I am anxious to comment both on the final document of the synod and the homily that Pope Francis gave for the close of the synod, but that hopefully will unfold through the coming week. Unfortunately, though, right now is a time that I am particularly rushed with both some travel and work pertaining to my “day job.” For now let me just comment on the beatification of Blessed Paul VI.
I am not happy about it. It isn’t that I don’t like Paul VI. I love Paul VI. He is my favorite Pope of my lifetime and indeed of the last century and more. I never go to Rome that I don’t make a pilgrimage to his grave in the Vatican grottoes. Much of what we credit to John XXIII: Mass in our own language, the liturgical changes of Vatican II, the progress in ecumenical dialogue (or rather, what progress there was before a freeze set in under John Paul II and Benedict XVI), the Church’s stance on human rights and so much more is actually the contribution of Paul VI. Paul was Pope for the final three sessions of Vatican II, the sessions from which the documents of the Council emerged. He took an active role in pushing those documents through in spite of some hard opposition from the conservatives, especially those within the Curia. Moreover, Paul seems to have been a genuinely holy man. He had his human flaws—and some of them reportedly were deep—but he also radiated a mature and deep faith. His final years mirrored the suffering servant: he reminds me of the Mezzo-Soprano Air from the Second Part of Handle’s Messiah: He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
Paul had long been hated by the neo-trads for the direction in which he led the Council, but His Encyclical Humanae Vitae brought down upon him the wrath of the liberals whose disappointment morphed quickly into a scornful wrath. Is Paul a saint? I have no doubt. But we don’t need more pope-saints, or even blesseds right now. Yes, we need more married people saints, but that is not my point. In canonizing or beatifying popes or cardinals or bishops, we are canonizing the Institution. That is not a good idea. We need to move away from the Institutional model of Church and embrace the other models, especially the Servant model. I am not saying that there are no bishops or clergy who should be raised to the altars. You have the martyr bishop, Oscar Romero. You have Dom Helder Camara, the Bishop of the Poor. There are circumstances of their lives that outweigh the episcopal handicap. They transcended their hierarchical status, their being part of the institution, to identify with the poorest of Christ’s people. Despite their being prelates, they are symbols of the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters.
Dorothy Day said that she did not want to be trivialized by being declared a saint. That is my other objection to beatifying Paul VI. He was too great a pope to be turned into plaster statues; his contribution to the Church too great to be relegated to the dust bin of pious thought. I think he would be embarrassed by it as well. He knew his flaws and he took them seriously. I suspect—and again, I can only suspect and this may, in fact, be what psychologists call “projection” but I suspect that Paul would rather have been forgotten and only that his work remain than that he be remembered and his work pushed into his shadow.