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Paul VI Opened Wide the Church’s Arms

PopePaulVIA long-time collaborator with RENEW International keeps the following tagline on her e-mail messages:
“Peace and all good for everyone—no exceptions.”
It’s a sentiment that would have sat well with Pope Paul VI, who is to be beatified by Pope Francis on October 19.
Beatification is a step toward recognition as a saint.
In a way, Pope Paul occupies an unenviable place among the popes in the past five decades.
He succeeded the big-hearted, jovial Pope John XXIII, and he was succeeded by the charismatic John Paul I and John Paul II.
Pope Paul, by contrast, appeared studious and reserved and did not generate the transcendent kind of popular excitement that has surrounded other pontiffs—including Pope Francis.
But this quiet man arguably had a greater impact on the Church than all but a handful of those who have occupied the Chair of Peter; some would argue that Paul had the greatest impact of all.
When Pope John XXIII died in 1963, the Second Vatican Council, which he had convoked, automatically adjourned. Pope Paul, as expected, reconvened it and directed the implementation of its decisions, which ultimately renewed areas including the liturgy, the eucharistic fast, and the religious lives of priests.
The pope asked the council fathers, as a top priority, to produce a clear statement of how the Catholic Church sees itself, and that resulted in the most influential document issued by the council, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, often referred to by its Latin title, Lumen Gentium.
That document reiterated that the Catholic Church is “the sole Church of Christ,” but immediately added that “many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible confines.’’
This statement struck a chord that has continued to this day, the attempt at a rapprochement between the Catholic Church and other Christian communities in which the Catholic Church acknowledges and publicly regrets its own historic role in bringing about the separation.
A particularly dramatic step in this process occurred in 1964 when Pope Paul and the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras I met in Jerusalem and set the stage for Catholic and Orthodox churches to mutually rescind the excommunications of the Great Schism of 1054.
The council also produced, and Paul VI promulgated, Nostra Aetate, the groundbreaking Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions.
This document began by reflecting on the unity of the human race and went on to acknowledge the search for truth in other religious faiths.
The document specifically expressed the Church’s “esteem” for Muslims who revere Jesus as a prophet, honor his mother, and “value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving, and fasting.”
And—in, perhaps, its most sensitive passage—Nostra Aetate declared the spiritual bond that ties the Church to the Jewish people, affirmed that God’s covenant with the Jews is enduring, and repudiated any attempt to demonize Jewish people because of the passion of Jesus or discriminate against them in any way.
Pope Paul chose his papal name because of the missionary career of St. Paul, who carried the Gospel far and wide—to the outskirts, as Pope Francis likes to say.
Pope Paul, through the council and through his own missionary travels, opened wide the Church’s arms to welcome in a spirit of fraternity communities and individuals, including atheists, from whom it had long been estranged—“no exceptions.”
It is especially fitting then that Pope Francis, the new prophet of missionary discipleship, will be the one to declare Pope Paul “blessed.”
Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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