On Sunday, 14 October, Pope Francis canonized seven saints — including Pope Paul VI, who was the bishop of Rome from 1963 until his death in 1978. The man who is now St. Paul VI was long a champion of our work around the world — beginning in the 1940’s.
During World War II, then-Msgr. Giovanni Batttista Montini, who served Pope Pius XII, organized and directed the Holy See’s relief efforts for refugees. At a November 1948 meeting in the Vatican — during which the idea of a papal mission specifically for displaced persons in Palestine was discussed — it was Msgr. Montini who penciled in the name of the head of CNEWA, then Msgr. Thomas J. McMahon, to lead such an effort. Thus was born the Pontifical Mission for Palestine, which Pius XII entrusted to CNEWA as its operating agency in the Middle East.
Years later, as Pope Paul VI showed an even deeper commitment to the work of CNEWA. To begin with, he announced plans to open his pontificate with a historic trip to the Holy Land:
In December 1963, during the council [Vatican II], Paul VI announced his intention to begin his pontificate with a “pilgrimage of prayer and penance” to the Holy Land:
“We will bring to the Holy Sepulchre and to the Grotto of the Nativity the desires of individuals, of families, of nations; above all, the aspirations, the anxieties, the sufferings of the sick, the poor, the disinherited, the afflicted, of refugees, of those who suffer, those who weep, those who hunger and thirst for justice.”
He made the trip in January 1964:
Fired with the Gospel message of hope, the pope met with heads of state and religious leaders in the Holy Land. These visits culminated with his embrace in Jerusalem of Orthodoxy’s spiritual leader, Patriarch Athenagoras I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.
Before departing the Holy Land, Pope Paul VI assured [CNEWA’s Secretary and President of the Pontifical Mission] Msgr. Joseph Ryan, who accompanied the pontiff, of the Holy See’s commitment to the refugees and encouraged Ryan to further the Pontifical Mission’s efforts with Palestinians.
Paul VI’s pilgrimage resulted in social rehabilitation and development projects that, with support from the Pontifical Mission, changed the lives of many: Bethlehem University; Ephpheta Institute for hearing-impaired children; Tantur Ecumenical Institute; and Notre Dame of Jerusalem Pilgrimage Center. These diverse initiatives testified to the pope’s belief in the church as an instrument of reconciliation and hope.
The following year, Pope Paul VI issued the groundbreaking document, Nostra Aetate, a declaration on the relation of the church to non-Christian religions, which noted not only Christianity’s historic connection to Jews, but also its respect for Muslims:
The church regards with esteem also the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in himself; merciful and all-powerful, the creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even his inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, his virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.
In the years that followed, he never lost his concern with and affection for the peoples of the Middle East:
On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Pontifical Mission, Pope Paul VI wrote to [CNEWA’s] Msgr. John G. Nolan … : ”The work of the Mission for Palestine has been one of the clearest signs of the Holy See’s concern for the welfare of the Palestinians, who are particularly dear to us because they are people of the Holy Land, because they include followers of Christ, and because they have been and are still being so tragically tried. We express again our heartfelt sharing in their sufferings and our support for their legitimate aspirations.” (16 July 1974)
Also in 1974, the Holy Father noted in Nobis in Animo that the Holy Land “is also a country in which, besides the Shrines and Holy Places, a Church — a community of believers in Christ — lives and works. Were their presence to cease, the Shrines would be without the warmth of the living witness and the Christian Holy Places of Jerusalem and the Holy Land would become like museums.”
Cardinal Jacques Martin, a co-worker of then Msgr. Montini for many years in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, in speaking of Pope Paul VI, noted, “The thing that most struck those who were close to him was that he gave himself entirely to the service of the church, without second thoughts, without holding back any of his time or energy. At one a.m. the light was often still burning in his office. He was a man consumed by his work, a man who gave himself entirely.”
We remain deeply grateful for the love and passion he brought to his papacy — and which he shared so selflessly with the suffering peoples in the Holy Land, a place now so fraught with division, hardship and violence. So many of those we serve need his prayerful intercession now, more than ever.
With humble gratitude and boundless hope, we join our voices to so many others around the world this day to pray for his accompaniment, his prophetic vision, and his courage. May his spirit help us to help others, and may his prayers guide us on our way.
”St. Paul VI, pray for us!”