October 14, 2018 -Four years ago, when four members of our family made a non-Catholic pilgrimage to the Vatican, we were swept along the corridors by thousands of tourists determined to see all the art and artifacts as quickly as possible. We walked fast to avoid being trampled, dodged selfie-sticks that impatient pilgrims were swinging carelessly, and didn’t get to slow down until we reached the Vatican crypt where popes are interred.
The crypt was surprisingly well-lit and we walked respectfully past the carved names of famous and obscure pontiffs. We kept walking past the sepulcher of Pope John Paul II but when we reached the tomb of Pope Paul VI we stopped.
Pope Paul was the first pope I had ever seen, and I had been telling my companions – spouse Martha and daughters Katie and Victoria – about those memories all week.
Now, on the occasion of Paul’s canonization as a saint along (with the canonization of Bishop Óscar Romero) my memories come flooding back.
I had just turned 21 in October 1967 when I visited Rome as part of a pilgrimage of single airmen led by our chaplain, Father Richard J. Kucharski. I was one of two Protestant airmen on the trip – the other was a tall, lumbering Lutheran called Moose – and Moose and I made it a point to attend all the papal events that had been arranged for us.
We squeezed into the crowd in Saint Peter’s square on Sunday morning because we knew Pope Paul was likely to make an appearance high over the square from his apartment window. I didn’t know at the time that this was a Sunday tradition begun by Pope John XXIII in which the pope makes a speech, recites the Angelus, and blesses the crowd. We joined in the cheers when the apartment window was thrown open and the petite Pope stepped into view.
Moose and I were standing by a large speaker and we recoiled when the Pope’s reedy voice exploded in our ears. We didn’t understand what he was saying but a woman standing next to us explained what was happening. “He’s going to bless the crowd,” she said. “If you have anything you want blessed, hold it up now.” Moose and I reached into our shirts and pulled out our dog tags, holding them to our noses, which was high as their chains would permit. (I had the same dog tag re-blessed in 2014 when we joined 50,000 of Pope Francis’ closest friends in a memorable mass of canonization of five new saints, also in St. Peter’s Square.)
Pope Paul’s white frock glistened in the sun and Moose and I watched him carefully. We had never seen a pope before and we wanted to sear his image into our memories. As it turned out, we would see the pope twice more before we left Rome. The most important event would be the historic mass conducted inside the Basilica by the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch, Athenagoras I. I’ve written about that event here.
But by far our most memorable encounter with the Pope was the next day. I’ve also written about that event.
We found our way to a Vatican courtyard where the pope was receiving a smaller crowd. The tour agent told us the courtyard would fill up quickly, so we got there early and waited beneath a small balcony.
It was difficult for people to slip ahead of Moose, who stood tall and implacable, unwilling to give up his space to see the pope close-up. But a short, stout nun, followed by a half dozen school girls, pressed her large bosom against Moose’s arm and he flushed and jumped aside. The nun did the same thing to others in front of Moose and soon she and the school girls were in the front row.
Even so, Moose and I were fairly close to the window and when the pope emerged we could see the crinkles around his eyes.
The Pontiff, a fair linguist, began to address the crowd in different languages. “Français,” he announced, and when the French speakers applauded, the pope lifted his right hand to his ear and made a giggling sound. “Português,” and when persons from Portugal applauded he giggled again. Soon, he announced, “English,” and after his giggle he offered a thickly accented greeting to the English speakers.
“That was neat,” Moose said as the crowd dispersed. “We got closer to the pope than we ever get to the chaplain.” That was true, because when the chaplain mounted the pulpit, the airmen retired to their desks to drink coffee.
Pope Paul clearly enjoyed the interaction with the crowd and I was impressed by his openness. In 1967 he had been pope for less than five years. If the affection of the crowds around him, large and small, was any indication, he was still a popular pontiff in 1967.
But his pontificate would become controversial. A year later he issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae which kept in place the Vatican’s prohibition of birth control by married couples – a decision which stunned Catholic laity who were expecting the pope to make the opposite decision. Vatican insiders whispered that Paul had indeed decided to abandon birth control restrictions but conservatives in the hierarchy talked him out of it. In subsequent years, Paul became known for his indecisiveness.
Arthur Jones, former editor of National Catholic Reporter, wrote this week that Paul was often paralyzed by “an irreconcilable duality.”
“Pope Paul VI was the kindly priest with a liberal heart and a conservative soul,” Jones wrote. “He was, when globetrotting, like Mr. Rogers, loving, open, at ease — and yet, like Mr. Rogers, never relinquishing that innate reserve. Some in the Vatican press corps dubbed him ‘Hamlet,’ pensive, hesitant, at times almost dithering, a man lost in thought who, as time progressed, displayed a sense of failure in the deep lines of sadness etched into his face.”
Paul’s wooliness made it impossible for him to impose his best instincts on the Vatican hierarchy.
“The Church-in-Rome has a millennia-and-more-long corruption virus running through it,” Jones wrote. “The disease is a constant mix of money-sex-power-privilege-and-self-protection. It is the apogee of misogyny and the old boys’ club. Many cardinals really believe they are medieval princes, capes and trains and all, that the church is a form of royal court where they can play out their ambitions.”
It is doubtful whether the reforming popes of the 1960s, John XXIII or Paul VI, could have done anything to turn that around, and today the current reforming pope is struggling against the bastions of sex-power-privilege-and-self-protection within the church. But Francis also has strong inclinations to protect the church’s reputation and it remains to be seen how much reform will be possible.
Toward the end of his reign, Pope Paul VI was reportedly discouraged and exhausted.
As I stood gazing at his tomb in 2014, I realized my impressions from my brief and distant encounters with him were these: in 1967 he appeared to be a happy, pastoral priest who thought of himself as a servant leader and was still determined to continue the reformation of the church.
Arthur Jones concludes:
Looking at him, at the lines etched into his face, this was a decent man, a kind man. A man and pope trapped, professionally, in his time, in the Church-in-Rome and the tradition that shaped him. Paul deserves we think kindly of him.”
Today as he becomes Saint Paul VI, I’m glad to remember that throughout his life, he tried in all things to be a kindly servant of Christ and the church. And I find it easy enough to think kindly of him.