10/30/2014 04:49 pm ET Updated Dec 30, 2014

Why Blessed Paul VI?

Bishop of Rome from 1963 to his death in 1978, Paul VI is now Blessed Paul VI. But why would Pope Francis have thought it significant to beatify this pope, so soon after canonizing John XXIII and John Paul II? Were there not enough beatified or canonized popes already, or indeed perhaps too many?

Elected as John XXIII's successor, Giovanni Battista Montini chose the name Paul not so much to honor earlier popes that had also taken that name, but to make St. Paul, the itinerant apostle of the Mediterranean world, his role model. In his younger days, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli had spent many years outside Italy, in Turkey, Bulgaria, France, but as Pope John XXIII he confined any travel to Italy. Paul VI deserves the title the first global pope, for he boarded jet airplanes and went where popes had not gone before, including East Asia and the Americas. In 1965, he was the first pope to travel to the United States and to address the United Nations. His impassioned appeal at the U.N. for no more war is still frequently cited, and he did an enormous amount in his 15-year papacy to make the Catholic Church a prophetic voice for peace and justice for all peoples, of every land, of whatever religion or no religion.

The best biography of Pope Paul VI, in English and perhaps in any language, is Peter Hebblethwaite's Paul VI: The First Modern Pope (1993), a work of some 750 pages. A British ex-Jesuit, Hebblethwaite did not lightly pass over the negative reception of Paul's 1968 encyclical on birth control, but neither did he allow it overshadow Paul's many accomplishments, some with much enduring value for the Catholic Church in its dialogue with other faiths and with the world. In analyzing Paul's journey to Bogotà, Colombia, Hebblethwaite states that Paul was consoled to go to part of the world where he "was hailed as the author of Populorum Progressio rather than reviled for Humanae Vitae."

Populorum Progressio, published in 1967, was Paul VI at his best, as he placed the Church with the poor, and articulated a vision of the Church as for the poor, especially the poor in the developing, newly independent countries of the post-colonial world. Denouncing "flagrant inequalities" between a privileged minority enjoying wealth and a deprived majority relegated to living and working conditions unworthy of human beings, Paul appealed for a "global perspective" and for a "human solidarity" that would recognize that the earth belongs to everyone, not solely the wealthy. Paul insisted that the right to private property was not absolute, and that it may not be exercised to the detriment of the common good. With the passionate zeal of a prophet's voice, Paul VI warned that continued avarice on the part of wealthier nations would "arouse the judgement of God and the wrath of the poor, with consequences no one can foresee." Cautioning against a naïve adoption of so-called "free" trade policies among nations, Paul VI warned that "free" trade is just "only when it conforms to the demands of social justice." Turning to the plight of migrant workers, Pope Paul asserted that a "hospitable reception" of them is "a duty" of human solidarity and Christian charity. For Paul, taxation of the wealthy was to be increased: Their luxuries were to be taxed in order to promote the development of nations and the promotion of peace.

While in Populorum Progressio Paul VI invoked the specter of judgement and wrath if the wealthy and the wealthy nations did not change their ways, in Humanae Vitae, the encyclical in which he rejected "artificial" forms of birth control, Paul adopted a gentle, pastoral voice when he acknowledged that many couples would find very difficult putting the moral norm he articulated into practice. Though in later decades some Catholics sought to make adherence to Humanae Vitae a kind of litmus test or badge of a faithful Catholic, nothing in the remaining ten years of Paul's pontificate anticipated or promoted a move in that direction.

Paul VI appointed Jean Jadot as Apostolic Delegate to the United States, a position that gave Jadot, a Belgian, a great deal of say in who was named a bishop in the U.S. Episcopal appointments in that era were quite varied, including what were considered liberals as well as conservatives; most of those appointed had strong pastoral priorities. Many of Paul's bishops played central roles in the 1980s in producing two significant letters of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: one on peace and nuclear armaments, and one on a just economy.

Most of Paul VI's severe critics were not liberals or progressives but conservatives that abhorred change and wanted to believe that the Church of the 1950s had been one of timeless truth and of unquestionable certitude, and thus one to be retained and restored at all costs. In 1969 Paul VI published a revised Roman Missal, and made official many liturgical changes that were underway in the wake of Vatican II's 1963 decree on the liturgy. Though some arch-conservatives continued to oppose such updating and modernization, and used appeals for a restored Latin Mass as a way of denouncing nearly everything the Council had done, Pope Paul VI did not turn back. He showed exemplary courage in remaining faithful to Vatican II's vision of a Church in the world and not merely against the world, a vision of Catholics in dialogue with other Christians, with Jews, and with persons of other faiths, a vision of a pilgrim people of God, and of a Catholic Church increasingly diverse and truly global, a Catholic Church not only teaching but also learning.

In 1975 Paul VI appealed for mercy for several men condemned to death by General Franco's regime in Spain. Pope Paul's prophetic stance against the death penalty offered a sharp contrast to some earlier popes that had given uncritical support to Franco. In this and in many ways, Blessed Pope Paul VI showed how the Church can change for the better. May such openness to change be a precious way of honoring his memory, in our era and beyond.