On the Centenary of his Birth
"The faith is the legacy of the Apostles"
Paul VI and the proclamation of the Year of the Faith in 1967,
marking the 1,900th anniversary of the martyrdom of Peter and Paul in Rome, a decisive
year that would close with the Creed of the People of God to "attest to our
unshakable proposition of fidelity to the Deposit of faith". "We cannot ignore
in the least that our times strongly demand this"
by Gianni Valente
| There are moments, Charles Péguy writes, when all the masks
fall so that nothing more is left to hide reality, which appears bare to us, as it really
is. "They are the only moments in life when one does not lie; when one does not
pretend in the least; when one is sincere; literally, absolutely, totally sincere; when
one sees the truth, more than the truth, the reality, as it is; when nothing is hidden any
more". These are the moments when "we see clearly, we dare to see clearly".
Exactly 30 years ago, it happened that Paul VI experienced just such a moment. He looked upon the Church which, as his first encyclical testified, was well aware that it was of an Other, that is, of Christ (Ecclesiam suam). He looked through all the good intuitions, the ingenuous expectations, the illusions and the idle talk overwhelming it at the time, and he saw. He saw the death of Christendom, not of the structures, the meetings, the Vatican, the pastoral plans, the oceanic rallies that would probably continue, exercises in choreography for those seeking an ecclesiastical role to play and religious consolation to fill their lives (and perhaps make a career of it).
What he saw burning itself out was the faith, our times like one long Holy Saturday,
when God was absent, when even the last disciples set out sad and dull of heart, each on
their own road home.
Paul VI saw all of this and, as the tragedy besetting the Church unfolded, he kept up the reminders, he kept repeating the list of the only true treasures: the faith of the apostles, safeguarded by Tradition (Creed of the People of God), and the poor, the peoples in hunger (Populorum progressio), the first to be called to enjoy the grace of the faith. Reiterate the eternal things - that's all a Pope can and should do.
It was February 22, 1967 when, with his apostolic exhortation Petrum et Paulum apostolos, Paul VI convened a special jubilee year - the Year of the Faith. A thousand nine hundred years after the two apostles Peter and Paul had been martyred in Rome, killed "out of jealousy and envy", or even out of Christian badness, as we are reminded in one passage of a letter to the Corinthians from Pope Saint Clement that was reproduced at the beginning of this apostolic exhortation. On that anniversary, the Pope was asking, the whole Church was called to store up the memory of the faith transmitted in legacy by the two apostles, humbly asking for the ability to make the reality of that faith their own living experience, to be able to encounter, happen upon the actions of that same Presence that 2,000 years ago had attracted the gaze of poor fishermen and great sinners, moving their hearts.
That year - and even the most attentive historiographers recognize this today - was a watermark, a "turning point" in the Montinian Pontificate. At the close of the Year of the Faith, Paul VI from Saint Peter's Square proclaimed a solemn profession of faith, Creed of the People of God, designed to "attest to our unshakable proposition of fidelity to the Deposit of faith". But the Catholics of the day did not grasp Paul VI's prophetic intuition of tragedy to come. The enlightened among them described it as over-pessimistic. For the reactionaries, it was regret come late considering that they saw the catastrophe as having been triggered by the Conciliar renewal which Montini had piloted. For the clergy of all currents, simply re-proposing the traditional contents of the Catholic faith was too minimal a response in the face of history's provocations and the crisis in the Church itself. They felt a more complex strategy was needed: awareness-building, or a campaign to render the faith culture. This would help in dialogue and in adapting to the world, one side was saying. It would help in resisting the siege of modernity and in combat, the others were saying. Thus the Year of the Faith and the Creed of the People of God were swallowed up in a chasm of silence.
Inimici hominis, domestici eius
What disturbed Pope Paul VI most was not so much the world's immorality or the theoretical negation of Christianity at that time of shamelessness and violence.
