Since before my reception into the Catholic Church (from a Protestant background), Pope Paul has been my favourite pope – or at least my favourite pope after the age of the Church Fathers. He walked that line where one is both completely doctrinally faithful and in favour of the radical poverty, peace, and friendship of the Gospel. He suffered deeply and greatly, and all “sides” disliked him. He loved contemplative saints. He elevated Saints Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena to be Doctors of the Church – the first women to be given the title and two of the main inspiratons for this blog. He also canonized John of Ávila, one of the main inspirations for this blog.
But of course, Pope Paul’s broadest legacy is the question: What, Church, do you say you are?
One of Pope Paul’s priorities for the Second Vatican Council was to get clear, direct explanations of the nature of the Church, or how the Church sees herself. It is said that on the Pope’s own desk throughout the council, were the writings of Charles Journet (whom he created cardinal) on the theology of the Church. This is not surprising. Pope Paul, Cardinal Journet, and the layman philosopher Jacques Maritain were all friends and shared the same vision of the Church: a supernatural person of the order of grace, unique in what she is and truly personal, only living a life at the order of grace and passing through all human and angelic hearts in the measure that they have renounced sin.
Blessed Pope Paul did not leave stones unturned to teach on his central question: What is the Church? He made this a central theme of the Council, he wrote an encyclical on the Church at the beginning of his pontificate, he officially declared Mary “Mother of the Church” during the Council, and he even continued the theme in his Credo of the People of God. In the pope’s new creed, drafted by his layman friend Jacques Maritain, there was finally a statement, in faith, of the nature of the Catholic Church. We read:
We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, built by Jesus Christ on that rock which is Peter. She is the Mystical Body of Christ; at the same time a visible society instituted with hierarchical organs, and a spiritual community; the Church on earth, the pilgrim People of God here below, and the Church filled with heavenly blessings; the germ and the first fruits of the Kingdom of God, through which the work and the sufferings of Redemption are continued throughout human history, and which looks for its perfect accomplishment beyond time in glory. In the course of time, the Lord Jesus forms His Church by means of the sacraments emanating from His plenitude. By these she makes her members participants in the Mystery of the Death and Resurrection of Christ, in the grace of the Holy Spirit who gives her life and movement. She is therefore holy, though she has sinners in her bosom, because she herself has no other life but that of grace: it is by living by her life that her members are sanctified; it is by removing themselves from her life that they fall into sins and disorders that prevent the radiation of her sanctity. This is why she suffers and does penance for these offenses, of which she has the power to heal her children through the blood of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Few words profounder than these have ever been written about the Church, the world, sin, evil, goodness, light, grace, history, providence, and suffering. The Church is a pilgrim people, but one rooted into heavenly blessings. The Church is Christ’s own Mystical Body. The Church is holy. She is only holy. In her there is no sin. But in her members, there is sin. They sin by cutting themselves from her life, which is grace, and this tears the body into suffering, bleeding sheds all across time and space. And caught in this devastating pain throughout the centuries, the Church suffers in redemption, under Christ, for the world’s sins.
Maybe today would be a good opportunity to read through the Credo of the People of God (Credo of Paul VI) for the first time – or perhaps read through it again, if one has read it before.
Pope Paul VI, pray for us!