Living the Truth in Love: The Hamlet Pope


On October 14, Pope Francis canonized one of the great Churchmen of the 20th Century - Pope Paul VI. This is the third pope that Francis has declared a saint. St. Pope Paul VI was an extraordinary shepherd of the Church during the years 1963 through 1987, in what were extremely turbulent times in the world and also in the Church. This was the time of the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council and the period in which its reforms were implemented. Pope Francis has described St. Pope Paul VI as one who "experienced in the full the Church's travail after the Second Vatican Council: the lights, the hopes, the tensions. He loved the Church and expended himself to her, holding nothing back." Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has likewise acknowledged the difficult time during which St. Pope Paul VI shepherded the Church and has referred to him as "super human." St. Pope Paul VI prophetically stood at the helm of the Church in one of its greatest storms.

The present time in the Church is another extremely turbulent one. The clerical sex abuse crisis and the manner in which it was handled has rightly led to a great deal of anger and mistrust of the Church. There is open disagreement among the hierarchy within the Church leading to public accusations which are fueling the anger and mistrust causing deeper hurt and confusion, not only among victims, but among all of the faithful.  St. Pope Paul VI is a most appropriate example and intercessor for us at this time. His ability to shepherd during the turbulent years of his pontificate prevented the Church from splitting apart at a most critical time. It was St. Pope Paul VI who referred to "the smoke of Satan entering the Church." In a homily on the ninth anniversary of his installation, he spoke of the doubt, incertitude, disquiet, dissatisfaction, lack of trust and confrontation that was present in the Church at that time. Certainly that smoke is present today. However, St. Pope Paul VI, with his deep spirituality and vision of leadership, reminds us that the smoke of Satan has not and will not prevail. Christ has promised us that His Church will prevail to the end because of Him. 

St. Pope Paul VI was a man of great humility and presence. His intellect enabled him to understand and dialogue with the wealth of philosophical and theological discussions that were going on at the time. He was able to encourage such discussion while always keeping it in line with the teaching and message of the Lord in the Gospel so that the Church would continue to hand on the teaching of Christ in an authentic manner, but in a manner that could be heard in the modern world. He was very open to and influenced by the French intellectual Catholic thinkers of the time who were able to express their faith to a fractured world which needed to hear the message of the Gospel. His many abilities and insights enabled him to implement the insights and liturgical changes of the Second Vatican Council in a manner that would be authentic and in keeping with the Council’s understanding. This was not an easy task, especially with so many desiring to see the Council implemented in a manner inconsistent with its conclusions. St. Pope Paul VI was the first Pope to travel outside of Europe, coming to the City of New York for his first pilgrimage in 1965. It was he who set the precedent for the many travels that St. Pope John Paul II would make.

In addition to the many writings of St. Pope Paul VI which involved the implementation of the Second Vatican Council, he also issued seven significant encyclicals. One of these is perhaps the one for which he is most known - Humanae Vitae. Promulgated on July 25, 1968, we just celebrated the 50th anniversary of this monumental encyclical regarding the sanctity of the transmission of human life in marriage. St. Pope Paul VI reiterated the Church’s teaching on artificial birth control as not in keeping with methods for exercising responsible parenthood. His articulation caused a great deal of dissatisfaction and contrary opinion within the Church. However, the wisdom of the teaching of St. Pope Paul VI has shown its insight especially today when the meaning of marriage and sexuality have been separated. This has led to a great deal of erosion within the moral fabric of our society. Pope Francis has praised what he referred to as “the genius of Humanae Vitae” which has shown itself to be prophetic. Pope Francis has likewise praised the courage of St. Pope Paul VI in standing against the prevailing ideas of his times.

As all great leaders, St. Pope Paul VI had his critics. Many were dissatisfied with the manner in which he was shepherding the Church, especially feeling that he took too long to make a decision. This was not a fault but an actual asset. Faced with so many critical decisions before him at a time when many were demanding to understand the nature of the Church differently from what it was, St. Pope Paul VI carefully weighed his decisions, entered into dialogue with the thinkers of his time and carefully made his choices. This was critical in his being a leader who kept the Church together at a time when it could easily have been split apart. Because of his careful consideration of matters, he was referred to as "the Hamlet Pope,” a takeoff on Shakespeare's character who opined “to be or not to be." Before his death in 1978, St. Pope Paul VI, reflecting on his Hamlet title, wrote the following in a private diary: "What is my state of mind? Am I Hamlet? Or Don Quixote? On the left? Or on the right? I do not think I have been properly understood. I am filled with great joy. With all our affliction, I am overjoyed." The Church today is certainly blessed by his wisdom as well as his Christian joy. St. Pope Paul VI’s qualities of Hamlet, in his careful deliberation and discernment of matters, were a great blessing for the Church at a crucial time which needed careful decisions and guidance. His being the “Hamlet Pope” is more a tribute that critique.

I remember very well the pontificate of St. Pope Paul VI. He was Pope during the time of my formation for priesthood as well as at my ordination. I also remember well the turbulent times of the 60s in the Church and the confidence which he gave as the chief shepherd. Division was part of the picture of the Church at that time but there was unity through the spirituality and wise decisions of St. Pope Paul VI. He gave great realistic affirmation that the smoke of Satan can enter the Church but stronger reassurance that it will always be cast away through the power of Christ. I remember very well his first visit to the United States when I was privileged to hear his words "War never again." I was privileged to be present for a Mass which he celebrated at a small town outside of Rome on the Feast of the Transfiguration in 1977. At the conclusion of that Mass he said, "I would like to make an appointment to join you again here next year but I do not believe I will be around." I found his words to be prophetic as he died exactly one year later on the Feast of the Transfiguration.

Pope Francis has the greatest regard for St. Pope Paul VI. There are many similarities between the two men. The one similarity that is essential is their love for the Church, their desire to rid the Church of the "smoke of Satan," and their closeness to the Lord.  In the Mass of Canonization on October 14, Pope Francis expounded: “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 beauty and joy of following Christ totally. Today he still urges us, together with the Council whose wise helmsmen he was, to love our common vocation: the universal call to holiness, not to half measures, but to holiness.”

The spiritual director of St. Pope Paul VI spoke the most fitting words which truly are appropriate at this time of his canonization: "If Pope Paul VI was not a saint when he was elected Pope, he became one during his pontificate. I was able to witness not only with what energy and dedication he toiled for Christ in the Church but also and above all, how much he suffered for Christ and the Church. I always admired not only his deep inner resignation but also his constant abandonment to divine providence."

St. Pope Paul VI - pray for us!



Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito

October 26, 2018