Pope Francis doesn’t hang around. Soon after he was elected pope he wondered aloud why Pope Paul VI (1963-78) shouldn’t be considered for canonisation along with John XXIII and John Paul II, both now saints. I remember thinking at the time: well, it’s because neither liberals nor conservatives are exactly crazy about him.
Many liberals can’t forgive Paul for his 1968 encyclicalHumanae Vitae, which – contrary to expectations – slapped an absolute ban on artificial birth control. Instantly, the Catholic Church lost most of the brownie points it had been awarded by non-Catholics for the modernising Second Vatican Council. (Incidentally, read this Catholic Herald article for evidence of Pope Francis’s admiration for that “prophetic” document: there’ll be no change of teaching on contraception under this pontificate.)
Many traditionalists, meanwhile, can’t decide which was Paul VI’s worst sin: allowing Vatican II to rewrite Catholic teaching to the point where the Church seemed to surrender its status as the only means of salvation; or, after the Council, introducing banal vernacular Masses and effectively banning the traditional Latin rite (reinstated by Pope Benedict in 2007).
Francis has no such reservations. Today the Vatican announced that he has approved the miracle necessary for Paul VI’s beatification, which will take place on October 19. Don’t expect scenes of uncontrollable excitement in St Peter’s Square. Paul VI is the first Pope I can remember; he wasn’t charismatic by nature and – certainly by the 1970s – visibly weighed down by the cares of office. Also, he did tend to complain a lot. “Oh dear, that old miseryguts,” said a middle-of-the-road Catholic when I told her about the beatification.
On the other hand, it was this querulous figure – not his huggable predecessor, John XXIII – who laid the foundations for one of the great achievements of Vatican II, the beginnings of reconciliation between the Church and the Jews. He was the first modern Pope to visit Israel. He also established warmer relations with the Church of England without giving in to Archbishop Coggan’s demand that Anglicans and Catholics should share the Eucharist (a ludicrously naive proposal, then as now, given that Catholics and Anglicans believe quite different things about Holy Communion).
As I say, Paul didn’t even attempt to conceal the misery of his last few years, when his health was wretched – but he soldiered on, and right at the end he was capable of writing magnificent prose. His letter to the Red Brigades who kidnapped and later murdered his friend Aldo Moro, leader of the Italian Christian Democrats, is thunderously eloquent – “we must all fear the Lord who will avenge those who die without cause or fault”.