In the early hours of Sunday, October 19, 2014, I watched as His Holiness Pope Francis celebrated the beatification Mass of Blessed Pope Paul VI (1897-1978) at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. The ceremonies had a special poignancy for me since Pope Paul VI was the the first pope I really remember --- although I was born during the papacy of Pope Pius XII --- and the first pope I had ever seen in person during a Mass at St. Peter's Basilica in 1975. I vividly remember his pastoral visit to the United Nations in New York ten years earlier, when television sets suddenly appeared in Catholic school classrooms throughout the Archdiocese of Philadelphia where I grew up.
His long career as an "insider" in the service of the Church prepared him well for assuming the Chair of Peter in 1963. Nothing, however, could have prepared him adequately for all the events and circumstances he would face throughout his years as Chief Shepherd of the Church (1963-1978). It fell to him to bring to conclusion the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) initiated by his predecessor Pope St. John XXIII, the ecumenical gathering convened to lead the Church into the modern world. He was truly a "reformer pope" which brought with it no lack of controversy and challenge. He suffered deeply during the widespread exodus of priests and religious in the Council's wake as the Church confronted all the crises and "social revolutions" of the day.
He presided over the translation of the Catholic liturgy from Latin into vernacular languages and opened the door to ecumenical dialogue with people of other faiths. The first pope to travel in an airplane, Pope Paul VI was called the "Pilgrim Pope" and the "Pope of Peace." His immortal words at the United Nations in 1965 during the Vietnam War ---"war no more, never again"--- have been the Church's prayer ever since.
Although he will be most frequently remembered for his 1968 encyclical "Humanae Vitae" banning artificial contraception, his 1967 encyclical "On the Progress of Peoples" and his 1975 apostolic exhortation "Evangelii Nuntiandi" --- which Pope Francis has called "the greatest pastoral document that has ever been written --- have laid the foundation for papal teaching by all of his successors until the present day. In many ways, Pope Paul VI can be considered the "architect of evangelization," calling the Church not only to teach but to witness faith in Jesus Christ.
Following his death in 1978, Pope Paul VI was remembered by those who knew him best as a man of deep spirituality and vision, of profound humility and simplicity, of great personal suffering and, yet, undiminished joy. That he now moves closer to sainthood in the Church should make us all grateful that he walked among us as Shepherd.