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Mysticism and modernity

· Paul VI died on 6 August 1978 ·

The following is the  translation  of an article that came out in the 29-30 June 2013 issue of the French newspaper  “la Croix” . Among other things the author has written “Paul vi, maître spirituel” (Fayard - Le Sarment) as well as “Paul vi et les orthodoxes” (Les Éditions du Cerf).

The coronation of a pope took place for the last time in the history of the Catholic Church on 30 June 1963. Paul VI, elected on 21 June, received the tiara offered to him by his Milanese faithful.  The key to reading the pontificate of Montini – well prepared for it by about 30 years of work in the Roman Curia and by the nine years spent at the helm of the largest Catholic diocese in the world, Milan – is perhaps above all to be sought in its mystical dimension.

After the example of St Augustine, his chief spiritual teacher, one notes from the writings of his youth an impetuous yearning for God, combined with exultation and wonder at what he had already been granted to discover: “Life is You, O God, suspended as a lamp radiating happiness above the shadows of our faltering experience”. For PaulVI was a mystic who possessed the language of his experiences: “As if dazzled by the sun, I close my eyes before the infinite mystery of the Most Holy Trinity, and in my heart retain only the impression of oceanic bliss”.

Love for the Church which constituted the unifying factor of his life – as he himself recognized: “it seems to me that I have lived for her and for her alone” – posited two requirements: the renewal or reform of the Church, and the personal conversion of her members. The possibility of the first requirement depends on the second. The Church’s possibility of showing herself as “Christ wishes her to be: one, holy, totally oriented to the perfection to which he called her, to attain which he endows her with the means”, would derive from  the personal commitment to following Christ and from the spiritual and moral energy that this demands.

Tw0 bastions of  Montini’s pontificate result  from the authenticity of this process of conversion, on which he expounded in his programmatic Encyclical Ecclesiam Suam. They are the dialogue with the world of life and of salvation,  and the restoration of full Christian unity.

For Paul VI a Church which lives  her mystery more deeply, in the very  impulse of the love that unites her with her Lord, can give herself to the world to put it vitally in touch with the Gospel. “The Church must enter into dialogue with the world in which she lives. Let the Church become a word; let her become a message; the Church should make herself conversation”. Although errors must be reported the Church is marked by a current of affection and admiration for the modern world. In this link of trust, evangelization, enlivened by total fidelity to Christ, can be received by the contemporary mind set. In fact “no one is a foreigner in the heart of the Church. No one is indifferent to her ministry”.

In this movement of inner renewal which makes the Church a more readable sign of God’s  presence and action, Paul VI has a keen sense of the need for the unity of Christ’s disciples. His pontificate was entirely and especially engaged in the search for full communion with the Orthodox Churches. His friendship with Patriarch Athenagoras constituted one of the most luminous traits of his Roman ministry. While a secret and official commission composed of two Catholics and two Orthodox had just concluded their report, in 1971, affirming  that a concelebration between Paul vi and Athenagoras was possible,  the pope wrote to the patriarch that: “already almost full communion exist[s] between our Church and the venerated Orthodox Churches. Over the last few years the Spirit has enabled us to recapture an intense awareness of this fact and to translate the demands of that communion into action in the life of our Churches and their relationship. At the same time the Spirit inspired us with the firm will to do all that is possible to hasten the much desired day when at the end of a concelebrated Mass we can communicate together from the same chalice of the Lord” ( L’Osservatore Romano English edition, 18 March 1971, p. 3).

Purification of the Church and of her members, spiritual tension in evangelization, humility and dialogue with the world, a new ecclesiological approach – the ecclesiology of the Sister Churches – which makes it possible to envisage full communion between the Church of the West and the Churches of the East: aren’t these major poles of Montini’s pontificate echoed in the words and approaches of Pope Francis? Their fecundity largely depends on the engagement of all in a truly spiritual process in which the primacy given to accepting God’s will allows decisions to be made that are daring because they are open to the breath of the Spirit. For example is it unrealistic to think that the Orthodox Churches might agree to accept Rome as a centre of unity, and that Rome, drawing inspiration from the first millennium, might actually set in place a differentiated and modified form of this ministry of unity? Paul VI’s intuitions are still truly up to date.




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 19, 2020