Many years ago, in the summer of 1977 when I was a young priest, I had the privilege and joy of being present for the Mass of Pope Paul VI on the Feast of the Assumption, August 15, at the parish church in Castel Gandolfo, the Pope's summer residence, with a large crowd of local people. I was struck by his words to the people in which he said that he very much wanted to make an appointment to be with them the following year to celebrate the Assumption, but he was not able as he probably would no longer be in this world. His words became even more impressive to me the following year as on August 6, the Feast of the Transfiguration, Pope Paul VI passed away at Castel Gandolfo just a few days before the Feast of the Assumption. Indeed, it came to pass that Pope Paul VI could not make an appointment in this world for the following Solemnity of the Assumption as he would have an appointment in heaven.
On October 14, 2018, Pope Francis confirmed that Pope Paul VI’s appointment was in heaven as he formally canonized him a saint. In his homily for the occasion, Pope Francis insightfully reflected on the holiness of the new saint as he stated: “Pope Paul VI spent his life for Christ’s Gospel, crossing new boundaries and becoming its witness in proclamation and in dialogue, a prophet of a Church turned outwards, looking to those far away and taking care of the poor. Even in the midst of tiredness and misunderstanding, Paul VI bore witness in a passionate way to the joy of following Christ totally. Today he still urges us, together with the Council whose wise helmsman he was, to love our common vocation: the universal call to holiness. Not to half measures, but to holiness.”
Saint Pope Paul VI left a great legacy to the Church. He shepherded the Church in some of its most tumultuous times during the sixties and after the Second Vatican Council. There was a great deal of misunderstanding of the Vatican Council’s work, with some feeling that the Council had gone too far and some feeling it had not gone far enough. The Church was being torn from both sides in the midst of a cultural revolution that was causing great societal upheaval across the world. Pope Paul VI steered the Church on a course, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that kept it from being split during these turbulent times. The following years have proven his wisdom and the recognition of his great ecclesial leadership becomes more and more evident.
Saint Pope Paul VI is known as a missionary Pope. He chose the name of Paul in honor of the great apostle to the Gentiles, who went forth to preach to all nations. Pope Paul VI was the first Pope to travel outside of Rome and during his pontificate visited six continents. His talk to the United Nations in 1965 was a monumental one, pleading for the end of war, having repercussions to this day. He was attentive to the many social problems in the latter part of the twentieth century and addressed them in his writings. He was instrumental in improving ecumenical relations. He was a man of great intelligence with a humble, gentle, and reserved personality. Above all, as Pope Francis emphasized, he was a man of deep holiness whose spirituality centered on the mercy of God and the glory of eternal life.
It was this deep spirituality which motivated his life and pontificate and has made him a great Pope for our times. Indeed, recent years have been blessed with Popes of extraordinary and saintly spirituality of which Paul VI is one. How significant was his prophecy of his own death on the Feast of the Assumption, especially as his passing occurred on the Feast of the Transfiguration to which he was deeply devoted. At this time of year between these two feasts, both of them speak to us of spiritual realities which were so evident in the life of Pope Paul VI and are extremely significant for us.
The Feast of the Transfiguration which we celebrated last week places before us the glory of Christ as the Son of God. Peter, James, and John are privileged to experience this glory which literally brings them into the realm of heaven. They are so taken into this glory that they do not want to move from the moment of the Transfiguration. However, the Lord reminds them that before He comes to His glory, He must undergo His Passion. It would be His Cross that would lead to the glory of heaven for the apostles as well as for all of us. The Lord reminds us that it is His mercy that brings us to what is the ultimate purpose of our life and that is to be in His presence forever. All else is passing. He reminds His apostles of an appointment they are to have in heaven.
The Feast of the Assumption which we celebrate on August 15, places before us the passing of Mary from this life into heaven. As the perfect follower of Christ, her Son, Mary does not experience death, but is assumed body and soul into heaven where she participates in the life of glory in its fullest form. Mary was always aware of her appointment in heaven. She is a reminder to us of an appointment we all have. The Feast of the Assumption, like that of the Transfiguration, reminds us that life is passing and only in heaven are we brought to its fullest completion. Even Mary completed her earthly days before she was taken into the fullness of glory.
As Saint Pope Paul VI shepherded the Church and lived his Christian life in this world, his eyes were always fixed on heaven. He made his decisions from this perspective and, like St. Paul, his namesake, longed for the heavenly kingdom. The Saint reminds us of the glory of the Church in this world, but that it is meant to lead to the glory of heaven. This is what our lives are all about.
As we reflect upon the Feasts of the Transfiguration and the Assumption during this month of August, may we focus our attention on the hope of eternal life. Indeed, we must keep our appointment there above all others. This is what our faith is all about -- this is what the Church is all about! It is this realization that leads to true holiness.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
August 12, 2022