For, even before 1967 another type of alarm was being sounded in Paul VI's discourses: the Church was being demolished not by modern atheism but by its own sons. It was an inner sickness, a cupio dissolvi that seemed to have poisoned the teachers, the clergy and the ecclesiastical academies even before it touched the people. And it was urging them to empty, from the inside, the nature and method of the Christian fact. "The words of Jesus come to the lips: 'inimici hominis, domestici eius', man's enemies are in his own house!", the Pope was to say on September 18, 1968 just three months after proclaiming the Creed. Even earlier, in 1965, the Pope told a general audience on August 4 that year that he was concerned about "the voices coming from even the best circles of the people of God where the doctrine of the Church is ordinarily nourished by a fervor of study, where it is cultivated with strength of mind". These voices were now echoing "errors old and new, rectified and condemned by the Church in the past and excluded from the patrimony of its truths". In an address on July 11, 1966 to a group of theologians and scientists meeting to discuss a new presentation of the dogma of original sin, Paul VI warns against agreeing to formulations of original sin subordinate to the theory of evolution. But it was at the general audience on November 30 that year that Paul VI, describing "the sad phenomenon which is disturbing Conciliar renewal and disconcerting ecumenical dialogue", specified in great detail the essentials of Christianity that some were striving to strip away: "The resurrection of Christ, the reality of his true presence in the Eucharist and also the virginity of Our Lady and, consequently, the august mystery of the incarnation". In October 1966, the new Dutch Catechism was published on the orders of the national Episcopate. It was a prototype of the post-Conciliar catechisms which believed they were making Christianity more interesting for the modern man by replacing the traditional formulas of faith with complicated and, in parts, ambiguous and reticient discourses. Speaking on April 7 the next year to the Italian bishops' assembly, Paul VI reiterated what the priority must be: "The first question, the capital question is that of the faith which we bishops must consider in all its incumbent gravity. Something very strange and painful is happening ... even as regards those who know and study the word of God: there is less certainty about its objective truth and the capacity of the human mind to grasp it; the sense of the one, authentic faith is being altered; more radical aggression in regard to the sacrosanct truths of our doctrine, ever the belief and profession of the people, are allowed ...".
The Tradition that pre-empts us
The source of greatest anguish for Paul VI was that, in this exercise in self-demolition, the last Ecumenical Council was being instrumentalized, interpreted as the birth of a new Christianity and a new Church. In an address on December 8, 1966 exactly a year after closing the Council, Montini denounced the error in supposing that Vatican II "represents a breach with the doctrinal and disciplinary tradition that went before". At the general audience about a month earlier, he had invited people not to be tempted to think "that innovations, derived from doctrines and Conciliar decrees, authorize any arbitrary change ... There must be the profound conviction that the Church of the past cannot be demolished to build a new one now; we cannot forget and impugn what the Church has taught to date with authority and replace sure doctrine with new theories and concepts". On January 12, 1966 he said: "The teachings of the Council do not constitute an organic system of Catholic doctrine" which "is much wider ... and it is not being questioned by the Council or changed in substance; indeed, the Council confirms it, illustrates it, defends it and develops it with the highest authoritative apologia ... Whoever thinks, then, that the Council represents a rift, a breach or, as some believe, a liberation from the Church's traditional teaching, is mistaken".
|The Faith, Adherence to a Testimony
On seeing these things, Paul VI is only too well aware that it is not enough to repel the doctrinal errors being slipped into the Catholic leadership. The doctrinal confusion was the symptom of something more radical. It seemed, almost, that everywhere in the Church the whole perception of Christianity was being lost, the whole nature and dynamic of the Christian life. People no longer knew what Christianity was.
The Pope decides to take advantage of the anniversary of the martyrdom of the Saint Apostles Peter and Paul to call the Year of the Faith as an answer to this dizzying mindlessness that came when the Council had reached boiling point.
The apostolic exhortation Petrum et Paulum apostolos convening the Year of the Faith makes only brief secondary mention of the doctrinal crisis. The only simple and minimal request directed at all the sons of the Church is to repeat the profession of faith of the apostles Peter and Paul, to keep within that faith.
"We would also like to ask one small, though important thing: We wish to beg all
of you, Our brothers and Our sons, individually to remember the Saint Apostles Peter and
Paul who bore witness to the faith of Christ with their words and their blood, so that you
may profess truthfully and sincerely the same faith that the Church, founded and made
splendid by these persons, assumed devotedly and expounded with authority. However, this
profession of faith which, with the blessed Apostles as witnesses, we render to God,
should certainly be individual and public, free and conscious, interior and exterior,
humble and decisive. We would also like this profession of faith to come from the
innermost heart of every man, and that its echo throughout the Church be one, identical
and overflowing with love. In fact, what more grateful service of memory, of honor, of
communion could we offer Peter and Paul if not the declaration of the same faith we
received from them in legacy?". The repetition of formulas that safeguard the
apostolic faith was not only the devotional answer but was, for Paul VI, an act truly
fitting for that moment in time in the life of the Church: "We cannot ignore in the
least that our times strongly demand this".
