To this year’s canonization of two great popes—Saint Pope John Paul II and Saint Pope John XXIII—the Catholic Church has added the beatification of Paul VI, the pope who presided over the final stages of the Second Vatican Council but who is probably best known to Catholics and non-Catholics alike as the author of Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical which declares in no uncertain terms the error and evil of contraception, or artificial birth control.
Pope Francis solemnly declared his heroic predecessor “Blessed” at the conclusion of the two-week Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which the Supreme Pontiff had earlier convened to take a deeper look into the way the Church is evangelizing families around the world. The beatification followed official approval in May of a miracle attributed to Blessed Paul VI’s intercession—the healing in 2001 of an unborn child whom doctors had diagnosed to have a number of congenital defects and had expected to be born with those defects. For reasons unknown to medical experts, the baby (a boy) was born without any of those defects and has since grown up to be a healthy American teenager. At his parents’ request, his name has been withheld from publication.
Blessed Paul VI was the first modern pope, writes the veteran Vatican watcher Peter Hebblethwaite in his book of the same title. He was the first pope to stop wearing a tiara as a symbol of authority, just as Pope Francis is the first pope to stop wearing the red shoes; he had the tiara sold to raise funds for the poor as a sign of his commitment to social justice. He was also the first to practice active ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue, the first to visit other countries and continents, for which reason he became known as the “Pilgrim Pope.”
In particular, he was the first pope to visit Africa whose bishops today are fighting in defense of Church teaching on human life and the family, exactly as Humanae Vitae proclaims. He was also the first of two popes to visit the Philippines, the second being Saint John Paul II who came first in 1981 and then in 1995 for the biggest assembly of Catholic Christians ever seen on the face of the earth. Pope Francis will be the third pope to visit the country when he comes in January next year.
In 1964, Blessed Paul VI visited the Holy Land and met with the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem, despite the lack of diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel at the time. This resulted in the lifting of excommunications arising from the Great Schism of 1504. In 1965, he visited the United States, met with President Lyndon Johnson and delivered his famous address to the United Nations General Assembly where he said “development is peace” and urged the member-states to work for “peace under the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of men.”
His visit to the Philippines on Nov. 27, 1970 made sensational headlines when a knife-wielding would-be assassin, named Benjamin Mendoza y Amor Flores, a Bolivian national dressed in a clerical robe, tried to attack the Pope at the Manila international airport. An eyewitness account written for The Economist by British free lance journalist Garth Alexander reported that a short karate chop from the late former President Ferdinand Marcos stopped the assailant from stabbing the Pope.
As a young member of the Cabinet at the time, I was among those who were able to greet the Pope. But it was in 1976 that I had a personal audience with him at the Vatican, on my way home from an official mission to Tunisia, where I had attended the Non-Aligned Conference of Information Ministers and had delivered a letter from President Marcos to President Habib Bourguiba.
The Pope received me like an old friend, with the sweetest smile that never left his face throughout our conversation. He showed warm familiarity with many details of my family and professional life, and kept me far beyond the 15 minutes usually allotted for such audiences. Then he gave me his blessing and promised to keep me in his prayers.
That meeting must have affected me far beyond my conscious self. Thus, when my fourth child was born, I named him Paulo without consciously thinking of the Pope. And even though I had not become so passionate about Humanae Vitae at the time, I reacted very strongly when without any prior consultation, a hospital nurse asked me to sign a form giving consent to my wife’s “ligation.”
“What in Heaven’s name are you talking about?” I asked the nurse.
“This is what the Department of Health is asking us to do to those who already have two children. And you already have four, sir,” the poor, ignorant nurse replied.
I no longer remember the rest of what I said, but I made sure that the head of the hospital learned about it. I would reflect on this episode many years later and conclude that I must have been guided by Blessed Paul VI’s prayers. I could think of no other explanation for it.
