, for I am meek and humble of heart'.

"It would indeed be a disgrace if our dialogue were marked by arrogance, the use of barbed words or offensive bitterness. What gives it its authority is the fact that it affirms the truth, shares with others the gifts of charity, is itself an example of virtue, avoids peremptory language, makes no demands. It is peaceful, has no use for extreme methods, is patient under contradiction and inclines towards generosity" (n. 81b).

It would be right to let this second point stand as it is, in its clear beauty, sine glossa.

The third point: "Confidence not only in the power of one's own words, but also in the good will of both parties to the dialogue. Hence, dialogue promotes intimacy and friendship on both sides. It unites them in a mutual adherence to the Good, and thus excludes all self-seeking" (n. 81c).

Perhaps this is the point that stands most in need of pedagogical care in order to develop the hearts of those who are speaking for a conversation that enhances rather than depresses.

The fourth point: "The prudence of a teacher who is most careful to make allowances for the psychological and moral circumstances of his hearer" (n. 81d).

This is a point on which Paul VI insists and which shows in a marvellous way how pedagogical caution is combined with the virtue of attention, in which Mary is the Disciple and Teacher and for which today there is a glaring need: all too often, in fact, self-reverence is precisely an obstacle to awareness of others, of their dignity, their needs and their wishes.

A great vision of life

Re-reading the "notes" for his Testament signed by Pope Montini on 14 July 1973 gives a sense of great peace, despite the fact that he speaks of death and detachment.

Indeed, it is essential that the mind of anyone who reads it be filled with a vision of life, of the world, of Christianity, of the Church and her mission which is lofty and light and thereby overturns the axiological sense of Jacques Maritain, a friend of Paul VI, who remarked sternly: "one dies of boredom".

Fortunately, the opposite is also true: one lives of lightness.

Paul VI's Testament is a unique testimony of this. It is indeed lovingly pervaded by hope. In a way it is an apologia of extraordinary beauty. It is deeply moving to see the plant of hope sprouting in the most arid soil that exists for any form of life, the humanly infertile soil of death.

Thoughts on death

Contemporary society has banished death. The disappearance of an individual no longer injures his continuity. Is this the product of an arrogant culture or of its reverse, depression?

The removal of death is conspicuous. In the face of this sort of pact of silence, or, as it has also been described, its being made taboo (Geoffrey Gorer), the strong contrast with how a Christian and a Teacher of faith can approach and speak of death stands out.

The beginning of Paul VI's Testament pulsates with both a powerful pathos and a stern, disarming humility. Above all, one can discern in it the humble pride of the believer and teacher of faith who is facing the reality of death, measuring up to it, drawing on the resources of hope.

"I am fixing my gaze on the mystery of death and of what follows thereafter, in the light of Christ which alone sheds a light upon it; and therefore with humble and serene confidence. I am deeply aware of the truth, which for me is ever reflected from this mystery on the present life, and I thank the conqueror of death for having dispelled the darkness and revealed the light thereof" (Testament of Paul VI, L'Osservatore Romano English edition [ORE], 24 August 1978, p. 1).

Death must be looked in the eye

The power of Montini's synthesis on death in this passage is impressive. As this concentrated thought unfolds it radiates meanings which, like a star, point in so many directions.

To begin comes the forceful affirmation: "I am fixing my gaze on..." (ibid.). This passage by Montini is uncompromising: death should not be skimmed over or brushed aside, still less passed over in silence. In today's cultural climate, the event of death has ended by being drained of importance, above all, a new custom of death and of dying, a new style of death consisting of reserve if not reticence and of a real "deprivation", for the dying no longer manage their own death.

For the Christian, on the other hand, death should be stared in the face, one might say tackled head-on as an unavoidable and decisive event of human existence. Indeed, Pope Paul's gentle look at death is perceptible: "In the presence of death, of the total and definitive separation from the present life, I deem it my duty to exalt the gift, the good fortune, the beauty, the destiny of this same fleeting existence" (Testament of Paul VI, ORE, p. 1).