Numerous discourses of the time would clarify and discuss the reasons behind the Year of the Faith of Peter and Paul. At the March 1, 1967 audience a few days after the publication of the apostolic exhortaton, Paul VI explains: "It seems to Us that this theme is a surer, more direct way to spiritual communication with these great Apostles: they themselves left this pressing recommendation; Saint Peter says, for example, in his first letter to the first Christians that they are 'custodians in the faith for salvation'," and Saint Paul, too, "is anxious to guarantee the integrity and conservaton of the faith and he repeats his recommendations so that every error may be avoided and rejected and so that the 'deposit be safeguarded' ... By adhering to the faith that the Church proposes to us, we place ourselves in direct communication with the apostles we wish to remember; and, through them, with Jesus Christ, our first and only Teacher; we place ourselves in their school, we annul the distance of the centuries separating us from them and we render the present time a living history, the history proper of the Church which is ever the same". The faith, Pope Paul VI goes on to specify in the same discourse recurring to the Council of Trent definition, " 'humanae salutis initium est', is the beginning of man's salvation".
At the audience on the following April 19, the Pope again dwelled on clarifying the Christian faith, distinguishing it from the commonly held "religious sentiment, vague and generic belief in the existence of God". The faith, said Paul VI, is "the adherence of the spirit, mind and will to a truth" justified "by the transcendant authority of a testimony, to which it is not only reasonable to adhere but intimately logical because of its strange and vital persuasive force making the act of faith extremely personal and satisfying". The faith, then, is "a virtue with its roots in human psychology but which draws its validity from a mysterious, supernatural action of the Holy Spirit, of the grace infused in us, in the normal way, by baptism". It is "that spiritual capacity allowing us to receive the truths - because they correspond to reality - that the word of God has revealed to us. The faith, therefore, is an act founded on the credence we give the living God".
The official inauguration of the Year of the Faith was solemnly celebrated at the parvis of the Vatican Basilica on the evening of June 29 1967, Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. In his homily, the Holy Father reiterates that "the recently celebrated Ecumenical Council exhorted us to go back to the sources of the Church and to recognize in the faith its constituent principle, the primary condition for all of its growth, the basis of its interior certainty and the force of its exterior vitality". A few days later, pilgrims at the July 5 audience heard the Pope return to the question of the faith: "The faith is the Apostles' legacy. It is the gift of their apostolate, of their charity ... They, together with the other apostles and with the authorized bringers of the Gospel, are the intermediaries between us and Christ - this is the essential character of Christianity generating a system of indispensable relationships within the community of believers ... The Apostle is the master; he is not just the echo of the community's religious conscience; not just the expression of the faithful people's opinion, the voice, it might be said, that specified it and legalized it as the modernists would have said and as some theologians dare say still today. The voice of the Apostle is the generator of the faith ... The religious truth, coming from Christ, is not spread among men in an uncontrolled, irresponsible way but needs an exterior, social channel".
|The East of the Great Councils
The Pope's visit to Turkey on July 25 and 26 that year was another step in the footprint of apostolic memory, as the year of the faith had intended. The Pope travelled the itineraries Paul followed on his preaching missions "founding the first Christian communities in the midst of sometimes dramatic circumstances, as related in the Acts of the Apostles", Paul VI said in the Church of Saint John at Ephesus. But the point of the trip was to go back to the places where the first great Councils had been celebrated and which had defined and safeguarded the apostolic faith, defending Christianity from the heresies of old. Back in Rome the Pope at the August 2 Angelus commemorated the pre-eminence of the first four Ecumenical Councils held in the East (Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon). Indirectly, he was down-sizing the portent of the last Ecumenical Council which some groups thought should have been commemorated as Year 1 of the Church. "These four Councils", the Pope said, "were and remain worthy of great reverence. It was these four which, after the first centuries of persecution and all but clandestine life, gave the Church its consciousness of its constitutional and unitary framework.
It was they which authoritatively highlighted and established the fundamental dogmas of our faith, on the Holy Trinity, on Jesus Christ, on the Virgin Mary: and which, therefore, gave Christianity its basic doctrine". This act of veneration in regard to the first four Ecumenical Councils was also an opportunity to reiterate the communion of faith with Orthodoxy on fundamental dogmas. Paul VI, the pope who had cancelled the reciprocal excommunications of Rome and Constantinople and who would later stoop to kiss the feet of the Orthodox bishop Melitone of Chalcedon, took advantage during his visit to Turkey of his meetings with the Patriarch Athenagoras and with other Orthodox of Ephesus to emphasize that "to re-establish and conserve communion and unity, we must be careful 'to impose nothing but what is necessary'." He told Athenagoras and the Ecumenical Patriarchy's metropolitans in the Cathedral of Saint George: "Charity must help us as it helped Hilary and Athanasius to recognize the identity of the faith over and above the differences in vocabulary at a time when serious breaches were dividing the episcopate ... And did not Saint Cyril of Alexandria agree to set aside his theology, beautiful as it was, to make peace with John of Antioch when he ascertained that, independently of the different phraseology, their faith was one and the same?".
