The beatification of Pope Paul VI


By Father Joseph D. Wallace

Ecumenists throughout the world hailed the recent beatification of Blessed Pope Paul VI on Sunday Oct. 19. The beatification took place at the closing Mass for the 2014 Extraordinary Synod on the Family. This ceremony marked the third pope from the 20th century that Pope Francis has elevated in the past six months in Rome. Pope Francis canonized Pope St. John XXIII and Pope St. John Paul II on April 20, 2014. All these popes devoted a significant amount of their papacies fostering greater unity among Christians and dialogue with the other religious communities in our world.

It was Pope Paul VI who galvanized the ecumenical and interreligious outreach hoped for by Pope John XXIII. Earlier in his service to the church as Archbishop of Milan, Archbishop Montini revealed his views when he asked the faithful of Milan to love not only one another but also schismatics, Protestants, Anglicans, the indifferent, Muslims, pagans and even atheists. As pope he inherited the Second Vatican Council after the death of Pope John XXIII and answered the call of the previous pope to “open a window” and reach out to “our separated brethren.”

Some of the new pope’s encyclicals and early documents of the Council called for greater dialogue with the world. In his very first encyclical, “Ecclesiam Suam” (On the Church) he wrote, “The church must enter into dialogue with the world in which it lives. It has something to say, a message to give, a communication to make.” And it seemed apropos that this dialogue should begin with fellow Christians and people of religion. Two of the ground breaking documents of the Council did just that. In November 1964 the Council fathers promulgated “Unitatis Redintegratio” (The Restoration of Unity), the Decree on Ecumenism. This decree challenged and called upon all Roman Catholics to work ardently for the unity of the church. It called upon, “all the Catholic faithful to recognize the signs of the times and to take an active and intelligent part in the work of ecumenism.”

Another important step in fostering dialogue with other people of religion was in October 1965 with the promulgation of the highly contested declaration “Nostra Aetate” (In Our Time), the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions. It spoke of the special connection that Christians have to the Jews because of their chosen status and that from them came the Christ. It said that the Jewish people are not responsible for the death of Christ, repudiating the charge of deicide. It said “the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God,” again repudiating all anti-Semitism. This declaration speaks of the unity of the origin of all human beings and the belief that we all return to God. It addresses the big questions that have perplexed humanity since time immemorial, such as, where did we come from, why is there suffering and death, how do we achieve happiness? It also spoke of the positive elements in some of the teachings of Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism to address these conundrums.

Pope Paul journeyed to Jordan and Israel in January 1964, for the first papal pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It was the first time that a pope had left Italy in over a century. While there he met with the head of the Orthodox Church, Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople, on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. This meeting ended nearly 1,000 years of negative relations and condemnations between Catholics and Orthodox Christians. This was the first meeting of a pope and patriarch since the Great East – West Schism of 1054 A.D. This historic meeting led to the Catholic – Orthodox Joint Declaration, which called for greater reconciliation between the two Churches.

In 1966, an Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey visited Pope Paul VI, the first Archbishop of Canterbury in modern times to formally visit the Vatican. The evening before Ramsey was leaving for London, the pope took off his own episcopal ring, presented to him by the people of Milan, and gave it to Ramsey, who wore it until the day he died. The ring is now worn whenever an Archbishop of Canterbury visits the Vatican. Pope Paul VI had great respect for the Anglican Church and desired reunification. He often described it as “our beloved sister church.”

Pope Francis aptly captured the sentiment of all who desire the unity of Christ Church and good loving relations with our Jewish brothers and sisters and all other religious communities, when he said during his homily at Pope Paul’s beatification, “When we look to this great pope, this courageous Christian, this tireless apostle, we cannot but say in the sight of God a word as simple as it is heartfelt and important: thanks. Thank you, our dear and beloved Pope Paul VI. Thank you for your humble and prophetic witness of love for Christ and his church!”

Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.