Death should be called by Its real name

Thus, Paul VI speaks of death in the most realistic terms as befits a Christian. He uses the most rigorous word which, in his opinion, is neither a "difficulty" nor an "enigma", but "mystery".

Today, death is understood and referred to in many ways: emphasis has been placed on it as a critical passage in the experience of hope (Marcel); on its relational character (Camus), its anticipatory aspect (Heidegger), its existential feature (Jaspers, Sartre); and others have pointed out its concealment (Adorno and Heidegger), its creatural dimension (Sciacca), its lightness (Jankélévitch) and inscrutability (Bobbio).

In his last spiritual writing, Paul VI recalled that Christianity conceives of death not only as a separation but also an event that goes beyond all thresholds and all limitations.

This is the position of Christian prophecy: reason does not suffice to decipher death, precisely because it is a mystery.

Dying, thanksgiving and saying farewell

It is not an exaggeration to say that Christians are recognized above all by their manner of dying. Pope Montini's Testament also highlights in a particular and surprising way how a Christian can bid the world and history farewell. In fact, it actually includes the dimension of thanksgiving.

This is one of the special tones of the Testament of Paul VI, who wrote: "Now that my day is drawing to a close, and all of this stupendous and dramatic temporal and earthly scene is ending and dissolving, how can I further thank thee, O Lord, after the gift of natural life, also for the higher gift of faith and grace, in which alone at the end my surviving existence finds refuge?" (ibid.).

What a succinct spirituality there is in these lines of his Testament! Paul VI speaks with heartfelt gratitude of the last stretch of the pilgrimage of a pilgrim of the Absolute, and says farewell with a lofty spirit of faith:

"On taking my leave of this earthly scene, and going to face the judgment and mercy of God, there are so many things I should say, indeed, so many.... As regards the world: one must not think to help it by following its ways of thought, its habits and tastes, but by studying it, loving it and serving it" (ibid., p. 2).

This is the lofty stature of an extraordinary Teacher of faith with a passion for the cause of the world but also concerned that people not surrender to the unredeemed spirit of the world.

Then comes a most beautiful conclusion: "I close my eyes on this sorrowful, dramatic and magnificent world, invoking once again on its behalf the divine goodness" (ibid.).

The world, the earth — which must not be agreed with, caressed or cajoled — in this great Christian's and this great Pope's perception of faith, remain like creatures upon which the blessing of God, Creator and Father, has settled and Christ's Blood has been poured out, because they were in need of being cleansed and purified from Adam's sin in which they are still steeped.

Architect of the Council

Paul VI, in reopening the ecumenical assembly, described John XXIII as "the first Council Father", because he had conceived of it, prepared for it and opened it with his prophetic instinct and a heart full of hope. In convoking the Council Pope Roncalli had written:

"Distrustful souls see only darkness burdening the face of the earth. We, instead, like to reaffirm all our confidence in our Saviour, who has not left the world which he redeemed. Indeed, we make ours the recommendation of Jesus that one should know how to distinguish the 'signs of the times' (Mt 16:3), and we seem to see now, in the midst of so much darkness, a few indications which auger well for the fate of the Church and of humanity (Apostolic Constitution Humanae Salutis, 25 December 1961).

The Council, its consolation and its effort

The prophetic intuition of a religious genius as was Bl. Roncalli became a lucid and perceived awareness in the One who might be called the "Architect of the Second Vatican Council", which Paul VI certainly was. The Pope from Brescia resumed, continued and concluded the Council, also cultivating a great dream, the dream of a Church ever more aware of her identity and her vocation.

After the Council had been reopened, at a difficult moment in its work, Pope Montini gave it a decisive direction, guiding it toward reflection on the mystery represented by the two words "Christ" and "Church".

Moreover, in his first Encyclical, written at a critical period during the Council's work, he said, "It is a duty of the Church at the present time to strive toward a clearer and deeper awareness of herself and her mission in the world... and must here and now reflect on her own nature" (n. 18).