The Human and Material
References to the Memory
At the close of the Year of the Faith, Paul VI scandalized clergy with two surprise gestures. In an allocution in the Vatican Basilica on June 26, 1968 he announced the authenticity of Saint Peter's relics uncovered in excavations in the Vatican grottoes between 1940 and 1950. "We are supported in this intensity of feeling and bound by the historical traces left here by them. These human and material references to the memory of the Apostles, 'per quos religionis sumpsit exordium', by whose merit our religious life was born, cannot be overlooked by us Romans or by all those who walk in Rome", Pope Paul VI said. The findings of the research into the bone fragments uncovered in the Vatican necropolis were announced with restrained enthusiasm: "New inquiries were later conducted with great patience and accuracy, that We, comforted by the judgement of valued and prudent experts, believe positive: St. Peter's relics were also identified in a way that may be considered convincing and We praise all those who devoted the closest of study and great and protracted effort".
On June 30, 1968 the Year of the Faith was closed with solemn liturgy and with the profession of faith which Paul VI himself called Creed of the People of God. It was the crowning act of the Year of the Faith "which we dedicated", Paul VI said in his homily, "to the commemoration of the Apostle Saints to attest to our unshakable proposition of fidelity to the Deposit of faith that they transmitted to us and to strengthen our desire to make it the substance of our lives at this particular time in the history of the Church on its pilgrimage in the world". With this profession, Paul VI's intention was to fulfill his mandate, "entrusted by Christ to Peter, whose successor We are however last in terms of merit, to confirm Our brothers in the faith. The new Creed, without being a dogmatic definition proper, substantially reproduces the Nicaean Creed with a few developments as required by the spiritual conditions of our time". In professing the Creed of the People of God, Paul VI declares his mindfulness of "the disquiet in some modern spheres" and "the passion" of many Catholics "for change and things new ... the maximum care must be taken not to detract from the teachings of Christian doctrine. For, that would mean - as it so often does these days, unfortunately - causing general disturbance and perplexity to many faithful souls".
|A Great Pope at a Difficult Time
As Carlo Falconi, Italy's leading Vatican commentator at the time, wrote in his book La svolta di Paolo VI (Paul VI's Turning Point), "the vast gorge of silence which swallowed the proclamation of the new Creed is dramatically menacing. The entire press campaign by the Vatican's own daily with the pretence of echoing moved consensus and acknowledgement, came to nothing. And if the publication of the encyclical Humanae vitae had not followed soon after provoking the most disparate reaction, the embarrassment caused by that silent protest would have been near intolerable".
The whole Catholic establishment with rare exceptions let the lucid intuition about the Church's condition in the world, as it was expressed by the Year of the Faith and by the Creed of the People of God, fall by the wayside. Theologians and intellectuals dubbed them "pietist gestures". At the beginning of the Year of the Faith, the Dutch theologian Edward Schillebeeckx commented on Paul VI's initiative and said that the crisis besetting the Christian faith was a "crisis of growth". His German colleague Karl Rahner derided the very notion of having "after the year of geophysics, the Year of the Faith" and he concluded: "It all depends on profound reflection with a view to rendering this concept (the Christian one) credible to the contemporary spirit".
Ultimately, they were all telling the Pope that it was not enough for him to point to a
return to Tradition, to repeat the doctrine of the apostles and keep to that. The plot of
silence that greeted Paul VI during the Year of the Faith and when he proclaimed the Creed
of the People of God was an expression of the real root of the misunderstanding, of the
mute hostility and of the increasingly frequent contestations of the Pope within the
The idea that the Montinian Pontificate underwent an involution in 1967-1968 dashed initial hopes so widespread within the clerical intelligentsia that halfway through the 1970s, the historian Franco Bolgiani, official relatore at the ecclesial convention on "Evangelization and Human Promotion" referred to it in his address to the chiefs of the Italian Church's general staff.
In his June 29, 1972 homily during the celebration of the Apostle Saints Peter and Paul, Paul VI acknowledged: "We believed that after the Council a day of sunshine would have dawned for the history of the Church. What came was a day of clouds and storms instead, of darkness, of such seeking and uncertainty that it is not easy to impart the joy of communion".
In those days, few dared to bear public witness to their devotion and solidarity towards a pope derided even at ecclesial conventions. One who did dare was the Patriarch of Venice Albino Luciani (the future John Paul I). His homily on September 18, 1977 to the Italian National Eucharistic Congress in Pescara was an impassioned exercise in taking sides, an explicit declaration of communion with the great Pope in those difficult times: "The Peter we heard in the Gospel lives today in the person of Paul VI his successor. But there are two Paul VIs: the one we saw last night in Pescara, the one we see and listen to in the general and private audiences, and the one that certain books and newspapers describe in their own way - inventing and distorting. The first one is the only real one, the authentic one: a great Pope, whose lot has been to fulfill his high mission in difficult times ...".