Paul VI died on August 6, 1978. He was succeeded by Pope John Paul I, whose papacy lasted only 33 days, and then by John Paul II who served from Oct. 16, 1978 to April 2, 2005, was beatified by Pope (now Emeritus) Benedict XVI on May 1, 2011 and canonized as a saint by Pope Francis on April 24, 2014. Throughout his pontificate, St. John Paul II continuously returned to the issues raised in Humanae Vitae, which the Polish pope called a “permanent patrimony of the faith.”
From the time of John Paul II’s death to his canonization, the outward devotion of many, if not most, pilgrims I saw at St. Peter’s basilica seemed to be focused on John Paul the Great. But many turned to Blessed Paul VI as well. My wife and I saw this with our own eyes.
We were in Rome during the wake and burial of St. John Paul II, and until the election of his successor, Pope Benedict XVI. Although we had the rare privilege to kneel beside the departed pope’s catafalque for more than an hour, we could not get through the huge crowds wanting to visit his crypt after he was interred. No matter the hour or the day, there was an interminable crowd lining up to venerate him.
But in 2007, while attending an international conference on bioethics at the Augustinianum, just across St. Peter’s Square, my wife and I saw an unexpected opening. A noontime drizzle had cleared the piazza of its long lines to the crypt, so armed with a huge umbrella, we dashed across the piazza into the crypt, only to find nearly every inch of it packed with devotees. Everyone seemed uniformly to surge toward the tomb of the “santo subito,” but one other tomb had devotees kneeling and praying before it. It was the tomb of Paul VI.
My heart went up my throat upon seeing this, I fell down on my knees, and had the distinct feeling that this pope would soon be proclaimed a saint. A second miracle associated with his intercession is all that is needed now to complete the process. This is what we probably need to melt the hearts and minds of Christians who have been hardened by the dogma of contraception, sterilization, and abortion and by intellectual pride.
Despite all the energy and money being poured by foreign governments, international funding institutions and private foundations into their aggressive campaign to promote contraception and abortion in the developing countries, Blessed Paul’s prophecy can no longer be ignored. Everything Paul Erlich’s “Population Bomb” prophesied in 1968 turned out to be a dud: neither Europe nor any poor country has disappeared from the map because of “overpopulation,” famine and food shortages. But everything Humanae Vitae warned against in 1968 has all become facts of life.
There will be a rise in conjugal infidelity and a general lowering of morality, the encyclical warned. And that fact now stares us in the face. Men would lose their respect for women, ignoring issues of their physical and emotional health issues even more than in the past, and exploit them as sexual objects, it added. And that fact now stares women in the face. Public authorities would use contraception for their own ends and take no heed of moral exigencies, it continued. And the Philippine government is an outstanding case in point. Men and women would be tempted to believe they have unlimited dominion over their bodies. And we have all those gender feminists foolishly proclaiming they own their God-given bodies.
Some governments have had the good sense to realize their mistakes and to try to correct those mistakes. Others, like our own, have the utter madness to reject the truth and simply create an altar for their follies and their mistakes. Now, although in some societies, the evil is purely the result of “misguided government policies, of an insufficient sense of justice, of a selfish accumulation of material goods, and finally of a culpable failure to undertake those initiatives and responsibilities which would raise the quality of life of the population, especially the women and the children,” in some other societies, the evil is compounded by the infidelity and apostasy of those who should otherwise be teaching the people the correct doctrine of their faith.
This proceeds from the supreme conceit of the “non-serviam” who carry into the moral and spiritual life of society the high treason of infected intellectuals. Again, one would imagine that Blessed Paul VI has a role to play in dealing with this. For in 1968, he did not allow himself to be cowed by the dissenting theologians in order to proclaim the truth of the Magisterium with certainty and courage. And in 1972, on the feast-day of Sts. Peter and Paul, faced with the confusion that had arisen after Vatican II, he sadly lamented that “from some fissures the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God.” Verily, the Church militant, the Church triumphant and the Church suffering (unless I am theologically off) must now work together to put this out.