The Council Fathers listened to him: the Church was seen as a mystery. Perhaps Paul VI's greatest effort was not so much the matter of reopening the Council, directing it towards the mystery of the Church, guiding its work and bringing it to a close, as rather of presenting it to the Christian people, defending it in spirit and to the letter and giving a direction to the immediate post-conciliar period.

This was a complex and delicate task fraught with disappointments, as he himself said: "People thought that after the Council a day of sunshine would come for the history of the Church. There came, on the contrary, a day of clouds, storm, darkness, search, uncertainty"; it is difficult to express the joy of communion (Summary of Pope Paul VI's Homily, 29 June 1972; ORE, 13 July, P 7).

A collective legacy

The Second Vatican Council is the living, palpitating inheritance bequeathed to us by two great Popes of the last century.

We could say that it was an act of hope of John XXIII, who viewed the Council with total abandonment to the inspiration of God and with the typical trust of a prophet.

It was an act of faith for Paul VI, who resumed it, gave it a direction, guided it and led it to its first interpretation and implementation despite considerable tension.

Ultimately, we can perceive the Council as an act of charity for the Church carried out by John Paul II for almost 30 years.

For the Jubilee Year, Pope Wojtyla recommended to the Churches that they make an examination 01 conscience concerning the reception given to the Council (cf. Apostolic Letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente, n. 36), and in Novo Millennio Ineunte, he points to the Council as "the great grace bestowed on the Church in the 20th century: there we find a sure compass by which to take our bearings in the century now beginning" (n. 57).

Benedict XVI has also made himself a champion of the Council, as did Pope Wojtyla.

Immediately after his election, Pope Ratzinger solemnly declared that he desired to guide the Church in the light of the Council; or of a compass that guides one to the mystery, as he said while still a Cardinal: "The Second Vatican Council clearly desired to subordinate the discourse of the Church to, and integrate it with, the discourse of God; it wished to propose an ecclesiology in the properly theological sense.

"But the reception given to the Council has thus far neglected this qualifying feature in favour of individual ecclesiological affirmations. It has cast itself on individual words easy to remember and so has been left behind in comparison with the great horizons of the Council Fathers" (Il Concilio Vaticano II. Ricezione e attualitá alla luce del Giubileo, edited by R. Fisichella, Cinisello B., 2000, p. 67).

Five Popes meet on Council

More recently, Mons. Loris Francesco Capovilla, Secretary to John XXIII, has emphasized that the Council was a point of convergence of the past Popes. "Thanks to five Popes", he wrote, "the itinerarium lucis of light and love — announced in 1959 at the tomb of the Apostle Paul, started in 1962 on the Altar of the Confessio of Peter and blessedly concluded in 1965 — continues.

"Overall, and in its individual sections, it was not merely a solemn magisterial Document and far less a page of history. It was a gift of mercy and comfort to be shared with all our equals, with a fresh impetus of solidarity and brotherhood, in communion of faith, hope and charity and mindful of the concluding words with which Paul VI sealed the Second Vatican Council:

"'And lastly, we also address this universal greeting of ours to you, people who do not know us; people who do not understand us; people whom you might not consider useful, necessary and friendly to you; people who, perhaps thinking they are doing good, oppose us! A sincere greeting, a discreet greeting, but one that is full of hope: and today, full of esteem and love. Believing is loving!" (Quarant'anni dalla conclusione del Concilio ecumenico Vaticano II. 1965 - 7/8 December 2005, Bergamo, 2005, p. 26).

At the end of this tribute to Pope Paul VI, on the upcoming 29th anniversary of his death: apart from the many magisterial or pastoral convergences, it is nice to note the remarkable spiritual consonance of the last Pontiffs.

There is a mysterious harmony between the "rejoicing" of Pope Roncalli, the "joy" of Pope Montini, the "peace" of Pope Wojtyfa and the "happiness" of Pope Ratzinger. This is a great consolation. It means that we are under the breath of a continuous Pentecost and at the school of the same Teacher, who always wants us to follow him in the place of the disciple par excellence with the same fidelity to his and our Mother, his very first and most perfect disciple.

[All quotations from the Encyclical Ecclesiam Suam are taken from the Holy See Web site].

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
1 August 2007, page 3

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