The theological meaning of the Transfiguration is central to our understanding of the mission of Jesus of Nazareth. In the past, every icon painter began his or her career by reproducing the scene of the Transfiguration. It has been said that the destiny of every Christian is written between two mountains: from Calvary to the mountain of the Transfiguration. The Transfiguration is a celebration of the presence of Christ which takes charge of everything in us and transfigures even that which disturbs us about ourselves. God penetrates those hardened, incredulous, even disquieting regions within us, about which we really do not know what to do. God penetrates them with the life of the Spirit and acts upon those regions and gives them his own face.
During my years in the Holy Land, my frequent visits to Mount Tabor always left me with a great sense of awe, wonder, mystery, fear, and reverence before Jesus. Each time I visited Mt. Tabor and the beautiful church depicting the three tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, I was also very aware of the memory of Blessed Pope Paul VI, who climbed Tabor as a pilgrim in 1964 and had a very special place for the mystery of the Transfiguration in his own prayer and Petrine Ministry.
When the Second Vatican Council ended on December 8, 1965, Pope Paul VI was confronted with the monumental task of implementing the Council’s decisions, which affected practically every facet of Church life. It was not only a matter of initiating changes in an institution steeped in history and tradition but also against the backdrop of a world that was undergoing massive transformations on social, psychological, cultural, and political levels in the 20th century.
Pope Paul VI’s critical decisions and actions in those years required boldness and courage. Fifty years ago this past July, Paul VI published his encyclical letter Humanae vitae (Of Human Life – On the Regulation of Birth). The important papal document provides a beautiful and clear teaching about God's plan for married love and the transmission of life. In many sectors this encyclical provoked adverse reactions that could be described as the most violent attacks on the authority of papal teaching up to that time. Paul VI’s firm stand on the retention of priestly celibacy (Sacerdotalis caelibatus, June 1967) also evoked harsh criticism.
From the very outset of his Petrine Ministry, Paul VI was keenly aware of and sensitive to social problems and their impact on world peace. Social questions had already been prominent in his far-reaching pastoral program in Milan (1954–63). Such problems dominated his first encyclical letter, Ecclesiam suam (“His Church”), August 6, 1964, and later became the insistent theme of his celebrated Populorum progressio (“On Progress of the Peoples”), March 26, 1967. This encyclical was a strong plea for social justice that caused some conservatives to accuse the pope of having Marxist tendencies. The pope was deeply concerned about workers and the poor.
In an address to the Council fathers at the end of the first session of the Second Vatican Council, the then-Cardinal Montini formulated a question that may be called the theme of his pastoral service as pontiff: “Church of Christ, what have you to say of yourself?”
In an effort to answer this fundamental question, Paul VI undertook a series of apostolic journeys that were unparalleled occasions for a pope to set foot on every continent. His first journey was a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in January 1964, highlighted by his historic meeting on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople. At the end of that same year, he went to India, becoming the first pope to visit Asia.
The following year, on October 4, 1965, in the first visit of a pope to the United States, Paul VI delivered a moving plea for peace at a special session of the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York City and celebrated Mass in New York’s Yankee Stadium. In 1967 he undertook brief pastoral visits to Fátima (Portugal) and to Istanbul and Ephesus (Turkey) – a journey that had special ecumenical significance and included a second meeting with Athenagoras in the patriarch’s own episcopal city (Constantinople). In August 1968, the pope went to Bogotá in Colombia, and he addressed the International Labour Organization and the World Council of Churches of Geneva in 1969. Later that year, he travelled to Uganda. In the fall of 1970, he undertook the longest papal journey to date: 10 days spent in visits to Tehran, East Pakistan, the Philippines, Samoa, Australia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and Ceylon. He was a true pilgrim who brought the Church off the banks of the Tiber to the ends of the earth. His arrival in Manila almost ended in tragedy when a failed attempt was made on his life within minutes of his descent from the plane. The themes addressed by Paul VI on these intense pastoral journeys always centered on world peace, social justice, world hunger, illiteracy, brotherhood under God, and international cooperation.
Fortieth Anniversary of Death
August 6th this year marks the fortieth anniversary of the death of Pope Paul VI. He closed his eyes on “this stupendous, dramatic temporal and earthly scene” on the very feast that so marked his life and Petrine ministry in the Church. I was on a Basilian Formation Retreat on Strawberry Island in 1978 when we got word that Paul VI had died at Castel Gandolfo outside of Rome. The era of excitement and newness that so marked Vatican II seemed to be coming to an end. At Paul VI’s funeral in St. Peter’s Square on August 12, 1978, the Dean of the College of Cardinals, Carlo Cardinal Confalonieri described him with these words:
“His greatness of soul was seen in his lively intelligence and a heart filled with goodness that opened up to the spiritual needs of his sons and daughters… He became a real prince of peace. He established with pressing solicitude a continuing dialogue with all peoples. He gave his attention with all affection and hope to the weak and defenseless, the poor and those in want of every assistance. He conversed with all in order to strengthen them in faith…”
At times we are very critical of the Church and even dismiss Church leaders and their messages without giving them a fair hearing. History is now teaching us that the patience and wisdom of Pope Paul VI, especially in the aftermath and implementation of the Second Vatican Council, were a great gift to God’s people and to the world. Pope Paul VI did not see dialogue merely as an instrument but as a method. He was so close to people, especially to those who were distant or who opposed him in theory or in practice.
On October 19, 2014, at the conclusion of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family at the Vatican, Pope Francis proclaimed Pope Paul VI blessed. In his moving homily at the Mass of Beatification in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis said:
“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!
In his personal journal, the great helmsman of the Council wrote, at the conclusion of its final session: ‘Perhaps the Lord has called me and preserved me for this service not because I am particularly fit for it, or so that I can govern and rescue the Church from her present difficulties, but so that I can suffer something for the Church, and in that way it will be clear that he, and no other, is her guide and saviour.’ In this humility the grandeur of Blessed Paul VI shines forth: before the advent of a secularized and hostile society, he could hold fast, with farsightedness and wisdom – and at times alone – to the helm of the barque of Peter, while never losing his joy and his trust in the Lord.”
Now this great, holy man and disciple of the Lord lives in the Resurrection of Jesus, in whose glorious Transfiguration sign he closed his eyes forty years ago. Blessed Paul VI let us feel on earth the joy and glory that awaits each of us in the New Jerusalem. Christ’s transfiguration was in the past. The God, whose Light breaks into the earth on this feast, is present. Let our prayers today be that the world will see the Light, the Light of healing and reconciliation. Let us strive to be counted among those who listen to Christ’s Word and are transfigured by it.
Blessed Paul VI (Giovanni Battista Montini) will be proclaimed a saint on Sunday, October 14, 2018, in St. Peter’s Square during the canonization ceremony for five others blesseds, including the martyred Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero Galdámez of El Salvador; Francesco Spinelli, diocesan priest, founder of the Institute of the Sisters Adorers of the Most Holy Sacrament; Vincenzo Romano, diocesan priest; Maria Katharina Kasper, virgin, founder of the Institute of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ; and Nazaria Ignacia de Santa Teresa de Jesús (née: Nazaria Ignacia March Mesa), founder of the Congregation of the Missionary Crusaders of the Church.
Paul VI’s feast day is September 26, which is also the day of his birth in 1897.
All Photos Courtesy of Catholic News Service