While Popes John XXIII and John Paul II were being canonized in St. Peter’s Square last April 27, before what some estimate as the largest crowd gathered in Europe for a religious purpose in living memory, Pope Paul VI rested in his quiet dark tomb under the high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica. A million people cheered the new saints. Few people remembered Paul VI. I don’t think he would have been surprised. He was never very good at handling public relations and the media.
He was a thin, sensitive, very thoughtful man. One person described him as a man of “infinite courtesy.” If John XXIII can be said to have brought the Church into the modern world, Paul VI can be said to have brought the poor of the world into the Church.
There is little talk of poverty or the poor in the Vatican II documents. It is with Paul VI’s approval after the Second Vatican Council that churches around the world began to give special attention to the poor. Latin America led in this matter, and in the late 1960s and 1970s developed an understanding of the Church as the “Church of the Poor” and of “God’s preferential option for the poor,” and the theology of liberation that supported this thinking. His encyclicals were nearly all on social matters. He championed land reform, the right of poor people to revolt, the obligation of the rich countries to help the poor countries. In these letters he followed the methodology of the Council—that is, he began with the problems as they appeared on the ground and found in them “the signs of the times” that gave believers the sense of direction in which they should move.
Paul VI became pope on the death of John XXIII in 1963 and died in 1978. He was succeeded briefly by John Paul I and then by John Paul II.
He issued one letter, “Humanae Vitae” on birth control, that may be the most unpopular letter written by a pope in modern times.
He was called indecisive and a papal Hamlet. Maybe he was such, but for the poor and for priests and bishops in trouble he was a person of warm compassion—and that is a side of him few people know.
In the 1970s-1980s Bishop Julio Labayen of the Prelature of Infanta was sometimes in trouble with the government and even with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines for his criticism of martial law. He was troubled deeply by this, especially by the charge made by some other bishops that he had no loyalty to the Church. For anyone who knows Bishop Labayen, this was clearly absolute nonsense, but still it pained him. He was able to meet Pope Paul VI and they had a long talk about these matters, and at the end Bishop Labayen told friends: “At the heart of the Church I found a warm and welcoming father.”
Bishop Daniel Tji of South Korea, who also had troubles with his government and had spent time in jail, told me he had the same experience as Bishop Labayen had. He stopped talking after he said this, nodding slowly with a smile on his face as if he remembered once again his time with Paul VI.
My own experience with Paul VI was in Tondo, Manila, on a Sunday afternoon in early November 1970. The pope was here for the start of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences. He arrived at the Don Bosco Center in Barrio Magsaysay and soon was sitting on what looked like a very shaky speaker stand with Cardinal Rufino Santos and Trinidad “Trining” Herrera, president of the Zone One Tondo Organization or Zoto, the first of many mass-based, democratic and nonviolent people’s organizations that would spring up in the Philippine slums during martial law. Trining greeted the pope in the name of the people of Tondo. This was, we were told, the first time a local leader had greeted a pope on such an occasion.
After greetings in Latin, which few people understood even after they were translated into Tagalog, Paul VI walked through Barrio Magsaysay’s muddy streets (it was just after Typhoon “Yoling”) to visit the home of a typical poor family; it was as poor as the families around it. The pope spent more time with the family than he was supposed to spend, and I could hear calls on the police radios around me asking what was wrong. They were beginning to get nervous.
Finally the pope came back. He was deeply shaken by what he had seen and heard. He didn’t say anything, but held on to the hand of a Franciscan Missionary of Mary sister to steady himself. I was next to the sister. He looked stricken in a way: He had seen how his poor people lived in squalor and how the lovely children were fated to be as poor as their parents.
Paul VI was the first pope to travel outside Italy. He traveled to places as different as India, the Holy Land, and New York City. He packed the Yankee Stadium. The Yankee players showed him the uniform of their all-star catcher who had died shortly before the pope’s visit. He told the United Nations: “No more war. War never again.”
I hope that in the future Pope Paul VI is canonized. There must be room in heaven for indecisive people. We can’t all have magical charisma or good luck in one’s life.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (firstname.lastname@example.org).