On October 19 of this year, Pope Francis will preside over the beatification of Pope Paul VI.
Paul is perhaps best known for his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, in which he affirmed the Church’s teaching about the nature of married love and about the inappropriateness of artificial birth control.
But as important as this document is, Humanae Vitae reflects only one aspect of Paul’s holiness and love for the Lord. He also faced the monumental task of furthering John XXIII’s vision for Vatican II. This was no easy task, but he embraced it wholeheartedly.
In the pages that follow, we want to highlight three key convictions that helped Paul VI guide the Church through one of its biggest and most dramatic reforms in history. As we celebrate his beatification this month, let’s also dedicate ourselves to the hopes, dreams, and goals of the council he so courageously championed.
From the beginning of his pontificate, Paul VI set out to advance one of the council’s highest goals: Christian unity. During his historic 1964 journey to Jerusalem, Paul met three times with Athenagoras II, the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople. It was the first time since 1054, when the churches of East and West split, that two such representatives met.
At one meeting, the two men recited together Jesus’ prayer that his followers “may all be one” (John 17:21). This historic meeting led, nearly two years later, to both churches lifting the excommunications that had led to this centuries-old division.
But Paul’s commitment to Christian unity was evident not just in official acts. He was also known for spontaneous gestures toward reconciliation. One occurred in March 1966, when Dr. Michael Ramsey, the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, visited him in Rome. After a joint prayer service, Paul pulled Ramsey aside and quietly asked him to remove his episcopal ring. He then took off his own ring—the sign of his role as a bishop of the Church—and placed it on Ramsey’s finger. Ramsey was moved to tears, and the two men embraced. Archbishop Ramsey wore the ring for the rest of his life.
This was Paul’s way: the way of humility, love, and unity.
Paul’s concern for unity wasn’t limited to Church issues. He tirelessly worked for peace and reconciliation in the broader world as well. Taking his cue from the Vatican II document On the Church in the Modern World, Paul sought to bring an end to all the conflicts that troubled the people of his time. He sent envoys to broker peace in Viet Nam. He urged both Soviet and US leaders to work toward disarmament. And he worked within his native Italy to put an end to the terrorist violence instigated by the Red Brigades.
One of the most dramatic events of his pontificate was his trip to the United Nations in October 1965. There he addressed the General Assembly, making an impassioned appeal: “No more war, war never again!” He went on: “Men cannot be brothers if they are not humble. It is pride, no matter how legitimate it may seem, that provokes tension. . . . Pride disrupts brotherhood.”
Drawing from the rich tradition of Catholic social teaching, Paul understood the connection between peace and human development. In his encyclical On the Development of Peoples, he wrote, “Peace is not simply the absence of warfare. . . . It is fashioned by efforts directed day after day toward . . . a more perfect form of justice among men” (Populorum Progressio, 76). Or as he put it in his 1972 address for World Peace Day, “If you want peace, work for justice.”
Like the council he oversaw, Pope Paul VI devoted himself to bringing the good news of the gospel to the modern world. He went out into the world rather than wait for the world to come to him. And so he pushed boundaries, becoming the first successor of Peter to visit all six inhabited continents. And he drew huge crowds wherever he went.
The goal of Paul’s journeys was to get as close to people as possible, no matter the risk. This meant braving open-car drives through packed streets and wading into crowds of admirers. Not even an assassination attempt in the Philippines in 1970 dissuaded him. He immediately forgave his would-be killer and continued with his itinerary, traveling to Samoa, Australia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and Sri Lanka.
Paul summed up the purpose of his travels in his 1975 apostolic exhortation On Evangelization in the Modern World. The Church, he wrote, “exists in order to evangelize.” The privilege of sharing Christ with other people “is in fact . . . her deepest identity” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 14). It’s something every believer must do, a call to give of ourselves to the people around us so that our hope, our joy, and our faith can become evident and lead to a heartfelt sharing of the gospel message. Clearly, this was a call that Paul embraced with his whole heart.